Rewriting the Rules of Suburbia

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Land-use, zoning and subdivision guidelines that alter the pattern of home building as we know it.

May 01, 2001
Levittown, N.Y., (top) wrote the rules of postwar suburbia. Today those rules are being revised by communities such as Lakelands (bottom) in Gaithersburg, Md.

 

Of all the innovative ideas to emerge during the post-World War II boom, the one with the most lasting legacy is suburbia as we know it today. The late-1940s images of Levittown, N.Y., with its cookie-cutter homes stretching to the horizon are rooted in the collective consciousness as an icon of the American Dream. Those images of comfortable, affordable homes with big yards still spur millions of Americans to buy newly built homes in the suburbs.

But as we move further from Levittown — literally and figuratively — problems of long commutes, inadequate funding for roads and sewers, inefficient land use, and overcrowded and underfunded schools, among other issues, are prompting a rethinking of suburban growth patterns. They also have led many land planners, builders and developers to begin actively searching for suburban planning alternatives that eliminate some of these negative side effects. Not surprisingly, this growing quest for a better suburbia has huge implications for home builders. At the same time, these changes are all the more important because they are happening well beyond the control of any one group. Many, however, have strong opinions about the meaning of a new suburban ideal.

At the extreme left of the opinion spectrum are environmental organizations that have, in effect, marginalized their opinions by advocating an open-ended moratorium on all development. In the face of data that suggests the United States will continue to grow at a minimum rate of 2 million people every year for the next 35 to 50 years, voters facing development moratoriums in the form of referendums in Colorado and Arizona last fall saw these groups’ views for what they are, absurd, and voted them down.

At the other extreme is a vocal group of conservatives advocating a total laissez-faire approach to growth: Let market forces rule, and efficient land use will follow. Those dealing with the unintended negative side effects of suburbia are not buying this viewpoint either.

Voters around the rest of the country, meanwhile, seem firmly in the middle and expressed this clearly Nov. 7. A Brookings Institution study of the results of all 553 growth-related ballot initiatives last fall found that national opinion lies between the polar extremes of no growth and pure, market-driven growth. The upshot: People understand the need for growth, but there is a strong public consensus to be smarter about it. Which brings us to a term many builders are uncomfortable with, Smart Growth.

Whatever your opinion about the term, it is here to stay as a catch-all phrase for whoever seems to be using it, says Bill Warkentin, a Riverside, Calif.-based builder, developer and architect who heads the National Association of Home Builders’ land development committee. "Smart Growth is the only growth debate in the country right now. And this is a good thing because we know that we are not arguing anymore about whether or not we are going to have growth."

The focus, says Warkentin, is now on finding shared opinions on the proper remedies to suburban ills. Key to this process, he says, is finding an approach that can be tailored to a diverse array of local situations. Increased allowable densities, for example, will need to be available as an option to developers everywhere. Whether that means going from four to an acre to eight to an acre or from 10 an acre to 15 an acre, explains Warkentin, all depends upon what is best for the location.

One noteworthy land planner and advocate of the New Urbanist school of community planning is Peter Calthorpe of Berkeley, Calif.-based Calthorpe Associates. He says suburban planning reform works best when done regionally or even at the state level. That way "NIMBY [not in my backyard] opposition can’t go to the level of saying there should be no project at all, it can only go to the level of asking whether the proposal is the right kind of project."

Calthorpe also says that while much of the solution to meeting continuing demand for new housing will result from urban redevelopment or infill, the bulk of new demand in the future will be met by building new communities on the suburban fringe, where 90% of all home building currently happens. Through Calthorpe and others, a fuller picture of what many new suburban developments will look like has emerged during the past several years. Often it is like the towns where our grandparents grew up.

Calthorpe, Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyrbek in Miami and other New Urbanist planners draw broadly from the example of towns and villages built 80 to 100 years ago. These new old towns have many social benefits, including stronger communities, their backers assert. New Urbanist towns include sidewalks in tandem with parkways; narrow, grid-pattern streets; homes for several buyer profiles adjacent to or near others of different types on small lots with short front setbacks; and in back — away from the street — alleys, cars and garages. Current examples of large New Urbanist communities now number more than 22, and dozens more are on the drawing board.

Other types of suburban communities of the future rely much less on past development. Instead they focus on preserving open space by using high-density clusters of single-family detached homes and townhouses — some built on curvilinear streets. And like traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs), these alternative suburban communities also provide nearby public transportation, pedestrian-friendly access to retail establishments and sensible funding to endow local schools, roads and services. Or at least that is the goal, agree many of those leaders who are helping reshape state and local planning policy to conform to some of these new planning alternatives.

Who are among the people shaping local planning revisions around the country? The list is so long as to be unquantifiable. It includes influential opinion shapers such as King County, Wash., councilwoman Jane Hague, president of the National Association of County Organizations, and Stuart Meck of the American Planning Association, both of whom are actively planning reform initiatives. Then there are the vast numbers of local builders and developers who are presenting new ideas for smarter residential development and by doing so are causing change to occur from the bottom up.

So pervasive is the suburban land-use practice adopted all around the country after World War II, with its predominant features such as 40-foot-wide cul-de-sac streets and large garage-fronted homes, that most alternatives presented to local planning officials have little or no basis for approval under present codes and standards. As one noted planner has said, "Mayberry could not be built again under prevailing zoning law."

From the Top Down

Whether the rules of suburbia are being rewritten from the bottom up or the top down, local officials generally are open to new alternatives, says Hague. If they are not, she says, it is NACO’s goal to encourage them through an education initiative on planning reform that she has put at the center of her tenure as president of the organization.

"You don’t have to be a political genius to know that there are huge political issues associated with comprehensive planning and growth planning," Hague says. "County officials tend to be risk-averse because they don’t have the latest solutions. Our goal is to provide them with those solutions."

State politicians in Wisconsin, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida provide another example of how the rules of suburbia are changing from the top down. Legislators and governors in these states, sensing a political watershed on Smart Growth, have either recently revised statutes to enable local planners to allow alternative suburban development patterns or are in the process of doing so.

Washington and Oregon have famously taken another approach by imposing urban growth boundaries around the Seattle and Portland areas. While the jury is still out on the impacts of UGBs the widespread feeling among builders and developers is that they impose a "false economy" on land and housing.

"In Portland, it has had the very effect of either pushing lower-income individuals into substandard housing in the urban core, or it forces them to move somewhere else entirely and keep their job," explains Warkentin. "The only name for the latter is sprawl."

Another top-down trend in suburban planning reform has been in the works for 10 years and is still not complete. The APA, which represents the nation’s local planning officials, with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has been working on a compendium of alternative model statutes and codes, which it hopes to publish by the first quarter of next year. If published (HUD has not yet authorized funding this year, putting the work on hold), this document would automatically carry enormous influence at state, county and local levels across the country. It would offer guidance on how land-use and subdivision guidelines are being rewritten, says Paul Beru, a former builder who was appointed by former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros to represent the "built environment" on the APA’s "Growing Smart" directorate.

Beru says the document addresses "almost all the elements of Smart Growth" including land use, state enabling legislation reform, process reform and availability of basic services. He points out, however, that many areas of concern remain for builders and developers. Chief among them is process-reform language, which has the goal of trying to bring a tighter structure and more predictable time line to planning approvals. If written effectively, this language would benefit builders enormously. But it has not been determined whether nonaggrieved bystanders would be allowed, in rules set up by the model statute, to ask a court or planning body late in the process to consider stopping an approved project until their concerns are aired.

Meck, the senior-level APA official overseeing the Growing Smart project, points out that enormous effort has been made to create a document providing unbiased "alternative model statute language" from which state and local officials could write new codes and statutes. He says the current national discussion about Smart Growth has been the byproduct of a strong economy. The revision of rules to encourage Smart Growth will be less of a priority for all parties involved, planners and developers alike, when projects are fewer and further between, he says.

Meck also says widespread use of new rules for suburbia is only a small part of how you change overall development patterns.

"We would have to take on state highway departments," Meck explains. "We would have to build more densely. We would have to build transit that people will use. Our members are on the front lines of all of these issues, and they realize that it will take literally thousands of little changes to alter development patterns."

For its part, the NAHB is putting stock in finding solutions to suburban issues at a regional level, says NAHB First Vice President Gary L. Garczynski. In Washington, D.C., the NAHB signed on to a compact in December with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Citizens for Smarter Growth, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Urban Land Institute to provide incentive for area towns to incorporate Smart Growth principles into their plans. "We need flexibility in zoning and land-use policy to come up with new concepts that concentrate density, that make communities more pedestrian-friendly, hopefully located where you can put the mass in mass transit," Garczynski says.

From the Bottom Up

In Miami, Jeff Speck, director of town planning with the New Urbanist firm of Duany Plater-Zyrbek, says DPZ is close to unveiling a land-use code and subdivision ordinance likely to increase the bottom-up revision of the rules of suburbia. Called SmartCode, the work is expected to be published this fall by the largest of a handful of national code-distribution firms, Code Corporation of America. Speck says SmartCode builds on the "rules" for traditional neighborhood development that the firm set forth in its best-selling New Urbanist manifesto, Suburban Nation. Unlike the APA’s Meck, he says development patterns can be altered by updating local planning rules.

"Sprawl is the creation of a set of rules, primarily land-use codes and subdivision ordinances," says Speck. "The reason land-use ordinances are a problem is because they separate different activities. You can’t have Smart Growth with the land uses separated. We believe that there is enough pull among developers in all parts of the country to build TNDs, but these rules are literally standing in the way in many places."

In Austin, Texas, by contrast, the city is providing millions of dollars in incentives for developers to build according to a set of TND-like criteria. A development called The Triangle recently qualified for more than $8 million in incentives, says Speck.

"Austin is taking it a step further," he explains. "The first step was to provide an alternative code to make TND legal, and the next step was to provide incentives to developers."

Meanwhile, scores of builders and developers around the country have picked up the Smart Growth ball and run with it on their own. This is the primary way that zoning and subdivision guidelines are being amended, town by town, as each Smart Growth development is proposed and then approved. At this point in this evolution, the time lines for approvals are extraordinarily long. Perry Bigelow of Bigelow Homes in Chicago spent four years securing entitlements for a higher-density, mixed-used TND project. The second time around the same approvals took six months, he says.

Sometimes, as in the case of an on-the-boards community in West Lampeter Township, Pa., called Mill Creek, local planners have actually turned to the development team to write new zoning. (See Rewriting Land- Use Rules in Lancaster County, below.) But this is much more an exception than the rule, says Mill Creek builder Rob Bowman of Charter Homes.

"I think there has been an unusual level of cooperation in comparison to other projects. The primary reason is we have a township that is extremely receptive to looking at a new way for land use, and we delivered." Bowman predicts that from start to finish, the rezoning and entitlement process will have taken less than a year when the process is completed this fall.

The Nuts and Bolts

The widespread update of state and local planning codes is something that New Urbanism advocates have been vocal about for years. But it would be a mistake to conclude that rules are being revised just for the sake of accommodating TNDs.

Most changes are coming about as a result of the work of local planners and developers faced with individual issues of how best to fund roads and schools, reduce rush-hour traffic on collector streets, encourage public transportation and accommodate multiple uses for parcels. Many suburban towns, for example, grew around comprehensive plans with clearly defined land uses — 300 acres of residential here, 100 acres of industrial there, with pockets of retail strips on arterial roads interspersed — only to realize too late that they lack a town center. Today many suburban towns are amending the rules to allow the development of central mixed-use gathering places, where people can own or rent a home and pick up a bagel and a newspaper nearby.

In sprawling Atlanta, for example, the Atlanta Regional Commission in cooperation with a 3-year-old, state-created regional planning authority has created a five-year granting mechanism to help fund the planning of "livable town centers" in suburbia, says Gary Cornell, director of comprehensive planning for Jordan, Jones & Goulding Inc. in Atlanta. Cornell was recently commissioned by the ARC to compile a Smart Growth tool kit for local planners and developers. "A suburban mall, for example, could be redeveloped to contain a mixture and balance of uses, including residential, to make it a self-sustained place," he says.

As many local planning officials will also tell you, traffic and street engineering issues dominate the current realm of residential development discourse. Extra-wide streets common throughout suburbia are the result of the work of engineers in collaboration with fire- and life-safety officials. Planners today are beginning to see the value in not acquiescing to engineers’ wishes under all circumstances. Doing so in the past has led planners to extract worst-case scenario emergency vehicle requirements, including 100-foot cul-de-sacs from developers so the biggest fire trucks can turn around easily.

Warkentin points out that when planned unit developments (PUDs) first came along 30 years ago, the concept was heralded as having the best of both worlds: closed-off neighborhood settings with access to wide arterial roads. In actuality, he says, PUDs created huge concurrency issues. One or two PUDs along a freeway caused little traffic congestion, he says. But by the time four or five PUDS get built on a single road, rush hour becomes a nightmare. Suburban towns today are therefore more likely to include narrower streets connected to one another to create alternative pathways through neighborhoods for cars, cyclists and pedestrians.

"PUDs end up being much more handsome developments than those we had seen previously," Warkentin says. "But they had the disadvantage of curvilinear streets and this extraordinarily hierarchical street system that forced every single car virtually onto the same street at the beginning and end of every day."

Part of the solution in California, the land of ubiquitous PUDs, was new state zoning enabling legislation authorizing developers to "write their own zoning as part of a specific plan process," Warkentin says.

Improving the Process

Providing alternative codes and rules to allow a variety of suburban land-use forms is really only part of what is taking place. The development approval process is being studied and altered with an eye toward creating a more predictable timetable, says Washington-based land-use attorney John Delaney with Linowes and Bloche LLP. These changes have many potential benefits for builders and developers that will also begin to address the corollary issue of housing affordability. More certain time lines will result in a more competitive development environment and a more supportive lending community, notes Delaney, who has been a consultant to the NAHB providing comments on APA Growing Smart proceedings.

Longer development time lines in recent years have indirectly kept many midsize builders and developers from doing the biggest deals.

In April, Delaney outlined his comments about Growing Smart to a group of NAHB leaders, pointing out many positive process-related elements among some pitfalls. "Smart Growth," Delaney says, "won’t happen without smart process."

Also See:

City Moves UGB to Allow New Development

Integrating Old and New

Three Years, 200 Open Meetings, One Vision

Charrette Builds Consensus for TND

Rewriting the Rules of Atlanta's Vast Suburbia

Rewriting Land-Use Rules in Lancaster County: Balancing Framing and Growth

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