Here’s a gentler way to make infill actually happen

Infill is great. When done well, it takes existing places and adds density, diversity and vibrancy. And unfortunately, it can also be very difficult to actually do.

In communities in Utah, I’ve seen infill projects run up against opposition due to concerns about added density, the style of new buildings, traffic, and other things. And of course there’s the ever-present, and usually biggest, concern: parking.

An apartment building under construction in a residential Provo neighborhood.

An apartment building under construction in a residential Provo neighborhood.

Here, for example, is an article on my old neighborhood in Provo, where a proposed apartment development triggered concerns about car storage space. And at this point, I’m sure anyone who actually knows what the word “infill” means is familiar with similar stories. The point: infill is great but obstacles like parking slow things down, cost developers (often small-time locals) money, and generally reduce the amount of infill that actually gets built.

That means we’re not fully capitalizing on the value of the land in our cities.

Ottawa, however, may have a solution. There, the city is trying to solve these problems by creating new rules to deal with parking. Instead of a neighborhood-wide (or, worse, city-wide) zoning ordinance, Ottawa wants would-be infill developers to look at the surrounding properties:

…landowners and architects wanting to build an infill home would first have to look at the 21 lots surrounding the property to be developed and use those observations to create a starting point for what their new home could look like.

Developers will have to look to neighboring homes for things like setbacks, parking, landscaping and other factors as they figure out what they can build.

Most significantly, these new rules also will open up the possibility of some development without parking — a dream come true for many urbanists.

Obviously these new rules could create problems. For starters, they seem like they may actually create as much or more work for developers to go through. I’m also not sure what would happen if someone wanted to build, say, a duplex in a neighborhood of McMansions. If the goal is (to allow possible) densification, basing rules off existing properties may pose challenges.

Apartments and housing side-by-side.

Apartments and housing side-by-side.

Still, I like this plan at least in theory because it acknowledges that cities have little micro-hoods with their own character. In the Provo neighborhood I mentioned above, for example, decades of evolution have produced a huge spectrum of dwelling types. If these new Ottawa rules were rolled out there, looking at nearby properties might give small developers the flexibility to add anything from single family homes to small apartment buildings.

In that way, these new rules might effectively be closer to a form-based code than what many cities currently have. The rules also are almost certainly better than crude, place-crushing parking minimums I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Time will tell how well this plan works, but whenever cities try to loosen zoning and reduce parking I get optimistic.

One comment

  1. Aaron Guile

    The Joaquin neighborhood in Provo is a bad spot for your Ottawa based rule, but there are other neighborhoods that would benefit greatly. I grew up next to the Provo river and the Rivergrove neighborhood would benefit from such a rule as the residents try to fend off student housing.

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