Getting density right

Design and planning are important considerations for attached housing to be successful and contribute to place.

Attached housing is on the rise in Michigan. Multifamily projects are being started across metro areas in an attempt to meet demand for rental housing for the coming millennial wave entering the housing market. Compact development, when done correctly, fills a market niche that is very attractive to large portions of the marketplace for housing. But design and planning are important if it is to be an effective functioning market product.

There are some basic characteristics common to quality developments that embody density.

Orientation is important in the design of the structure. Often, the primary face to the street or public spaces is a garage front. This creates problems in many ways and offsets some of the reasons for density in the first place. When people choose the housing amenity mix that goes with density, it is a series of gives and takes. To compensate for density, quality public spaces such as parks or plazas need to be included. Another typical tradeoff for density is the availability of other means of mobility such as transit. There should be close proximity to a mix and diversity of uses for easily satisfying daily needs. These should be accessible by bike or foot. Transit should also be available. For all these reasons, the automobile becomes less necessary and is also a tradeoff. As an optional means of mobility, successful attached housing includes garages or car ports as only as accessories in the rear of the development or accessed by an alley. None of these elements is easily done with a garage as the façade.

A common mistake that communities make with density or attached housing is considering it an inferior housing product. Many communities consider anything other than detached single family owner occupied housing undesirable. Michigan is considerably overbuilt with suburban and rural housing products (single family homes on large lots), and severely underbuilt for housing types desired by talented workers and a growing number of retirees who desire a compact urban living environment (apartments, attached condos, small single family on small lots). All communities need a wide variety of housing types to meet the needs of the whole community. If the community wants to focus on talent attraction and retention as part of placemaking, there is a particular set of housing types that are often missing.

Attached housing is often planned for and located as a large project in isolation rather than being integrated into neighborhoods or commercial areas. Large attached housing developments are also often located in greenfield sites located on high traffic corridors or adjacent to other unwanted or high intensity land uses. Given the current housing market and demand for amenities, few developments sited in these outmoded ways will be successful.

Design and placement of attached housing are only two factors in getting density right. It is important to recognize that these two factors are those that are easily influenced or controlled by planning and zoning.

For more information on how a community can plan and code for attached housing and density, and assistance in it contact Michigan State University Extension or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these issues facing communities.

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