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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Mar. 25, 2013 6 years ago

"It's so much more than density" - getting the conversation right

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by: Lisa Nisenson

Let’s just skip to the punch line: The density discussion in Sarasota is backwards. This article is devoted to rearranging the discussion in the right order.Right now there is a robust discussion on density, its merits and pitfalls. In the past, density came in two flavors: waterfront condos and "other." The other has always been couched in terms of neighborhood-killing qualities. Now density has entered discussions with new flavors: walkability, affordability and sustainable design.

Unfortunately, the shorthand has landed on stark numbers: 20, 50 or 100 units per acre? Units per acre, however, is the part of the conversation that should take place later. Sarasota has skipped over some incredibly important details that ultimately inform the numbers. Let's reorient the conversation.

1) Gross vs. Net Density

First, there are disputes about the density of several existing projects. There are actually two ways to present density. Gross density is simply the number of units divided by the total area. Net density is what happens when you subtract rights-of-way and open space. This is why two people can present two different numbers on density and both be correct.

2) Before Density: Purpose

First, we really have to ask ourselves what we are after. Here are the reasons a community (not individual developers, but communities) seek density:

• Walkability and Transit

• Housing and Commercial Affordability

• Infrastructure Savings

• Support for Redevelopment

• Environmental Protection

Does Sarasota want these things? That answer is yes---and can be found in both the Sarasota City Plan goals  and the County’s 2050 plan. All of us need to do a better job highlighting these existing goals. This is where graphic design help would go a long way.

3) Where Can Density Go? - Attributes

In some areas, density is a no-brainer---downtowns or clustering for new development, for example. There are also areas where density is obviously not a good idea. The trick is not what feels right or wrong for density, but rather the attributes of places where density can deliver the benefits (or places where retrofits can shape such a place).

The California firm Fehr & Peers is doing the best work to drive down energy at the intersection of land use and transportation, thanks in large part to California’s highly quantified climate law. They point to seven factors, or D’s, that feed into reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT):There is also new scholarly work on the topic, which refines the place-making attributes. In a new book sponsored by the Urban Land Institute (read a review here), Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew look at pedestrian and transit design. They propose a set of physical factors needed, so Sarasota’s two big questions are: Where do these exist? Where can easy retrofits deliver on walkability, quality design and economic boost?There is fascinating fascinating work on how intersection density is the most powerful attribute to work with. As we throw out redevelopment options, such as the North Trail, downtown and Bee Ridge, it is worth keeping this in mind.

Several years ago, Sarasota County began work on a “Multiple Projects” strategy to look at redevelopment areas in the county that were most ripe for investment and planning. The strategy was to hover over a couple of projects until there was a standout, thus avoiding the inevitable NIMBY response by picking one individual project. Alas, the downturn emerged, but the real problem was that the strategy never articulated the attributes of areas best suited for walkable nodes. Because of this, a neighborhood could rightly push back over being a regional experiment, absent information describing why the area is a great place to redevelop and why.

This is why the community has to articulate the purpose and attributes first, and once those areas are identified, begin looking at the scale of density based on regional, community and neighborhood systems (present and future). To read an awesome blog post on why density should not be the lead problem (or solution), also see Chuck Marohn's Strong Town Strong Towns post, aptly names "It's so much more than density."  While you're at it, read all his stuff.

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