On Selling Missing Middle Housing to Communities
The Candler Park neighborhood in Atlanta features a popular one-block commercial node surrounded by mostly pre-WWII residential development. Many Missing Middle buildings that blend seamlessly with single family homes can be found within a five or ten minute walk from the restaurants and shops. (photos: Kronberg Wall)
We spend a lot of time talking about Missing Middle Housing and its critical role in developing healthy and inclusive neighborhoods. Discussing the theory and design behind Missing Middle Housing is essential, but we also need to consider the hands-on process of making these projects real. One major step in this process is selling Missing Middle Housing to the public – especially those that live near the project site. We are actively rezoning properties in Atlanta to Missing Middle pocket neighborhood development – and this gives us firsthand feedback on how communities perceive the benefits of these housing options, as well as the fears these projects generate.
To really understand the importance of the Missing Middle and how to bring it to our neighborhoods, we’ve got to go to the source. Dan Parolek and his wife Karen founded the architecture and urban planning firm Opticos Design in 2000. They coined the term “Missing Middle” a few years ago and maintain the Missing Middle Housing website, which contains a great collection of examples of a range of Missing Middle housing types. That site should be your first stop when reading up on the Missing Middle.
So how do we get more missing middle housing into our community? In Atlanta, Chattanooga, and probably most other cities, Missing Middle Housing is not supported under many parts of the current zoning code. In order to do a Missing Middle development, a rezoning and/or a variance is typically required. Rezonings typically require a community engagement process and public approvals, meaning the designer or developer has to sell the project to the public. This entire dynamic means that if you want to execute Missing Middle, you have to be well versed at overcoming NIMBYism on a project-by-project and neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
We follow a very straightforward approach to all our rezonings. We have to convincingly explain why our proposed project makes the community a better place. To us, “a better place” means that a neighborhood becomes more walkable, inclusive, and transit-accessible. Significantly underutilized land is repositioned to house more residents who will support local businesses. One thing that we do not ever use as a valid argument is that our project might raise property values. The property value discussion will quickly become a slippery slope. As communities improve, increased property values are just as likely to price existing residents out as they are to benefit residents who recently moved in.
People want to be altruistic, but typically still maintain a selfish streak. They each want to know why or how a proposed development will benefit them individually. All too often in Atlanta, density is perceived as number of units; size of units is much less of a concern. From the perspective of someone already living near the project, more units = more occupants = more cars = more traffic = not making my life better as a neighbor. We have to work hard to get people to understand that traffic is never going to get better, and trying to limit the overall density of a city on a project-by-project basis is not a recipe for success. This argument is easier to make when you choose to take on projects that are in close proximity to existing or planned transit locations (in Atlanta, MARTA or the Beltline).
In my experience, the best approach to selling benefits to neighbors is to take the neighborhood convenience center (in Atlanta, typically a former streetcar stop commercial node) and talk about the required supportive density. If we believe that a commercial node like Candler Park is a benefit and makes a community better, and we like how it is massively underparked relative to zoning requirements, then we need to look at how to promote the ability for people to live close to the node so they can walk or bike there and not need a parking spot. Here’s the math:
A typical 30,000 square foot commercial node (Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood is approximately this size) will need around 2000 households to support it (reference Bob Gibb’s Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development). A five-minute walk, or quarter mile, is the typical distance planners use to determine if someone will reasonably walk somewhere, assuming the walk is pleasant (it has shade and sidewalks). If you take a simple radius of ¼ mile, and draw a circle around the node, you end up with a catchment area of approximately 125 acres. This is the total amount of land within a walkable distance of the stores and restaurants. If we were amazingly hopeful, and wanted to get enough residents within this node to support these businesses, we would take the 2,000 households required divided by the total are to get a units/acre calculation. 2000 units/125 acres = 16 units per acre. A typical Atlanta R-4 lot in this neighborhood has a density of 4 units/acre. An R-5 lot has a density of 5 units/acre assuming just a single-family house per lot.
The point of this geeky planning math is to demonstrate that you can’t provide enough density to support a beloved commercial node with single-family homes alone. Further, I am willing to bet that there is strong neighborhood resistance to inserting a range of 4-5 story apartment buildings in the neighborhood to balance the overall unit density from 4-5 units per acre to the 16 needed. It is also important to note that 16 units/acre is the typical recognized minimum density needed for a place to be transit supportive. Mobility options beyond the private automobile are critical for making great places. Even if transit is not planned now, it is much better to be transit supportive than not. This transit can also take a wide variety of forms based upon the most appropriate solution for the specific place.
We find this connection between Missing Middle Housing and thriving walkable commercial nodes to be incredibly important, and one of the stronger arguments to overcome NIMBY opposition to projects. We also find this argument compelling when we see struggling historic commercial nodes. Linking the density of land use around these nodes to Missing Middle is key to the overall community’s success. This also demonstrates that there are certain locations that are more appropriate for Missing Middle developments than others. Walkable urban places need some form of Missing Middle to support their commercial components (outside of core downtowns). Locating a project in these walkable areas is critical to leveraging the arguments provided in this article.