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.
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.
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.
But here’s another reason why Pioneer Park might be troubled: its large size.
Pioneer Park takes up a full city block. That’s not huge for a primary city park — Central Park in New York and Vancouver’s Stanley Park are vastly larger — but it is pretty large for a neighborhood park. And that’s the kind of park it most closely resembles. (Liberty Park is as close to a Central Park as Salt Lake gets, though that’s a dissatisfying comparison.)
To get a sense of Pioneer Park’s size, here it is next to that park in Vancouver:
Both images are zoomed in to approximately the same distance.
The most obvious thing that’s going on here, at least as far as size goes, is that Pioneer Park is clearly bigger than its equivalent in Vancouver.
However, given the fact that no one really uses Pioneer Park outside of the Farmer’s Market and Twilight Concert Series, we can also assume that demand for park space is also much lower. Or, said another way, the supply of park space in downtown Salt Lake City is too high and it is therefore devalued.
In other words, there’s more park in downtown Salt Lake than people can or will use. It’s like having too much of any good thing; at a certain point you see diminishing returns and that good thing starts going to waste.
By contrast in Vancouver, the park is heavily used but not overcrowded, indicating that the supply of park space is more in line with demand.
Park space isn’t exactly a commodity that is for sale (though we pay for it via taxes) but the concept of supply and demand is a useful one because it helps us understand why a park doesn’t revitalize. In the end, you can dress something up as nicely as you want but if people don’t demand as much of it as you have you’ll always run into problems.
There have been efforts to increase demand for park space in Salt Lake City. The Farmer’s Market and the concerts are an example of that.
Fixing this problem will probably require two things: 1) increasing density so there are more people demanding park space, and 2) decreasing the supply of park space across downtown.
That second point might seem abhorrent at first glance because, obviously, parks are good.
But Salt Lake has so much open space relative to population that there simply won’t be enough people to use it all in the near future. Think about it: in cities like Vancouver or New York, or even smaller cities like Portland, there are dozens and dozens of blocks filled with buildings. The result is that what open space exists is highly sought after and well-used. Coming upon Union Square in Manhattan, for example, is wonderful for the oasis it offers.
In Salt Lake, however, every building seems surrounded by open space. Sure, not all of it is technically “park” space, but Pioneer Park doesn’t feel like an oasis, it feels like just more emptiness.
Decreasing the supply of open space in Salt Lake will mean doing infill projects that add buildings to current vacant lots. But it’s also going to require us to stop adding parks, plazas and whatever else — as we’ve done recently with the extraordinarily disappointing Public Safety Building. That cuts against the accepted wisdom, but the lack of use in so many of our public spaces is evidence that we need to try something different.