Height Isn’t Density

Courtesy of Google

Rowhouses in Washington, DC: 44 units per acre at only 2.5 stories.

Much noise has been made over the height of the Civic Center Station Area Plan (SAP). Quiet and Safe San Rafael (QSSR) has called it “very high density”, citing increases to the unit-per-acre arrangement as proof. But density is not height, and height doesn’t mean density.

I wrote about the relative densities of various properties around Marin about a year ago when it seemed the whole county was up in arms over ABAG’s affordable housing requirements and density. Though my point then was that we already have “high density” housing in some decidedly low-density areas (30 units per acre on San Anselmo’s Forbes Avenue, 20 units per acre in Novato, etc.), what wasn’t mentioned was the relationship between height and density.

In short, it’s a loose connection, and it’s easy to see how. Three story houses in a subdivision are 4-10 units per acre. Three story rowhomes, however, could be 20-45 units per acre, and three story apartment buildings could go even higher thanks to the small size of studio apartments. We typically don’t think like this when discussing density and height, but it’s important to keep in mind as we continue the great debate over the form we want Marin’s redeveloping communities to take.

The Civic Center SAP recognizes this and calls for raising the cap of units to somewhere above 44 units per acre.  This is a good thing, as 44 units is far below what a five-story apartment building could actually hold. Without this increase, which QSSR wants scrapped, the plan wouldn’t maximize residential density. Instead, the plan would maximize office density. From one standpoint, this would make a great deal of sense. Studies on the subject* show people are willing to walk further between home and transit than between work and transit. Given that SMART is designed to be a commuter rail line, putting offices right next to the train station is sensible.

But when planning how to shape development in San Rafael, this doesn’t make any sense. Office rents in Marin are fairly low and the vacancy rate is unacceptably high. Until BioMarin decided to take up a chunk of the Marin Corporate Center, San Rafael’s office market had a 25% vacancy rate. Contrast this with San Rafael’s rental market, which is positively on fire. The vacancy rate is extremely low and rents are even higher than in almost as high as San Francisco itself. If San Rafael wants to maximize something, let it be in housing rather than offices.

If we wanted to top the area out at 44 units per acre, we should implement a form-based zoning code like the one in the Downtown SAP, but with a height limit of 36 feet and no density limits. This would have allowed developers to get the most out of the building they’re permitted to build. Though office development would have been stymied, that’s okay. When limits are lifted in highly constrained markets like Marin, developers tend to build small units like studio apartments, which attracts young singles, which attracts companies that employ young singles, which increases demand for office space and improves the office market in general.

The density limit currently in place also limits the effectiveness of inclusionary zoning laws, which force developers to set aside a certain percentage of units to be affordable. To keep the project viable, a developer needs to have enough housing to offset the costs of those affordable units, but when its hands are tied with a density limit often a project is just nonviable and is never proposed.

By adding 12-24 feet to the height limit while calling for increasing the density limit, the SAP will boost the availability of smaller units to address the problems just described. If the city council lifts the density limit entirely, it will go a long way to improve the office market, satisfy housing demand, and meet affordable housing requirements. The QSSR idea to maintain the density limit and the height limit would do nothing to meet any of these ongoing issues.

When San Rafael goes to do the investigations called for in the SAP, it needs to figure out what it wants and zone for that. If it creates a compromise where heights are increased but density limits are maintained, it will create a zone that works against itself and the economic interests of the county. When it finally does zone, it must keep in mind a form-based code.

*The clearest measure is on page 43 of this presentation (PDF) by G.B. Arrington, which shows a sharper drop-off in transit usage as jobs get further away from a station than the drop-off when housing gets further away from transit. However, if you’re a stickler for studies, UC Berkeley found evidence (PDF) to back up the claim.

EDIT: The Civic Center SAP proposes investigating densities above 44 units per acre rather than setting a cap at 44 units per acre. The article has been changed to reflect the correction.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

18 Responses to Height Isn’t Density

  1. James Dempsey says:

    Dave, on what do you base your statement that rents are higher in San Rafael thain in Dan Francisco?

  2. Reblogged this on Thoughts on the Urban Environment and commented:
    This is a great blog post that I recommend checking out. Best -Nate

  3. Dennis Coleman says:

    Dave, you clearly prefer the urban lifestyyle, and therefore see everything through that lens. Not all of us want that lifestyle. It’s as simple as that. So please leave us be and go design cities where cities belong.

  4. Richard Hall says:

    I’m struggling to understand why massive high density development significantly changing the character of suburban areas of Marin (away from what most current residents want) is justified considering that population growth in Marin has been anemic at best. The US census shows Marin growth at 1%, US national growth as 0.91%.

    If it’s to drive an economic boom surely you’d want to build a firm foundation of expanding commercial business first before building out more residential.

    • Population growth is a chicken-and-egg situation. One can’t grow a population without having a place for them to live, so instead one needs to look at rents to find out what the market demand is. I got a more contemporary market analysis since this post that puts median apartment rents in San Rafael at $1,833, lower than Southern Marin, and studios at $1,385, which is higher than in Southern Marin. Studio rents are up 13.6% since last year vs. 12.5% for all unit types, and vacancy rates for the county as a whole (don’t have it per unit type or location) is at 3.3%, which is exceedingly low. All this indicates significant pent-up demand for small units in San Rafael.

      In the situation of the SAP, I think it would’ve made sense to reform the zone to be form-based within the 36-foot envelope that already exists east of the freeway, and to allow that to be office or housing, whichever developers think makes sense. This would address QSSR’s concerns about height while still allowing higher density, i.e. smaller units, and giving for-profit developers the ability to satisfy inclusionary zoning policies.

      Off-topic: sorry to miss you at last night’s SVNA meeting. I was talking with Gina and you’d gone by the time we had finished. I would’ve loved to chat about this in person, but perhaps it’ll have to wait until next time I’m in the area. One correction from your presentation: the 2200 units per acre within a half-mile of SMART stations is an average for the whole system, and the SMART IOS already meets that. The MTC grant money tied to this average has already been released.

      • Richard Hall says:

        Thanks for the correction. Was the MTC grant money release in any way triggered by the station area plan being accepted by the council?

        The 2,200 average for the whole system (not per station) was my understanding too – if I didn’t state that correctly it was an oversight. I assume that Civic Center was identified as a PDA and the station area plan proposed this amount in order to trigger some release of funds. Where can I find more information on this MTC grant?

      • No, the grant money wasn’t tied to any SAPs and was released after RepealSMART failed, if I remember correctly. I don’t know the details on the quite separate money that went towards the SAPs themselves, but I suspect that was the cash released after the Civic Center plan was approved by the council. Your statement on the subject was that each station needed 2200 units around it, rather than just on average for the whole system.

        I’ll try to re-find the info on the MTC money for SMART. For the moment, I can only find this resolution, which adapts a previous resolution on the subject and was passed. It doesn’t include the North Novato station, which was added back to the IOS after the north Santa Rosa station was added to the IOS.

        A shame you won’t be able to come out tonight, but family does trump.

        • Richard Hall says:

          Good insight on the SAPs. Perhaps the $177k SAP grant was released on acceptance? (the city fronted the money)?

          Agreed that 2,200 was average not per station. Thanks for the clarification.

          Double checked on Flatiron – apologies tonight’s not going to work. Let me know next time you’re around.

  5. Richard Hall says:

    And likewise sorry we couldn’t meet. Saw you’re at the Flatiron tonight but I’ve spent quite a few nights away from family with business travel so need to be careful with my time.

  6. Richard Hall says:

    Interesting material on the market analysis. But lets not forget:
    – we’re coming out of the deepest recession in a long time so we’re seeing a natural uptick in rentals as part of the economic cycle
    – unregulated financial services finally caused a housing bubble and have returned to sensibility; many who qualified for mortgages (and arguably should not have) can no longer qualify and have to turn to rentals.
    – nice places to live that are also within commute distance of employment centers (e.g. Marin’s proximity to SF) are going to cost more to live in because there is higher demand. Should a small rental in Beverly Hills be priced the same as the same rental on the outskirts of say an industrial town with few jobs in Southern Illinois? Should Beverly Hills or La Jolla be built out with small apartments until rental prices as the same as suburban Los Angeles?

    At some point there has to be a judgment call. I would love to live in Mill Valley, or South Kensington in the UK (for quite different reasons). Can I? No, market forces mean that I can’t. If you built these places out until the rents dropped and I could afford them I probably wouldn’t want to live there.

    • A double shame you couldn’t come – the woman who negotiated the San Rafael SAP grants with MTC came, so you could’ve picked her brain all you wanted. Basically, they were tied to deliverables (they got the money when they finished each phase of the project) and I’d need to find the exact wording of the grant to tell you more. The city would probably be amenable to getting you a copy of exactly what was in that so you could see if there were any strings attached that might be objectionable.

      The country as a whole is seeing a market shift to apartment rentals and away from house ownership from empty-nest boomers and millenials like myself. My generation especially is driving much, much less. Besides, if it was an issue of families getting priced out of their home you’d see faster increases in 2+ bedrooms, and you don’t. (I should’ve linked before, but the analysis for Marin is found here.) The debate in developer and planning circles is indeed over whether this is a temporary shift caused by the recession or a permanent one based on changing preferences; I’m in the latter camp.

      Marin’s market doesn’t just show that housing is in short supply; it shows that a certain kind of housing is in especially short supply. That hurts our empty-nesters that have to live in homes too large for them, hurts our property taxes because those homes can’t turn over into the market, hurts our job growth because fresh-faced 20-something employees have to commute up from SF, and ultimately weakens the county as a whole. If we can figure out how to accommodate those smaller units without sacrificing the character of our towns, I think we should. Lifting density limits while maintaining height limits is the way I think we should do that.

  7. Nathanael says:

    I’m going to strongly advise *four* story buildings rather than three story.

    Why? Because I’ve been told it’s the height at which elevators become economical. It therefore makes it a lot easier to get lots of ADA-accessible housing.

    There will be developer resistance to building three-story apartment buildings due to the ADA elevator requirement, and three-story rowhouses will be stair-filled things which are unusable by people with mobility impairments. Raise the limit to 4 stories and suddenly the elevators will be built without any government pressure needing to be applied.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Thanks Daniel. I’m going to strongly advise that they build some totally unnecessary housing right next to where you live that is completely out of character with your neighborhood. If you have a window maybe the new housing can have the residents overlook you.

      The country, proven by a survey by the National Association of Realtors survey witha large sample size, values privacy from neighbors above all other factors when selecting a home, by far. This means they don’t want shared walls and people looking into their houses or over their fences.

  8. Richard Hall says:

    And @all the issues are not whether it’s height or density they are manyfold:
    – sticking the new residents right up against freeways
    – adding traffic to the freeway exit that ‘s already the most dangerous in Marin
    – not building in character with the low-rise residential neighborhoods
    – replacing tax-positive commercial buildings that bring employment with tax-negative residential buildings (3 of the locations targeted for new residents house highly paid workers bringing net tax benefits to San Rafael)
    – the east side of the freeway is too far to be walkable to many amenities such as a grocery store
    – even the City of San Rafael planning does not expect the new residents to take the train

  9. Pingback: Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism | The Greater Marin

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