Category: Saratoga Springs

Why are we still building housing like this?

While driving around in Saratoga Springs I found the neighborhood in the pictures below:

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Someone obviously wants to live here and, I say, to each her or his own. But I wouldn’t want to live here and I’m sure I’m not alone; in the end it’s a pretty bleak place.

Specifically, it’s aggressively car-oriented. The garage doors are the most prominent feature of each home and, bafflingly, the human doors are set back and de-emphasized.

It’s also strange that each home has a two-car garage and a two-car driveway. Do the people in these relatively compact dwellings really have four cars per household? As smaller homes (by Western standards) the space devoted to cars is strange because it reduces the number of rooms and the amount of living space available for people.

And of course there’s the color problem: like many suburbs these homes have all been painted brown. It makes no sense because brown seems to be no one’s favorite color.

Despite the oddity of this neighborhood, the developers are still making the same mistakes even as I write this:20130606-130740.jpg

The most frustrating thing about this particular neighborhood is that it’s actually not that far from being a decent place. The homes are connected to one another, for example, thus reducing energy costs. That closeness and the small street also potentially raises density above the typical suburban neighborhood.

And therein lies the tragedy: with just a few changes this neighborhood could have been so much better. Putting the front doors closer to the street than the garages would have been a good start. Extending the second stories over the garages via a balcony or bay window also could have helped. Interestingly, what the developers did with the front door is exactly what they should have done… with the garage door.

And of course, reducing the percentage of the facade taken up by the garage door would have been a huge improvement.

Making those changes or others could have turned the neighborhood into something like a lite version of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies. After all, those homes also have front-facing garage doors.

Most importantly, none of these changes would have been that difficult or that expensive, at least over the long-run.

Instead, however, laziness, tradition or other factors produced a neighborhood that, at least in terms of its form, isn’t even mediocre.

Solving Invented Problems

A street in Saratoga Springs

A street in Saratoga Springs

A few days ago I was driving around Saratoga Springs, when I found myself on the street in the picture to the right.

The interesting thing about this street is that it has a fairly substantial grass median running the entire length.

Of course, these sorts of fixtures can be decent additions to too-wide streets. They can act as traffic calming devices, parking spots and simply aesthetic additions. Near by my home in Salt Lake City, for example, 300 South includes a center divider that has diagonal parking. Several blocks of 400 West have a larger version of the fixture in this picture, with trees and grass. In both cases, the median serves to cut down on the overall asphalt and reduce the number of lanes, thereby creating a slower, safer street.

Other older cities in Utah also employ these devices. Center Street in Provo immediately comes to mind as an effective, attractive median site.

But Saratoga Springs — or at least this part of Saratoga Springs — isn’t an old pioneer town with wide streets designed to accommodate teams of oxen. Indeed, this particular area looks comparatively new, with the nonsensically winding streets and painfully similar houses that proliferated in the suburban housing bubble.

So, as a new-ish place, this street very easily could have simply been narrower — even a single side of this street could easily accommodate a single lane in either direction.

Instead, however, the designers created an over-wide street that they then immediately “fixed” by breaking it up with a grassy median.

It makes no sense to build like this. Wide streets cost a lot more than narrow streets — in the short and long terms — and grassy medians that no one uses are basically just money pits. Ultimately building a street like this is like flushing money down the drain.

In this case, the slightly raised median also may serve to discourage pedestrian crossings which is unfortunate but perhaps necessary given the wide lanes and lack of stops that encourage speeding. In other words, this street is more dangerous because it overwhelmingly favors cars.

I recently attended a conference at which an urban designer pointed out that we’ll eventually have to stop building places like this because they’re just not cost effective. I look forward to that day.