A pocket neighborhood in Washington State Photo by JTMorgan via Creative Commons license
(Full disclosure before I launch into this post: I'm still researching the pros and cons of Pocket Neighborhoods, so there's more reporting to be done. However, it's important that Durhamites start discussing this issue now.)
Pocket neighborhoods: quaint reminders of yesteryear when people sat on their front porches and played in front yards rather than retreating to back patios and fenced-in fortresses. Pocket neighborhoods are characterized by a cluster of less than a dozen small houses—under 2,000 square feet—that face a shared courtyard and enjoy common space. (Eno Commons off Umstead Road is one example.)
Ostensibly, these would be smaller homes constructed as infill development. They would be affordable for young families, singles, working-class folks, senior citizens—people who can't buy, or don't need a ginormous house.
OK, so far so good.
Local developer Bob Chapman is working on a text amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance that if passed by City Council, would make way for these neighborhoods to be built in certain areas near, but not squarely in downtown. Other builders/Realtors are also advocating for the changes. Download CottageCourt_PocketNeighborhood_TextAmendment_092015b
(The zoning district is classified as Planned Residential Development. The areas are also known as the Compact Neighborhood Tier. However, I'm trying to keep this post from turning into planning-ese.)
The proposed changes would waive the number of minimum units that otherwise would be required for lots zoned PDR, so instead of 100, one could build six. And it would reduce the minimum site area for projects in suburban and urban tiers.
OK, I'm still on board.
So what's not to like?
Well, an unintended—or maybe intended, who knows?—consequence of these changes is that a developer could tear down an old house, even an historic one after waiting the required year, and build a couple of expensive homes on the lot with some shared space. Voila, a pocket neighborhood by definition but not in spirit.
The InterNeighborhood Council has formed a Pocket Neighborhood Committee to study the subject. And judging from the discussions, there are mixed feelings and unease about the proposed changes. It's one of those development tools that when used for good, could benefit Durham. Used for ill, however, and they could be wielded to build expensive homes and gentrify vulnerable neighborhoods.
Readers, get ready, set, chime in.