Blogging Bayport Alameda

February 27, 2008

Slum pickings

Thanks again to Jack Richard who pointed us all to this article in the Atlantic about the possibility of the far flung suburbs becoming our nation’s next slums.  Not to say that this would happen in Alameda, even the article mentions that cities close to the urban core, as we are to San Francisco, would probably be largely unaffected by this phenomenon.   The theme that I appreciated was the notion that there is a growing shift away from large lot single family homes toward pre-World War II walkable urban communities, even if those communities are located in the suburbs.  As we move forward in planning areas like Alameda Point, the Northern Waterfront, and even the northern part of Park Street once all the dealerships go away towards better freeway access and signage we need to talk about what we envision for those areas, and what will be the most appealing for people in all stages of their lives.   Not simply for families with 2.5 kids and a dog (or cat).   

As the article mentioned the demographics of the country are shifting, soon the number of single people and families without children (young and old) will equal families with children, but yet communities like Alameda still insist on building basically one size fits all housing in all new developments.   For those that want choice or a diversity of housing, they are told to go find it some place other than Alameda or rather rely on the older housing stock to meet their needs.  Yet time and time again, even though people have remarked that traditional Alameda looks very different than post Measure A Alameda, the insistence to cling on to the familiar blunt tool rather than embrace possible more refined tools that offer more control is puzzling.  

When we talk about developing for the future, some naturally assume that it is for people outside of Alameda, and while it is natural for there to be an ebb and flow of people from other cities, other states, and other countries we are also talking about the lifecycle of people who are already here.   The older couple living in a larger home who may want to downsize, the son or daughter who comes home from school looking to move back to their hometown, the young renting family looking for their first homeownership opportunity, etc…  Not all exisiting housing stock will “fit” everyone

Highlights from the article and trust me it’s not easy to condense an Atlantic article into just a few paragraphs:

…Most Americans now live in single-family suburban houses that are segregated from work, shopping, and entertainment; but it is urban life, almost exclusively, that is culturally associated with excitement, freedom, and diverse daily life. And as in the 1940s, the real-estate market has begun to react.

Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space…

It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development…People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small.

…developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to newer suburbs—and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life. “Lifestyle centers”—walkable developments that create an urban feel, even when built in previously undeveloped places—are becoming popular with some builders. They feature narrow streets and small storefronts that come up to the sidewalk, mixed in with housing and office space. Parking is mostly hidden underground or in the interior of faux city blocks.

Building lifestyle centers is far more complex than building McMansion developments (or malls). These new, faux-urban centers have many moving parts, and they need to achieve critical mass quickly to attract buyers and retailers.

In most metropolitan areas, only 5 to 10 percent of the housing stock is located in walkable urban places…Yet recent consumer research by Jonathan Levine of the University of Michigan and Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia suggests that roughly one in three homeowners would prefer to live in these types of places. In one study, for instance, Levine and his colleagues asked more than 1,600 mostly suburban residents of the Atlanta and Boston metro areas to hypothetically trade off typical suburban amenities (such as large living spaces) against typical urban ones (like living within walking distance of retail districts). All in all, they found that only about a third of the people surveyed solidly preferred traditional suburban lifestyles, featuring large houses and lots of driving. Another third, roughly, had mixed feelings. The final third wanted to live in mixed-use, walkable urban areas—but most had no way to do so at an affordable price.

Demographic changes in the United States also are working against conventional suburban growth, and are likely to further weaken preferences for car-based suburban living. When the Baby Boomers were young, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2000, they were only a third of households; and by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Young people are starting families later than earlier generations did, and having fewer children. The Boomers themselves are becoming empty-nesters, and many have voiced a preference for urban living. By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.

Perhaps most important, the shift to walkable urban environments will give more people what they seem to want. I doubt the swing toward urban living will ever proceed as far as the swing toward the suburbs did in the 20th century; many people will still prefer the bigger houses and car-based lifestyles of conventional suburbs. But there will almost certainly be more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities—allowing people in most areas a wider variety of choices…



  1. This article is too generalized. It only really pinpoints what I would call “classic” metro areas. I’ve lived on the east and west coast and indeed- older cities with more affluent populations tend to be gravitating towards older parts of their respective metros with walkable neighborhoods, etc etc. As the article correctly pointed out, a large percentage of those are baby-boomers who more than likely want to sort of return to a living situation that models their younger days, which also happens to match the more recent trend of automakers to resell old cars in new skins like the Mustang, Dodge Charger, and so on. It also correctly points out that walkable leave-it-to-beaver style developments within major metros also tend to come at a high price.

    Put into that perspective, I don’t agree with the overriding tone of the article that the suburbs are doomed and that the cities are bound to garner an enormous new burden of people whom which will choose the said style of decelopment.

    If you look at some of the more rapidly developing areas of the country, these tend to be developing in the method that is most often despised by people in major metros… aka- urban sprawl. But I also think many who view urban sprawl as negative also don’t comprehend the fact that many of these more recent fresh growth cities have different ways of developing, of which much has to do with a few key components:

    Space, Cost, infrastructure, and population along with jobs, the cost of living, and the cost of fuel. In almost all of the fresh growth cities, the populations tend to be a small fraction of those in the older, more established cities. Land and housing is signifigantly less because there is less population to force demand. In many cases, the Freeways are actually over-adequate. Good example- last time I visited my parents, I flew into Nashville and drove to Knoxville. That’s halfway across the state, yet I drove it in less than 3 hours because the freeway traffic was approximately 75MPH the entire way. That would be like driving to Sacramento if there was no traffic, which would mean a 45 minute commute.

    So when we say that the suburbs are dead, it really depends on what kind of suburb we’re talking about. If we’re talking Stockton or Manteca, then yes- these places are doomed to an extent because their prices were pushed beyond anything supportable expect by Bay Area wages. The long commutes with the immense amount of traffic, higher fuel costs, and so on puts places like Stockton in a very bad position.

    But on the other hand, my parents who have been commuting 30 minutes each way to work for years live out in the sticks but will be fine because their infrastructure and environment isn’t under the same pressure from traffic, the cost of living, and so on. Whether that will remain so is a good question, but this also brings up a second valid point, which is that growth is organic thing and applies especially to human development. The difference here is how to manage congested, long established and subsequently more expensive areas with less wiggle room for change versus areas that are still less densely populated and hence more flexible in terms of what they can do with their infrastructures to adapt.

    I don’t agree that EVERYONE wants to live in the types of neighborhoods that the article mentions. Frankly, I’d rather live on a farm with lots of land.

    In summary, as mentioned before, none of these ideas as far as housing developments and walkable this and that mean anything if they all simply become expensive communities for the rich.

    Comment by edvard — February 27, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  2. After thinking about this some more over the last few days, I think I’ve sorted out some ideas-albeit opinionated ones, but perhaps valid alternatives.

    The problem with articles like these is that they make attempts to solve one problem without a solution not related to the original cause.

    The common running opinion of many pro-new urbanism these days seems to be that by somehow developing better urban environments, this will serve to correct the effects of an outside influence- mainly the effects of commuters whom must drive in and out of large metros to obtain jobs that enable them to afford an increasingly expensive urban core. I’m one of them. Not because I own a house or that my rent is high, but because if I entertain the idea of buying in this area, I must save up several hundred thousand dollars to do so, which means the pressure to continuously seek jobs that pay more.Everyone else is doing the same.Especially those who are homeowners.

    In the case of those who couldn’t wait and wound up buying anyway, they did like a huge percentage of Bay Area residents did, which was to move to the suburbs.

    Suburbs are nothing new. But their original intent has changed. They were built as relief valves for those who wanted the better salaries of the metro areas, but wanted a more stable and comfortable living standard that would eventually embody the classic middle class: A average home, car, and so forth.More importantly, to live within close proximity to their jobs via the more recent introduction of the freeway system.

    The problem all along for suburbs has been that the typical suburb is reliant on the larger metro core to fuel it’s income. For a number of decades, this worked out quite well since the inhabitants of such communities could access their jobs with ease and that homes were plentiful and considerably less expensive and within reach, which easily offset the costs involved with commuting. But as the population grew and these suburbs grew into small cities of their own, the infrastructure necessary to support the daily commuter traffic began to fail.Homes became more expensive which int turn created exurbs for those who suddenly couldn’t afford the suburbs. The road system became congested. Many of these Suburbs got just as caught up in the housing bubble as the inner cores of the metros, which was doubly devastating to its inhabitants.

    In my mind, the answer to solving this problem isn’t to do away with the suburbs and build quaint little walking communities of the sort that I assure you would be expensive anyway. The solution is to instead start finding ways to alter the American professional landscape and the suburban system that many now call home.

    The missing link is that many suburbs are totally reliant on the larger metro cores for economic support. If focus was put into developing these suburbs to be more self sufficient,with their own independent economies, then much of the problems people and cities face would be alleviated. Large corporations could develop more satellite offices and count more on employees that are increasingly mobile, alleviating the need for employees to converge are large centralized offices. This would also free of the highways, which in turn would also mean less traffic within the metro cores. In other words, it is widely known that large metro areas are rank with problems. But the problem is stemming from several outside sources, the largest being the Suburbs. Address the suburbs first. Then move inward.

    But in regards to development within metro areas, looking at the problem from none other than a cold and mathematical perspective, I think it is safe to say that between booms and busts, the cost of homes ratchets upward in jerky movements. With each passing boom, standards of housing change. It used to be the massive Victorians and other fancy homes were for strictly for the wealthy. With this passing wave, we saw crappy little 800 square foot starter homes priced at levels that only the well-heeled could afford. Clearly the pendulum swings wildly.

    So with that somewhat predictable cycle, perhaps a better approach would be a system of building smaller and smaller. Every city needs realistic housing arrangements for its inhabitants. Of course homebuilding is merely another Capitalistic affair with those companies seeking out the best way to make a buck. I think Bayport if a prime example of that, with homes that would otherwise be 150k nationwide being priced at 800k+. But what if companies like these were given incentives to build… smaller.

    I know for a fact that there’s a huge demand for homes that are more reasonable. That demand will also never diminish. So to accommodate, a sort of equation should be worked out as to what can be done to efficiently maximize the available space within larger metro areas that lends itself to acceptable community development, but on an increasingly smaller scale. This would work out well because by doing so would assure that there would always be a starter home market, with the previous generation “starter” home being the next move-up level, and so on.

    By approaching the problem with nothing more than a simple size versus cost equation, the need for affordable housing would be met, the increasing pressure to build on a smaller footprint would be realized, and market stability would also be more obtainable versus the series of strains the system currently undergoes in 5-10 year cycles.

    Of course the biggest blockade against any of this is a massive roll of red tape. But I’ll pretend that these regulations don’t exist.

    Anyhow, that’s my thoughts.

    Comment by edvard — February 29, 2008 @ 7:55 am

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