Dingbats, Dingbats Everywhere.

Frequent KHH commenter Matt D checks in over at Matty G’s blog to say that you can get a ton of residential density out of low-rise apartment and condo buildings, and adds:

IMHO, there is an unacknowledged problem in that a lot of smart growth people hate the LA pattern of development, despite the fact that it results in fairly dense communities with a solid arterial grid that lends itself to linear transit service. They seem to want to go right from suburbia to 6-10 story mixed-use buildings. But the LA pattern is cheaper, and it is a much smaller mental leap to allow a 2- or 3-story apartment building in a neighborhood of SFRs than it is to build a 10-story mixed user.

This has been my observation as well. The dominant housing type in the Palms neighborhood, the Dingbat, is a particularly Angeleno vernacular architecture. LA was originally a streetcar city and apartment developers were accustomed to building two- or three-story walk-ups that were deeper than they were wide. When the car took over in the 50’s they added a row of head-in parking in the front, but the building footprint otherwise retained the old streetcar-era proportions.

By contrast, Houston was basically uninhabitable before the advent of A/C, and where you did have multifamily housing it was just as likely to be clusters of small shotguns. So the vernacular 50’s and 60’s multifamily in Houston was to assemble two lots and build something with roughly a square footprint. This is basically every cheap Montrose apartment as well as those in several other inner-loop neighborhoods. I think the Houston version is a little nicer-looking than the LA version, since parking tends to be off to the side or underneath rather than pushed to the very front.

The modern Houston dense low-rise vernacular is to stack houses two or three lots deep with a central alleyway that services garages. If the units are attached you get a footprint similar to the 50’s and 60’s multifamily, whereas if the houses are detached you get a footprint that’s more like the shotgun clusters of old. Note that these two developments are across the street from each other, and adjacent to single-family detached housing with backyard apartments / “accessory dwelling units.” Basically a history of Houston residential typologies, all on one street. No zoning, y’all.

There is one decent argument against this sort of residential, and that is scalability. As you move up from the standard Montrose/Rice/Heights vernacular of a 1/2 acre to 3/4 acre per apartment, and into the suburban labyrinths of 40 acres and above, it gets a little less walkable. But this is less an argument against garden apartments than it is for relaxed deed restrictions. If you’re a developer building just apartments than there isn’t any incentive to plat out a grid of public streets and deal with the engineering standards, the permitting process, etc required for those public streets. On the other hand if you’re a developer building single-family homes than this is almost required, and then once that grid exists other developers will see an opportunity to plop down apartment buildings within the established framework.

The way to get the sort of walkable low-rise development seen in Montrose, then, is to either allow mixed garden- and single-family from the get-go, or else make it easier for single-family neighborhoods to densify some time after initial buildout. The Houston developers of old got this right, and set most deed restrictions at a 15-25 year interval, after which it was a free-for-all. But later developers extended this out to 50 years and at this point in time it’s not unheard of to see 99, which is ridiculous. Deed restrictions need to come back down to a 25-35 year horizon, so that organic infill projects are possible everywhere and not just inside the loop.

2 thoughts on “Dingbats, Dingbats Everywhere.”

  1. Nice summary and comparison… I didn’t know I lived in a Dingbat 🙂

    A 15 year deed restriction sounds totally reasonable. If you move there w/ a kid or two, you get to raise your kids in SFR utopia before us apartment-dwellers move in and everything goes to hell. I could also see a case for spreading out the restrictions in a new subdivision, over say a 10-20 year horizon, so that there’s a slow growth transition before it’s a total free for all.

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