When two suburban residential developments border each other and have clear differences

A typical suburban single-family home, the symbol of the American Dream, is often in the middle of a subdivision surrounded by similar homes. Yet, some of these homes are on the edges of developments. This boundaries can be interesting: what do the homes back up to? What is nearby? Three local examples that I see regularly highlight how adjacent suburban residential developments can lead to some sharp contrasts.

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First, I know of a 1970s neighborhood of primarily raised ranches and split-levels of roughly 1,500-2,000 square feet. One side of this neighborhood borders a late 1980s development of larger homes built more in the style of 3,000 square foot McMansions with brick or Tudor facades. These two sets of homes back up to each other and the line of homes that do this are quite different: there is a significant size difference, the style of the homes – siding versus different materials – varies, and the newer development is slightly uphill so the larger, newer homes loom over the older, smaller homes.

Second, there are numerous single-family home neighborhoods where houses are across a residential street or next to a small apartment building. Or, next to a townhouse development. The scale of the buildings is not that different but the density and size are clearly contrasting.

Third, I know of one location where there are two neighborhoods that could have been constructed separately as they both have outlets to the neighboring arterial roads. But, there is a connecting road between the neighborhoods and there are houses of each neighborhood type, again different size and style side by side, on this connector.

Single-use zoning in the United States is intended to protect single-family homes from other less desirable land uses. But, this zoning system does not necessarily buffer certain residential neighborhoods from each other. Many suburbanites would object to significant changes in their nearby surroundings if the new residences were quite different. I ran into this in my suburban research where new small homes nearby or apartments were not welcomed, particularly if they were replacing open space. Yet, today many suburbs have different developments side by side, sometimes with a buffer – nature, a berm, a walkway, etc. – but sometimes not.

These neighboring dwellings could signal some significant differences. A larger home suggests a different social class. Residents of apartments are not always regarded fondly by homeowners. Densities and lot sizes can be different. The exteriors imply different status.

These boundaries are symbolic and clearly marked in physical space. What are the consequences: are the residences on these boundaries less desirable or go for a reduced price? How many people care about the clear boundaries? Do the people from the two or more sides interact within these boundary zones?

The boundaries between suburbia and other types of communities is often clear to see and experience but the internal boundaries are also fascinating.

The improbably straight hallway outside Seinfeld’s apartment door

Residences on famous television shows can become very familiar. Yet, these places do not always match reality. On Seinfeld, Jerry’s apartment appears to have some discrepancies with how his apartment building is depicted:

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Reddit user PixelMagic has revealed (in a post we first came across at Indy100) the dark lie of Seinfeld. Jerry’s home can’t exist in the real world. Not if you believe in basic rules of time and space. You can see why in an overhead rendering of the apartment. If you actually built it to these specifications, the outside hall would need to run through Jerry’s kitchen.

Your instinct might be to say the hallway must have been curved. That was my first reaction. Lots of other Reddit users said the same thing too. If you look at screenshots of certain episodes, that does seem plausible. In certain moments the area between Jerry and Kramer’s apartments seems small enough that it could form a little cove. As you walk away from Jerry’s door, the hall could bend away from the kitchen.

But once again, “The Strongbox” is here to ruin Jerry’s life. That was the episode when Jerry kept inadvertently torturing his building mate Phil. Poor Phil owned a parrot that choked to death on the strongbox key Kramer hid in his food dish.

As PixelMagic showed, that episode provides indisputable evidence that Jerry’s hall did not curve away from his door.

This is a common issue on television shows. For example, see earlier posts about the Brady Bunch house or the apartment on Friends and other shows depicting young people living it up in the city. The primary focus on shows is to provide a home environment that works for the characters and filming, not necessarily one that fits reality or spaces common seen in these locations.

At the same time, consistent hiccups between what is depicted and what is actually possible can create issues down the road for viewers. Even if those watching to not consciously spend time dwelling on the physical spaces of a show or start drawing up floor plans to explore the particulars, spending all of those hours watching Seinfeld could shape how one views apartments and cities. Is this how people live in apartments? Is this what New York City is really like?

Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments

The construction of Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois was important for the suburb, particularly since it was in Aurora and not in Naperville. But, as shopping malls and suburbs change, the former site of Sears at the mall may soon be apartments:

Google Street View, November 2018

The vacant Sears store at the Fox Valley Mall could be razed early next year to make way for a three-building apartment development and kick off a new phase of life for the 45-year-old mall.

Aurora aldermen will vote next week on a request to rezone roughly 11 acres of the property along Route 59 side of the property to allow the buildings.

The buildings, each three stories tall, would have a total of 304 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments…

A 2020 report for the city said that, including the closed Sears and Carson Pirie Scott department stores, 40% of the mall’s store space was vacant.

Adding residential units to shopping malls is a fairly common suggestion. With retailers in trouble, apartments fill the space more permanently, can address housing issues in communities, and could provide a ready population of potential customers for the nearby mall and other proprietors.

With the proposal working its way through local government, three things are worth watching regarding these apartments:

  1. How, if at all, will the apartments be connected to the mall? If they are completely separate buildings and are not marketed as being right next to the mall, then they could be like any new apartments. But, perhaps the mall is a draw for those who might want to be close to shopping, an indoor walking site, and food options.
  2. What kind of apartments will these be? Given their location, these will probably not be cheap apartments. In addition to being close to the mall, the apartments are near lots of other shopping and dining as well as potential employers, the location is just west of Naperville, and a busy Metra station is just to the north.
  3. How much of the mall will survive within five or ten years? The apartments could help revive the mall area or help hasten its demise.

How are suburban apartments designed with COVID-19 in mind different?

A proposed apartment building in downtown Glen Ellyn, Illinois includes several features in response to COVID-19:

The latest iteration creates dedicated, work-from-home spaces inside apartments. South Bend, Indiana-based Holladay Properties is looking at installing voice-activated elevators to limit touch points. The project also would incorporate small conference rooms and phone booths where residents could take a call or prepare for a presentation.

“It’s hard to ignore the global pandemic,” Holladay Vice President T. Drew Mitchell said. “It’s in front of us everywhere, so some of the things that we’re doing inside of the units is sort of a reaction to that.”…

“What we’ve encountered in our product in suburban Chicago is overwhelming demand,” said Mitchell, who’s based in the firm’s LaGrange office. “We have a waitlist right now at Burlington Station in downtown Downers Grove, and what we’re seeing unfortunately for Chicago is people are returning to the suburbs.”

In Glen Ellyn, rents would range from about $1,400 to nearly $3,000. Glenwood Station amenities would target young professionals working in the city, empty nesters seeking a lower-maintenance lifestyle and other demographic groups.

From the picture provided, this looks like a fairly typical apartment building for a wealthy suburban downtown. The building is not too tall; height is a problem in many suburbs as residents do not want structures to dwarf other buildings, particularly houses). There is room on the sidewalk for pedestrians with streetlights and plantings. While there is some variation to the exterior, the design is not too crazy for a bedroom suburb. The building is not too large; there are just 86 units. There are American flags flying at the street corner.

The changes, according to the article, seem to focus on interior spaces. If you live in an apartment, how do you find space to separate home and work? This may be easier in large homes. What additional spaces could an apartment building or complex contain that gives residents some variety without having to leave? The suggestion above is to provide private spaces elsewhere in the building. It will be interesting to see how apartment developers and owners will in the future modify public spaces – gyms, pools, gardens, dog areas, party rooms, etc. – when restrictions may not allow apartment dwellers to use them in the same way.

What is missing from the COVID-19 apartment approach? Given the economic insecurity and the housing pressures many feel, will apartments be cheaper? These are not cheap apartments according to the story. Will this bring different kinds of people to Glen Ellyn than who might have typically moved there? The amenities are said to be geared toward the types of people suburbs often want to attract as opposed to affordable housing that would better serve those who truly need decent housing.

In other words, suburban development continues in fairly normal ways: the developer gets TIF financing, the city gets a building that fits its character and aesthetic, and suburban downtowns become a little denser.

Bipartisan white suburban support for fewer apartments, more homes

A political scientist shares research findings on how political views affect suburban support or opposition to different kinds of development:

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As a political scientist who has studied local land-use regulations, I’m surprised to see a national political campaign in 2020 place such an emphasis on the issue—which hasn’t figured much in presidential races in half a century. The Trump campaign isn’t wrong to think that white suburban voters—the obvious target of the McCloskeys’ speech—would oppose apartment construction in their neighborhoods. In a nationally representative survey of metropolitan areas that I conducted last year, a substantial majority of homeowners revealed a strong preference for single-family development and opposition to apartments. They also overwhelmingly agreed that residents of a community should get a vote on what is built there…

And yet the history of exclusionary zoning reveals that it has long been a bipartisan activity. Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was the first major action taken by any presidential administration to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which despite its lofty promises has not resulted in an integrated America. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter assured voters that he was not “going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.”

My survey data revealed no significant difference between white Republican and white Democratic homeowners in their opposition to high-density housing. I also found overwhelming agreement that apartment complexes would increase crime rates, decrease school quality, lower property values, and degrade the desirability of a neighborhood…

What this means is that Trump’s approach could conceivably appeal to white suburbanites more broadly, not just Republicans. And yet the evidence suggests that this is unlikely. Most white Democrats support the development of affordable and subsidized housing in the abstract and will feel comfortable rejecting Trump’s similarly abstract opposition to it. Where white Democrats oppose such development is when it arrives in their own backyards. But they do not need Trump to block it.

The Americans suburbs are based around single-family homes, exclusion, and local control (in addition to other factors). Opposition to apartments can be about both changes in aesthetics and character of a suburb and the kinds of people who are assumed to live in apartments.

But, as is hinted above, the real battleground over apartments and affordable housing and residential segregation really is about the local level. Federal or state guidelines could require certain things for municipalities. This is the first line of defense for those opposed to housing or any other development they do not desire. And these are abstract levels of government until local development pressure starts up. Even if such regulations passed, where exactly apartments might be located, in what scale and with what design, and how local residents and officials respond is the real pressure point.

If I am interpreting the last paragraph cited above correctly, white suburbanites in general will mobilize to oppose local development they do not want. This can have multiple effects: (1) it stops apartments and affordable housing from being built; (2) it can push such development into communities that are less able to mobilize or where there is already cheaper housing; and (3) it can create long-standing tensions between community members and prospective residents. In the long run, it means that some of the same patterns that suburbanites might criticize in big cities – uneven development, residential segregation – are replicated in suburbs.

Suburban opposition to apartments has a long exclusionary history

When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:

They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIL4dft8VNw&feature=youtu.be

What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:

  1. A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
  2. The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
  3. Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.

Two quick historical examples come to mind.

-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.

The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.

In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.

(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)

Going without a car in Tempe, Arizona

Is it possible to not own a car in Tempe? A new apartment project hopes the answer is yes:

The 1,000-person rental community, which broke ground this month in Tempe, won’t allow residents to park cars on site or in the surrounding area as a term of their leases. The founders say it will be the first of its kind in the U.S.

The neighborhood’s scale will be modest, with mostly three-story buildings. In place of parking spaces, the development known as Culdesac Tempe will feature significantly more retail and open spaces than are typical for its size. It will include a market hall for food vendors, coffee shop, plazas, communal fire pits and a building that residents can rent to host events.

The site is next to a light rail that connects residents to a grocery store, Arizona State University, downtown Phoenix and the airport. There will also be designated spots for ride-sharing and an on-site car-sharing service for residents traveling to other neighborhoods…

The Phoenix area might seem an unlikely spot for such an experiment, but Tempe is something of an outlier among its neighbors. The 190,000-person college town has a median age of less than 30 years old, and younger people are less interested in driving than they were in the past.

A suburban community in a sprawling region might not be the location I would first think of in embarking on this new idea. At the same time, the last paragraph cited above suggests Tempe is a unique place.

I wonder if a residential development would attract only certain kinds of residents and whether that is desirable in the long-run either for the developers or the community. The hint in the article is that this might especially appeal to younger adults. It might also appeal to older adults who want a car-free lifestyle, perhaps those who for environmental reasons do not like car ownership or those who cannot drive. There could be a market for such housing. Additionally, what kind of community or culture in the building might arise if many people come primarily because of not knowing a car? This could be interesting to explore down the road.

Going further, it would be worth knowing whether this is a viable concept in different kinds of places and different kinds of housing. It probably makes the most sense with denser housing (multi-unit apartment buildings) but could it work with rowhouses or townhomes built near a mass transit stop or hub?

Building amenity-filled suburban apartments to encourage community

Some suburbanites may not just expect more amenities in apartments; the larger push may be toward creating community rather than just rental units.

Tony Rossi, president of M&R Development, the company behind the Wilmette and Itasca properties, agrees that the “explosion of amenities” seen downtown is starting to take hold in the suburbs as well. He said rent in the suburbs is usually two-thirds of rent in the city, but newer buildings with extra features will have a higher price tag. Martin pays about $1,925 a month for her one-bedroom and underground parking…

Greenberg developed the project with more than 20 years of hospitality experience and considers design a key factor in changing the vibe and perception of suburban rental living. For example, adding color and art to corridors in apartment buildings, as hotels do, makes all the difference, he said.

And while some suburban developers merge residential and retail in the same physical structure — think storefronts at street level and housing on top — Greenberg said 444 Social is unique because the apartment building is new and located near (but not connected to) existing commercial facilities, like Regal Cinemas next door. It also has natural elements, like forests and a lake, nearby.

“This goes to part of the DNA of this place,” Greenberg said. “If you want to be happy, if you want to live a healthy life, if you want to stay active, you got to be social. … That is what is missing in apartments where it’s downtown or in the suburbs where you just go to a place and hole up. Here we’re actually creating a community, so it’s pushing that experience.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Building apartments in certain ways does not guarantee that community will develop. Certain features of units, buildings, and the grounds could help encourage social interaction but it does not necessarily mean that it will happen.
  2. Apartments with more amenities and higher prices are likely to attract certain kinds of residents. Might it be easier or harder to create community among groups with more resources?
  3. I wonder how many residents in such apartments are interested in developing more community as opposed to enjoying a higher level of luxury or feeling that such apartments fit their cultural tastes (with connections to their social class).
  4. Are developers interested more in profits they can obtain through more amenities and higher rents or creating community?

More broadly, see an earlier post on “surban” places.

Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Fighting against McMansion apartment buildings

One commentator suggests apartments enabled by transit oriented development regulations in Los Angeles will be like McMansions in residential neighborhoods:

The development in question is on the 1500 block of South Orange Grove Avenue, a modest residential neighborhood one block east of Fairfax and two blocks south of Pico. The proposed structure is a five story, twenty-eight unit apartment building, replacing a single-family home and a duplex. It would be the tallest building in the neighborhood by two stories. The artist’s rendering above shows how it would impact the neighbors on the abutting block of Ogden.

Yet this particular building is only the first of many to come in Picfair Village and other areas throughout Los Angeles, transforming the character of our neighborhoods and adding boxy, out-of-scale buildings to a city already plagued by terrible traffic and failing infrastructure. Though the planning commission turns up its nose at the unappealing designs, they never fail to move the projects forward…

The bulk of this development is being done under the auspices of Measure JJJ, transformed by the City Planning Commission into Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Guidelines. Shrugging their shoulders of any responsibility, the City Planning Commission’s members, along with City Planning Department staff (also busy with the equally pernicious Purple Line extension upzoning plan), fondly refer to the TOC Guidelines as “the will of the people,” washing their hands of responsibility…

For whatever reason, City Hall and City Planning Commission members are embracing the TOC Guidelines and fully abetting developers’ plans to move full steam ahead with real estate projects that will drastically alter the character of our neighborhood and many others throughout Los Angeles.

The term McMansion refers to a single-family home. The headline for this commentary – the text of the piece itself does not use the term McMansion – uses the term to describe a certain kind of apartment building: ones that will tower over blocks of single-family homes. While these apartments are not oversized single-family homes, they may have a similar effect to many McMansions with significant size and a change in scale. The commentator suggests this will alter how these blocks are experienced, particularly for those in homes adjacent to the apartment buildings.

The broader use of the term McMansion could be applied to a number of items. For example, I recall seeing articles in the early 2000s comparing boats and other consumer goods to McMansions. Generally, this use would refer to a supersized and/or extra luxurious model. Applying the idea to other kinds of housing could prove trickier. Could you have a McMansion tiny house? A McMansion accessory dwelling unit? A McMansion condo high-rise? Broadening the term to more housing could make a fairly complex idea – with at least four traits – even more complicated.