By: T. Keith Gurnee (Principal) and Erik Justesen, ASLA, LEED AP (CEO)
At a time when state and regional agencies are clamoring for infill housing as a strategy for city-centered growth, the biggest challenge seems to be figuring out a way to make it actually happen. The collision of the economic downturn, the credit crunch and the fears of “urban NIMBYism” (that such development could overwhelm our communities) have been real impediments. But the efforts of some publicly spirited citizens and design professionals in the City of Santa Barbara may have found an answer to overcoming these roadblocks: increase density and reduce the parking requirements for infill housing.
With the City of Santa Barbara nearing the completion of its General Plan Update, concerns arose among its leaders about the intensification of residential land uses near its historic downtown area. Would it result in massive, bulky buildings that would conflict with the City’s scale and character? Determined to answer that question were two long-time Santa Barbarans, architect Detty Peikert, AIA and developer John Campanella, who set out to organize an open and educational community conversation about how infill could be accomplished while addressing the economic, affordability and community character challenges it faced.
In a purely volunteer effort with the City’s assistance, John and Detty set out to pull together and facilitate a two-day design charrette over two weekends in July of 2011. Focusing on areas that could be redeveloped around downtown, some 50 to 60 land planners, designers, decision makers and others were asked to brainstorm potential design solutions for some of the potential catalyst parcels in the area. The higher density parameters being considered under the General Plan were to be illustrated.
It did not take long for participants to discover that the parking requirements for infill housing were the biggest impediment. If meeting those requirements required bulky and expensive parking structures, how could they get around this obstacle? After hearing that almost 50% of the households in Santa Barbara had only one car or less, the answer became simple – reduce the parking requirement to one space per infill housing unit. Using that criterion, it was discovered that the design solutions produced during the charrette provided a higher unit yield, a finer scale of building and more breathing space between structures than the design solutions with structured parking and residences on top.
Detty and John then went further to analyze the economics of embracing this strategy for infill development. A team of contactors and developers established cost standards and created cost models that were used by the design teams as they were formulating and refining their projects. A PowerPoint presentation on the charrette and its findings was presented to the City Council in late 2011. The drawings and sketches produced, combined with their documentation of significant cost reductions, proved the veracity of modest density increases and reduced parking requirements. This educational effort was instrumental in convincing City Council members to alter selected development standards. Accordingly, the Council set aside a significant area around its downtown targeted for infill housing with a parking requirement of one space per unit and a maximum density of up to 63 units per acre. They did so for an eight-year period to test the concept and evaluate how it might work.
The same presentation was featured at last year’s annual conference of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association, held in Santa Barbara in November of 2011, and it received rave reviews. Cities looking for a way to facilitate infill housing while overcoming the stigma of “NIMBYism” would do well to evaluate and understand the Santa Barbara example. The great volunteer efforts of Detty Peikert, AIA and John Campanella have provided clarity to a debate that has desperately needed it.
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