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Deep pockets and pocket neighborhoods: Should we be nervous?

Highlands_langley_pocket_neighborhood

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.

Comments

Jessie

I love these co-housing neighborhoods, but I think there needs to be restrictions on the size of the homes built, and they should be required to respect the street front character. There should be restrictions so that developers can't just do what you're suggesting they could. It needs to be done with respect to the neighborhood. I think ordinances could easily address this. It's also a great way to address the need for affordable housing.

Simeon

This topic was brought to the Old West Durham Neighborhood Assoc. meeting in August, courtesy of some wonderful members who are active at INC. Interesting concept, glad to see that it has eyes on it.

Erik Landfried

Lisa, can you include the proposed text amendment? Sorry if it's plannerese, but it's pretty important to know what specific UDO changes it's actually calling for.

Bull City Rising

Thanks for opening the conversation on this, Lisa.

I've seen a lot of the gentrification concern raised around the pocket neighborhoods. I think I tend to start with the counterfactual: there's nothing to stop a developer from buying a couple of houses, tearing them down, and building larger/more expensive homes in their place -- but making it a 1:1 replacement, which does nothing to help with housing affordability, either.

I do think there's an opportunity to do these as infill, more-affordable housing in neighborhoods; I believe the West End/Lyon Park area has a few of these.

In some neighborhoods, do I think you are likely to see a couple of $350k houses bought and replaced with seven or eight $300k houses? Sure. But doesn't that also prevent seven or eight SFHs from being bought, fixed and flipped -- or torn down and rebuilt? (Or flipped; or being sold in bidding wars?)

I see a manic level of interest in buying houses in urban neighborhoods. We're certainly gentrifying, and seeing housing prices soar, in absence of this. Couldn't adding supply be a pressure relief valve for the intensity.

The year-delay issue applies in Durham's (few) historic overlay districts, but not writ large. Certainly, the loss of older structures is a risk in a pocket neighborhood approach.

The issue goes beyond pocket neighborhoods. Today, you need 5,000 sq. ft. minimum lot in order to build a house. If we want to make housing more affordable, we need to think about options that increase density, while (as Jessie appropriately points out) preserving the neighborhood character. We also need to find ways to increase the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) being built in town -- another pressure-relief valve on housing costs (and one that was controversial when proposed -- and still is in some towns.)

I saw on Facebook a comment about how these can destroy towns and their character. There has to be a balance on those issues, but I would note in the areas that have tended to fight the hardest to preserve the status quo, housing prices go up disproportionately. When a local historic district was being recommended for my own neighborhood of Trinity Park, advocates in our 'hood and from Watts-Hillandale both noted that while there was some loss of individual control over one's property, a "benefit" is that houses in these neighborhoods appreciate faster than those outside them.

Well, big surprise. Part of that's through preserving character; but part of that's through capping changes in density. And if that ain't a kind of gentrification -- gentrification glad-handedly loved by many who hate gentrification -- I don't know what it is.

(Full disclosure for those who might think I don't have a love for historic properties: our home is under voluntary covenants with Preservation Durham. I believe in preserving historic old houses. I also don't think everything that's old is historic; and, that we have to find ways of increasing density to keep Durham accessible.)

Lisa Sorg

The text amendment has been linked to above. And thanks, everyone for the discussion!

Will Wilson

It's important to note that this text amendment, purportedly about pocket neighborhoods, slips in tear-downs and infills with zero lot lines, for example. This draft amendment simply redefines PDR zoning classification to allow an "anything goes" development. Any restrictions can be waived if "reducing this requirement is approved by the governing body based on committed plan elements that are innovative, efficient as to land use, with high quality design." There are no definitions of innovative, efficient, and high quality. It allows a "mix of detached, attached, and semi-attached single family residences, duplexes, and multifamily units," which means no restriction. It allows zero lot lines. It allows as little space between units as fire code permits. It reduces dimensions of street yards, rear yards, and side yards. Once a single lot is made into a PDR, "(a)dditions to an existing approved PDR can be made in increments of any size." That means a PDR can grow lot by lot, historic house by historic house, in any neighborhood.

For a text amendment posing as "pocket neighborhoods," it's really quite disingenuous. Shameful, really.

Will Wilson

BCR: The teardown/infills you mention are already covered in the UDO, and the merits can be debated. Whether we want teardown/infills without any rules can also be debated. This text amendment tries to slip it in without debate, like a dog turd in a pretty package, under the guise of pocket neighborhoods.

John Martin

I'm on the INC Pocket Neighborhoods committee along with my friend, Will Wilson, but I disagree with almost everything he says here.

Let's begin with the UDO. I've read most of it (or tried to) and it is almost a parody of an incomprehensibly complex bureaucratic document. It's no wonder that anyone who tries to do anything has to hire Patrick Byker (or someone similarly expensive) to guide them through this maze. And decisions of Planning Department staff and the Board of Adjustment often just compound the obscurity. My favorite example occurred last year when the Durham Rescue Mission wanted a new building to house the people that come to them for help. You might think that such a building would come under the heading of a "social service institution," which is defined as "uses that primarily provide treatment of those with psychiatric, alcohol, or drug problems, and transient housing related to social services programs. Such as:
· - Alternative or post-incarceration facility
· - Exclusive care and treatment for psychiatric, alcohol, or drug problems (with residency and no more than 12 patients)
· - Social service facility
· - Soup kitchen
· - Transient lodging or homeless shelter" (This is from the UDO.)

That sounds like the Durham Rescue Mission to me. But, no, the Planning Director ruled that their building should be considered a "commercial dormitory," which the UDO defines as "a structure specifically designed for a long term stay by students of a college, university, or non‐profit organization for the purpose of providing rooms for sleeping purposes." Does that sound like the Durham Rescue Mission or Granville Towers?

This reveals two things to me. First, whatever the UDO seems to say, the Planning Director, like Humpty Dumpty, can make it mean whatever he wants. Second, all of this endless complexity may not really protect anything if someone is determined to try to get around it.

Why is it so complex in the first place? I think a major reason is what I call "what if-ism," which is what both Lisa Sorg and Will Wilson are engaged in. What if this leads to someone tearing down more houses (as though they can't already). What if they only build expensive houses? What if they don't (gasp!) have big side yards? What if they're too close to the street or too far away? What if Walmart tries. . .yada, yada, yada.

My personal preference would be to scrap the entire UDO and start over, preferably with something simple that tries to do a few basic things clearly, and allows as much room for innovation, novelty, and even quirkiness as possible. I know that's not going to happen because the Duns Scotuses of the Planning Department will insist that the only good zoning code is one that no one really understands.

But here's where we now are: the Durham Rescue Mission can build a homeless shelter in a residential neighborhood by calling it a "commercial dormitory." But Bob Chapman can't build a pocket neighborhood. And Patrick Byker gets rich.

Annette

This is a valuable discussion to have. I've often been charmed by the little residential cluster just off HVR at entry to Dunbarton. Those units are really very tight. We should study what actually exists on the ground and determine the merits or distractions and what zoning they were built under.
I also look forward to Bob's text and a comparison study of merits.
I remember working on 3 iterations of the MU ordinance and problems were still encountered in the early years. Sometimes, it's difficult to anticipate the all the nexus of what one is proposing but that's a major part of creating something that can be successful.

Ellen

About 12-13 years ago, before Durham got cool and a UDO, there was a sweet old bungalow at the southwest corner of Duke St & Carver St. It was torn down and five houses were erected on that lot with a big white fence around them and a central parking arrangement in the center of the lot. These are small homes, I'd guess around 1000 sq. ft., all circled up together.

Will Wilson

John, I think we agree on the basics of building pocket neighborhoods, they would be a great option for a variety of reasons, but the text amendment put forward would allow a single house to be built on a lot of no minimum size with zero lot lines, waiving all yard requirements. Does one house constitute a pocket neighborhood?

John Martin

@Will. Why would anyone want to do that in the first place? And, remember, such a request would have to go through the Planning Department, the Planning Commission, and ultimately be approved by the City Council. That's expensive, and not likely to be approved without some compelling reason. Stop scaring yourself with "what ifs."

Will Wilson

The UDO is on big "what if." This draft text amendment redefines PDR to allow absolutely anything. I respectfully disagree that that's a good strategy for Durham.

Will Wilson

...that should read ".. is one big .."

Michael Bacon

John is assuming that everything in Durham is sui generis, and has no analogs in other communities. The "what ifs" come from other cities that are further along the price/density/infill curve and are seeing developer strategies like this.

Also, Durham Rescue Mission does not bill itself as transient housing. It sees itself as a semi-permanent intentional community. I'd say the planning department's interpretation is correct, as much as I intensely dislike DRM's model.

Michael Bacon

For what it's worth, I'd rather see new construction of auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) throughout Durham as part of the solution to market pressures and affordable housing problems.

Also, wondering about Chapman's motives is, shall we say, hardly an anti-empirical stance.

Megan

Good points, Will.
Michael Bacon, do you still live in Durham?

Bull City Rising

While Michael doesn't live in Durham (for now), personally I love hearing Michael's perspectives on what's going on here.

For those who don't know Michael, he was one of the first Durham urban/civic issues bloggers (The Bull in Full pre-dated, I think, Endangered Durham, Dependable Erection, and this site), an active voice in OWD around land-use planning and development pressures, one of the many voices who helped kill a bad Clear Channel downtown theater plan in favor of the successful DPAC model, and one of the activists who helped get the Durham Coop Market started.

PS -- Michael, sorry I missed you on your time in town a couple of weeks back, let's catch up next time you're here.

Michael Bacon

Aw, yer makin' me blush Kevin. (I'm pretty sure Gary was off the ground with Endangered Durham before I got going, but he hadn't been up long.) Yes, let's hang the next time I'm through.

So no, Megan, I don't still live in Durham, but we still own our old house there, my parents live there, and I'm through town about once a month to visit friends.

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