by Brent Maugel
The pandemic has caused us to question our approach to design: Are our cities too densely populated to be healthy? Do our building codes have to be re-written for safety protocols? Are our zoning bylaws antiquated? And, what do we do about the housing crisis?
The Third Rail of Economic Development
Housing development has become the “third-rail” for many suburban communities. It’s an emotionally-charged issue that creates opposing forces between residents, zoning boards and town economic development officials.
I was recently a panelist at a virtual real estate event hosted by a regional economic development coalition. Much of the discussion focused on the need to create enough housing stock to attract businesses to area towns. One clear message emerged: If workers cannot find affordable housing, companies will look elsewhere. Unfortunately, current suburban zoning bylaws limit creative design options to solve the housing shortage.
I am not suggesting tall towers in the suburbs, but rather six- to 12-story structures that could be woven into the fabric of midsized towns along the circumferal highways. This would allow for housing within walking distance of restaurants, offices, and shopping that create vibrant mixed-use communities. Other benefits include more attractive and diverse building typology with smaller building footprints that preserve open space for socialization and save construction costs, if designed properly.
Housing Density Disparity
The Boston area has a wide disparity in housing density. Our office is located in a pastoral, agrarian community west of Boston where housing has two-acre zoning. In suburban communities closer to the city, building height restrictions, and to some degree old social norms, dictate we build horizontally. As a result, we are designing numerous 200- to 300-foot long structures that cover all available ground, except wetlands, and offer few site amenities such as parks.
The massing of these horizontal buildings is not conducive to beauty, neatness or organized visually imagery. At times, we have been asked by clients or zoning officials to make these developments look like something they are not: Twelve gables in a row will never look like an elegant house in an affluent community.
By contrast, One Dalton is Boston’s third tallest building at 742 feet and 61 stories, housing 215 hotel suites and 160 luxury condominiums on little more than an acre of ground, the equivalent to 375 dwelling units per acre. That is quite a range of housing densities.
The Sweet Spot
The current housing crisis demands that we look for a more creative approach – one that increases suburban dwelling density, protects the environment, reduces traffic congestion, and elevates the quality of residents’ lives. To succeed, suburban zoning must change. Architects, developers and builders need to work in partnership with town planners and planning boards to eliminate obstacles and encourage new zoning laws that allow for well-designed and properly sized market rate and affordable housing with a mix of convenience retail and open amenity spaces. If real estate leaders and town officials give vertical housing a chance, we can significantly improve and expand high-quality housing options.
Brent Maugel is president at Maugel Architects.