Let’s have a talk about density

Density, it’s as bad as a four lettered word to some. NIMBYs (not in my back yard) often associate it with a tidal wave of violence, crime, noise, and whatever urban plagues you can conjure up.

It’s a horrible thing that should never be wished on any self-respecting neighborhood. Right?
Ok, well obviously you know that’s not how I feel and honestly, I don’t think a lot of people feel that way either. Sometimes though, we do density so poorly it’s understandable that there’s resistance.

What’s the catalyst for this article? Below:

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Ugh, look at this. I’m all for density but density without walkability or mixed-use makes really no sense to me.

Note the nice walking trails…

Here’s where the apartments will be located

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This is still sprawl people, don’t be fooled by two or three story buildings, it’s still bad land use.

I guess this could be me, but a main factor of density should be to allow you to minimize your use of the car. This does not accomplish that. You’re still imprisoned to the land use of auto-orientated design, something that would make more sense for single family dwellings

We’re kind of patching a city together to match the market demands because cities in America were evolutionary stunted in the middle of the 20th century.

There’s three things you should remember about how cities develop: Incrementally out. Incrementally up. Incrementally more intense.

During the boom years of America (post WWII) we decided that we didn’t need that evolutionary process anymore.

As a city grows the market pushes for denser development in the areas that can support it. Traditionally, single-family housing was always on the edge of town (or toward the edge) because that’s where the market allowed it to exist. The land near the center was simply worth too much to have such low returning development on it. Manhattan wasn’t always skyscrapers.

Post WWII we basically said that everyone could have a house which culturally and economically destroyed the idea that incrementally, over time, we would replace low-density with high-density.

And now we need high-density…so where do you put it? The edge of town. It’s totally backward.

As a city expands, the land in the middle of the city is supposed to have the highest value, ergo, you want to get the most bang for your buck on that land. This means that things like low-density residential and parking lots tend to disappear because you want to maximize the land thus eliminating the need/desire for cars.

I hope you get where I’m going. We’ve broken the natural progression of cities and now we’re trying to catch up by plugging in density where it’s largely incompatible.

How did that happen? A slew of bad federal policies, lobbying, giant infrastructure projects and well intentioned, but ultimately misguided ordinances.

To rectify this situation we should look to deregulate our building practices, amend our zoning and make opposition groups prove why dense development is bad instead of allowing their emotions to dictate what gets built and what doesn’t.

This is on top of the obvious like investing in better transit and walkability and not so heavily in cars.

The point is, density is nothing new, it can exist well with what we have and historically it always did.

I’m not saying we need to tear down our single family houses and replaces them with blocks of apartments, but likewise we don’t need to shun all the apartments in residential areas.

Check out this beauty located in the Washington park neighborhood.

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A charming, dignified apartment building that looks like it fits in a historic neighborhood. See, was that so bad?

Obviously not.

Now, there are ways NOT to do this as well. Looking at you Koppen Gardens. Dropping a six story apartment building in the middle of a residential neighborhood isn’t doing anyone any favors.

I realize this article is getting long, but just one more point:

Our current system favors huge edge of town development (like the one above) over small scale infill. It’s way more financially viable to build a huge mega apartment complex from scratch than it is to build something like the above. Banks favor it, regulations favor it, city codes favor it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s a seductive, yet ultimately pernicious way to make our cities denser.

If we would approach our cities differently than big blocks of zoning, we would see a huge change in how they function and what gets built where.

Accessory dwelling units  (ADUs) are essentially single detached dwellings (usually above garages or something like that.) Think about how much more efficient our city would be if we encouraged people to build those. Likewise, think about how much more prosperous home owners would be if it were easy to get them built. Can you imagine having an extra $400-$500 a month just by leasing out the space above your garage?

Density like that could spur development of neighborhood cafes or grocery stores. It would give more incentive to invest in better bus systems and more bike lanes. Sadly, we don’t encourage this type of development but rather generally discourage it.

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On this block in Lower North you could fit (at least) an extra 22 people on the block if everyone had an ADU. Now not everyone would build one obviously, but even if they did, that’s not that many more people per block, but it could have huge implications on tax revenue for the city and what kind of development shows up in Lower North.

If we would encourage the construction of ADUs and infill apartments we might even mitigate or eliminate the need to build these monstrosities on the edge of town that suck up extra taxpayer money.

Lower North Mankato is an awesome example of varying densities. You have some quality small apartment buildings that fit and make Belgrade interesting and dynamic.

Now architecturally this isn’t the best, but it fits and adds appropriate density to Belgrade.

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If we want long term financial solvency and a beautiful city worth caring about, then we have to get on board with good density, not just drag-and-drop apartments.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.