I have purposefully cherry picked two street in Charleston to compare. The Crosstown/US17 which most folks hate and Church Street which is one of the most beloved streets in the nation. Why design and build awful streets that end up killing and maiming people in car crashes made more severe with higher speeds? We can find much better streets if we invest some time and attention and seek the best guidance possible.
Over the years we have heard some folks cherry pick bible verses to suit all manner of questionable activity. Enslaving people, going off to war, and recently, removing children from their parents’ arms at the US border. Since it looks like we’re headed into a couple of news cycles with lots of people quoting scripture to reinforce their arguments, I figured this would be a good time to share one of the best pieces of biblical scholarship applied to building better places that I have encountered.
I heard Charleston developer and all around thoughtful guy, Vince Graham used a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in a presentation in Minneapolis in 1997.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7″: 13-14 NIVf
So we have it on go authority that narrow streets are best and that the road to Hell is really wide and there is a lot of traffic. People seem to be in quite a hurry to go there.
Think about this the next time you find yourself in a discussion with a stubborn closed minded traffic engineer. Maybe use the quote from the book of Matthew and see if you can’t lead them away from what could be the Road to Perdition.
At every One Day Workshops I do with IncDev, there are always a few folks attending from the planning staffs of communities in the region. We also see elected officials and planning commissioners taking these classes. Often these folks are there looking for insight and techniques on how to craft policies and zoning ordinances that will encourage incremental development (or at least level the playing field for small operators).
Talking with them one on one, I found that some plan on starting small projects of their own as a side hustle while they keep their current day jobs. I am curious to see how these project go and what they learn in the process. While they have a lot of insight into what can be accomplished with variances and all manner of discretionary approvals, they also know how uncertain doing anything that is not a straightforward as-of-right project can be. That understanding leads most of them to look at simple as-of-right deals, especially if they are looking to build something in the municipality they serve.
I think that recovering elected officials, planning commissioners and municipal planners would make good small developers. They have already spent years being insulted and condemned by the wide range of poorly-informed citizens and colleagues pictured above. So they may already have a thick skin, a good thing in a small developer. They also have developed the ability to suspend disbelief and critical thinking so that they can operate effectively within some rather arcane and contradictory rules. They know all too well that planning policy and implementation are never about objective facts and municipal math, but instead are always awash in the feelings of people fearful of change and contemptuous of potential neighbors. That knowledge will protect them from being overly idealistic of hopeful about the planning and development process.
Elected officials and public planning staffers have been stagehands and bit players in the rather elaborate Kabuki theatre production of Planning and Development in the US. When they leave public service or a staff gig they are ready for more substantial and meaningful roles.
Hutchinson Green Apartments, Chico CA by Anderson|Kim 22 units. 3rd Floor units rent at a premium.
6-plex by Union Studios
6-plex by Union Studios
6-plex walk up by Brown Design Studios
I think it is important and valuable to build Accessible/Adaptable apartments as currently required under HUD’s Fair Housing Design Manual . Here’s how to do that in a straightforward three story walk-up building you could build with ordinary residential construction trades in your local market:
The requirement for apartment building or mixed use buildings containing four or more units, and built without an elevator is that all of the ground floor units must be Accessible/Adaptable. If the 1st floor has no residential units on it, (say because the ground floor is occupied by commercial space or parking garages), then the next floor (the 2nd floor) becomes the “Ground Floor” for the purposes of compliance with the federal Fair Housing Act and you would have to install an elevator for access to that floor unless the building was adjacent to a steep enough grade to provide access to the 2nd floor without an elevator or lift. As I explained in an earlier post that seems to be getting a fair amount of play, The International Building Code (IBC) allows you to build a three story TYPE V (wood frame) structure with fire sprinklers with a single exit stair, as long as the upper floors do not have more than 4 units on each of them and that the travel distance from the farthest location within each unit is less than 125 feet from the exit stair enclosure. Follow the link for the specific IBC code citations:
The photos above show some capably designed 3 story buildings. It is possible to do this. If you have doubts and you need some help, I suggest that you contact the good folks at Union Studio in Providence, RI They designed the two 6-plex buildings on the lower left or Eric Brown at Brown Design Studio in Savannah Eric designed the white 6-plex walk-up in the larger image on the right. My able partner David T. Kim designed the 22 unit Hutchinson Green Apartments in the upper left as our first major project after the Great Recession.
So 3 Story Urbanism is no problem? Okay, admittedly that title does cross the line into Click Bait, because while these hard working modest buildings are very useful in creating 3 story urbanism, your local zoning code with it’s needlessly deep building setbacks, or bloated off-street parking requirements may make it quite difficult to build good #3StoryUrbanism. But as you can see, but the International Building Code should not be an issue for you.
Bloated parking requirements will mess up your site plan so that you cannot build the same way as the venerable 1920’s 3 story apartment building across the street. Municipalities are famously bad at guessing how much parking you should be required to build on your private parcel. Many cites will not even give you credit for the parking spaces at the curb in front of your potential building -as if they do not physically exist. Unnecessary parking takes up space, creates additional impervious surface that you have to address for the storm water requirements, and those additional spaces cost money to build and maintain. Bloated parking screws up perfectly good projects every day. The development math for parking you don’t need never works in your favor.
I love Memphis. More specifically, I love the people I have met in Memphis. Lots of heart and lots of hustle.
The video above is from an introduction lecture we gave as part of an effort to cultivate a cohort of Emerging Developers working in a number of Memphis neighborhoods. Following the lecture Incremental Development Alliance (IncDev) held two One Day Workshops and a Two Day Boot Camp. The folks who attended continue to get together and support each other.
I think it is vital for small developers to “find their people”. The work is challenging enough and doing alone with out friends and colleagues makes it even harder. What we have seen in the Memphis cohort of Emerging Developers is a willingness to help each other that is inspiring. Nobody wants to see someone else repeat the learning curve they went through. The Emerging Developer effort has been supported by a number of local sponsors and is worth exploring if your community is thinking about how to cultivate local entrepreneurs doing small scale real estate projects.
After spending a fair part of the workday on the phone or on video calls coaching small developers, it has been pretty common to find me staying up late to finish work on my own projects.
In an effort to bring more discipline to my daily work routine, my well-organized wife, Eleanor has set up the pay button on the blog (above the photo in the black menu bar) as a way for folks to buy some of my time in scheduled 20 minute blocks.
The rate is $80 per 20 minute block. If you would like to schedule a session, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time. You can attach information to your email that will help me understand your project. (There is no charge for any time I spend reviewing your background information). I typically use Google HangOuts for video call coaching session. Hangouts allows 3 or 4 people on the call and you can share computer screens. Please install Google Hangouts prior to the session and test it out. We can also use Facetime, but Facetime does not allow screen sharing and is limited to two party calls.
As an unexpected side benefit, upgrading the version of the WordPress blog platform to get the pay button feature eliminated those random advertisements that used to show up in the free version.
We (David Kim, Bruce Tolar, Will Burgin and I) are currently working on a wide range of tools for delivering walkable neighborhoods and incremental development. After Hurricane Katrina, Bruce and a host of others put in thousands of volunteer hours producing an alternative to the awful FEMA travel trailer that came to be called the Katrina Cottages. The State of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) commissioned several thousand MEMA cottages of various sizes that were used as part of the hurricane recovery effort and eventually were sold for permanent housing.
Bruce Tolar has continued to advocate, design and build cottage housing and cottage neighborhoods over the 12 years since the hurricane. He lives in Cottage Square neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS. He built a place contains a number of the early prototype cottages designed by colleagues in addition to his own excellent work. As our development company started building a project in Thomasville, Georgia we started looking for manufacturers to produce cottage designs in addition to their usual mobile homes and modular houses. We continue to find a lot of confusion that comes from not having a workable common vocabulary to talk about the range of housing that is partially or entirely built off-site in a factory.
For example; capital “M” Manufactured Homes (mobile homes) are produced to meet HUD certification that allows for their use anywhere in the US. You can easily find yourself in a conversation where industry insiders are using “Manufactured Homes” as a term of art referring to mobile homes and lay people are using lower case “m” manufactured homes to describe anything that comes out of a factory regardless of the code or certification it complies with. In a spoken conversation you cannot hear the capitalization of the word and this leads to needless confusion.
Site building can be quite economical and flexible if you have a good team of local trades and you are well organized. But that level of delivery does not come with a one-off project. You can also build economically if you are competent enough to self-build.
Things get complicated when skilled construction labor is in short supply as it will be for the next 10 years. Short supplies of skilled construction labor get compounded by the needs of disaster response and recovery within a region. For example, a lot of drywall outfits from Atlanta are now down in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey, so finding someone to install drywall in Atlanta is a problem.
We need to train folks in the trades for all forms of building across the board.
In additions to training people for site built construction and incremental development, we need to be able to use all manner of systems built housing, depending upon what the right tool for job might be:
ANSI spec Tiny Houses.
ANSI Spec Park Models.
HUD spec mobile homes. (also know as capital “M” Manufactured Homes)
IRC spec modular buildings in single box and multiple box configurations.
IRC spec wet core modules with site built additions.
IRC Spec Panelized Construction.
IRC Spec SIPS construction.
The MEMA Cottages produced after Katrina were dual certified as IRC off-frame modular Homes and on frame HUD Spec Mobile Homes. They could be placed temporarily as HUD spec mobile homes. Once you removed them from their trailer chassis they could be placed upon permenant foundations as IRC spec Modular homes that comply with the standard local building code, while being inspected by third party engineering outfits at the factory.
Below is a 12′ wide MEMA Cottage w/ 8′ ceilings (one bedroom). This cottage had its porch tuned up a bit and got repainted when it was taken off the trailer frame and set on a permanent foundation in Ocean Springs.