Making something out of hundreds of unfinished subdivisions

The economic crisis of recent years had broad effects including stalling the construction of hundreds of suburban subdivisions across the United States:

There are hundreds of zombie subdivisions like this one scattered across the country. They’re one of the most visible reminders of the housing boom and bust, planned and paved in the heady days where it seemed that everybody wanted a home in the suburbs, and could afford it, too. But when the economy tanked, many of the developers behind these subdivisions went belly-up, and construction stopped. In some cases, a few people have moved into homes in these half-built subdivisions, requiring services to be delivered there. In others, the land is empty, except for roads, sidewalks, and the few street signs that haven’t been stolen yet. In some counties in the West, anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant, according to the Sonoran Institute…

But if roads have been paved or a developer has installed infrastructure improvements, it’s very hard to just revert the space back to farmland. Local governments who try to stop building—even if there is little demand—can be sued for preventing development where it had once been approved…Still, some developers  have come up with creative ways to turn zombie subdivisions into something other than rows upon rows of empty McMansions.

Maricopa, Arizona, for instance, had issued about 600 residential building permits a month during the boom, and then saw many of these developments stall. Rather than just wait to see if demand would ever return, the city hooked up a Catholic church with the owners of an empty development. The church had been looking to erect a new building, and was searching for a site with existing water and infrastructure services. The developer had been looking for someone willing to build. With a little bit of rezoning help from the city, the church could start building on the land…

And in Teton County, Idaho, population around 11,000, where the Sonoran Institute estimates that 68 percent of land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped, local officials passed ordinances that would allow subdivisions to be rezoned. One development, called Canyon Creek Ranch, changed its plans from a resort with 350 lots to a community project with only 21 lots, shrinking the infrastructure price tag by 97 percent and reducing the environmental impacts.

From zombie pedestrians to zombie subdivisions. It sounds like communities have to hope that someone wants the land – whether a residential developers or some other user – so they can do something with it. As noted, communities might be able to speed that up by rezoning the land for other uses. Perhaps this might lead to some ultra-flexible zoning where these spaces could be residential, commercial, industrial, or other as long as somebody has a plan.

I do wonder how many of these subdivisions would have legitimately filled up. Where were all the people going to come from? If they moved to the new homes, they opened up other units. Are there so many people rooming together or living with family to create the demand for all these new houses?

My suggestion for what these settings can be used for: sets for all of the post-apocalyptic or dystopian TV shows and movies. Studios could likely get cheap long-term deals on these properties and use them however they wish.

You don’t see many engagement photos set in suburban streets

One photographer looked to the suburbs for inspiration in an engagement photoshoot but didn’t find much to work with:

Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow, the brick wall of a forgotten factory or an empty beach. Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.

We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American subdivision.

The pictures are what you might expect: a couple standing in the middle of wide roads or cul-de-sacs amidst a bunch of cookie-cutter single-family homes. The locations are somewhat unfair; you don’t often see engagement pictures in the middle of urban or rural roads either. And, you can find lots of pleasant settings in the suburbs, perhaps even in gardens or flower beds in the very same tract homes in the backgrounds of these pictures. But, if you want to find the stereotypical image of suburbs, especially among critics, this looks correct.

Building suburban subdivisions around farms, CSAs, and food production

Over 200 new subdivisions feature a new amenity that the neighborhood is built around: a farm or food production operation.

It’s called development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture — a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production — a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park — that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

“These projects are becoming more and more mainstream,” says , a fellow with the Urban Land Institute. He estimates that more than 200 developments with an agricultural twist already exist nationwide…

After World War II, Americans escaping crowded cities flocked to the suburbs. Most suburbanites didn’t want to be right next to a farm, and so restrictive zoning pushed livestock and tractors out of new residential areas. Now, says Lindsay Ex, an environmental planner with the city of Fort Collins, municipalities are being forced to change their codes…

The marketing of these new neighborhoods appears to be working — at least at Bucking Horse, where the developer says 200 single-family lots were snatched up within days of going on the market. Values of existing homes have jumped 25 percent since construction began on the agricultural amenities.

My question: does supporting a local food source within your suburban subdivision offset the evils of sprawl and suburbanization? A farm might help mitigate the results of sprawl including needing to drive for food (now it is closer by, maybe walkable), there is open space (though it is used for food production – so a different version of “fake”/human-influenced nature), and farms can help provide a center for community life. On the other hand, such developments take up more land, it is unclear how productive or effective the CSAs are (they may not have to be that productive – as long as the neighbors like it), and this still skews toward wealthier residents who can afford the land and the setting (price premiums to live near a farm, just like living near a golf course?). In other words, is this just another suburban trend that is primarily available to certain middle- and upper-class Americans so that they feel better about their food sources and being green (neither of which are necessarily bad things)?

Combine these farm ideas with New Urbanism or retrofitting existing developments that didn’t work out and there could be some interesting outcomes here.

New Halal subdivision planned for Sydney suburb

A new 145-lot development in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia is drawing reactions from residents:

Qartaba Homes is promoting its 145-lot subdivision at Riverstone, near Rouse Hill, as Australia’s “very first project of its kind for the Muslim community”, The Daily Telegraph revealed yesterday…

Many residents expressed their concerns that non-Muslims would be excluded from the site, while others said the developers were welcome to the land, which they said was flood prone.

Qartaba director Wajahat Rana said the company was happy to sell blocks of land to anyone…

University of Technology Sydney sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz said the creation of religious enclaves was not a new concept: “The phenomenon of creating an environment where people of a particular religious faith feel comfortable is a very old Christian tradition, associated particularly with the Anglican church.

More on this from the Daily Telegraph:

While the company has insisted people from all religious backgrounds are free to take up the offer, it advises that the loans are “100 per cent Halal” and a “chance to escape Riba (interest)” because interest is a sin under Islamic law.

Qartaba Homes director Khurram Jawaid said it was the real estate deal of a lifetime, open to Australians of all faiths and backgrounds, but the state MP for Hawkesbury Ray Williams said the project was divisive.

“I can only imagine the repercussions if a developer were to advertise a new Judeo-Christian housing estate; they would be hung, drawn and quartered,” Mr Williams said…

Land parcels range from 400sq m to 800sq m and are being offered at $85,000 plus charges, including a booking deposit of 30-35 per cent and a 24-30 month interest-free payment plan.

Sounds like an interesting project. I wonder how a similar proposal might fare in the American suburbs. America has a history of ethnic neighborhoods, particularly in immigrant gateway cities, though the percent of the ethnic group living in that neighborhood may not have been anywhere near 80-100%. In the last few years, I have tracked some of the opposition to mosque proposals in DuPage County (see here and here for examples) but the controversy seems to have died out for the time being. I imagine a proposal for a Halal neighborhood would really raise NIMBY concerns from certain local and national groups.

Just curious: could a process of obtaining homeownership without having to pay interest be appealing to a lot of potential homeowners, particularly in tougher economic times?

Sprawling suburbanites are out of touch with nature

The author of a new book about sprawl and wildlife describes the connection suburbanites have to nature:

Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living. They live in all kinds of houses, in or out of developments, in small dwellings or McMansions on five acre lots, in second homes, weekend places and recreational farms. I call the latter group “toy farmers.” They dabble at growing things, raising chickens or a few sheep. They keep a horse. They shop at Agway and Tractor Supply. They hire Hispanics to mow and trim and weed. Most sprawl dwellers are on the landscape but not of it.

Q: What do you mean by “on the landscape but not of it”?

A: From baby boomers forward, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural landscape, even the adulterated one where we live. Unlike our grandparents, most of us no longer have the stewardship skills needed to manage the ecosystems around us. Many of us don’t want them managed at all. These people want nature to take its course — even though they are managing the landscape around them like crazy by living in it. And we don’t have the time to deal with it. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors — in houses, offices or cars. We get our nature from movies and TV, now piped into digital screens. We see films that have been edited to make wild creatures behave like pets or people.

Q: What’s the connection between sprawl and wildlife?

A: The 19th century conservationists didn’t conceive of sprawl. How could they? No one had lived like this before. Some people say that in sprawling out, we encroached on wildlife habitat and, therefore, the problems are the fault of us not wild creatures. It’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land. But that’s only half the story. In fact, wildlife encroached right back. Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people.

Sounds about right: nature via televisions, iPads, and looking out the window.

There is a complicated history behind the suburbs and nature. In the 1800s, the suburbs were seen as a place where residents could return to nature. Cities were seen as anti-nature with their dense collections of people, factories, and infrastructure. In contrast, the suburbs offered lawns around single-family homes set back from the streets, nearby parks, and winding streets that minimized the visual impact of development. A classic example of this is Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Yet, the nature in the suburbs was carefully controlled. Lawns were manicured and landscaped as were many parks.

In the mass suburb era after World War II, nature took a backseat to development. You can find many pictures of subdivisions being prepared for construction where the ground has been flattened and trees flattened. Starting around the early 1970s, new planning techniques tried to reclaim more land in subdivisions by clustering development. New planning paradigms like New Urbanism have incorporated talk about sustainability and responsible development. However, having more suburban open space also means this space still tended to be highly controlled. For a good read on connections between suburbanization and the environment, check out Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

Sunsets can beautify the suburbs and McMansions

I was amused to run into this Flickr/Instagram photograph of a beautiful sunset over a subdivision of suburban McMansions. The tag on the photo: “Suburbia has awesome sunsets too | #shareyoursunset #sky #McMansions.”

This short commentary can be tied to how suburbs are often portrayed. The suburbs are often caricatured as bland or ordered in a mass-produced way or messy places but rarely as beautiful. Even though the suburbs were originally intended to be a way to combine nature and residences (particularly compared to the dirty cities of the Industrial Revolution), this idea has been lost today. The newest subdivisions tend to be flat places where the existing trees and topography have been leveled for human residences. (However, it is interesting to look at older subdivisions, say those built in the two decades after World War II, and see their more mature trees. Are these neighborhoods now more beautiful simply due to the passage of time?)

This also goes beyond nature. Think of popular culture depictions of suburbs that tend to have a similar storyline: “this suburban family/street/community looks put together but once you dig below the surface, you find all sorts of flaws.” (This is not just limited to suburban stories.) Outside of home interiors (often the focus of magazines and television shows), where is there beauty in suburbs?

Yet, the sky is not completely obscured by suburban subdivisions so perhaps for just a few moments, the suburbs too can be a place where natural beauty is revealed.

What’s in a name? Certain subdivision names lead to higher housing values

A study suggests homebuyers are willing to pay extra in subdivisions with certain words in their name:

According to a study by two researchers at the University of Georgia, homebuyers pay an average of 4.2 percent more when the development has the word “country” in the name. And if it has the term “country club” as part of its name, buyers will pay 5.2 percent on top of that.

That’s a total of almost 10 percent more that people are willing to pay for the prestige associated with the term “country club.”

A joke? Hardly. The study, the results of which were published last year in the Journal of Real Estate Research, is a serious investigation of sales in the Baton Rouge, La., area over 15 years. It carefully controlled for such variables as location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and days on the market, among others.

“This is the first study to find through empirical research that buyers are willing to pay more for certain property names, with all other attributes of a house being equal,” the paper said. “In fact, buyers of more expensive houses may be willing to pay more for a name that conveys prestige than they are willing to pay for a good school for their children.”

No wonder, then, that the naming process is often a psychodrama, with builders and their marketing teams becoming more hung up over what they will call their communities than they are over the copy for a $10,000, full-page ad in the local newspaper.

There is no tried-and-true naming method. Some builders resort to the old standards — station, park, commons, woods, village, farms, hunt, square and gardens. Some look to history for a name, while others use location or a characteristic of the property. A few pick a name that immortalizes themselves or their loved ones.

It sounds to me like this is all about status. Living in a subdivision with a certain word in its title conveys status and wealth, important considerations for homeowners, particularly when selling a home.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. I assume that this effect only works at certain income levels. For example, could you build a run-of-the-mill townhouse development, slap the “country club” label on it, and expect a price premium? I would guess not. To some degree, I would guess there is a relationship between the price of the properties (which then limits who can live there in the first place) and the names. Additionally, builders don’t want to dilute their products by suggesting that “normal” homes are upscale in name alone. (It is unclear to me whether the researchers were able to control for all the factors that would separate an upscale suburban subdivision from a typical subdivision.)

2. Beyond “country” or “country club,” do other words or names not matter? If not, then you simply get a muddled mess of subdivision names that don’t really signal much of anything except general references to tranquility, pastoralism, and perhaps some local landmarks or figures.

2a. Are there names that have a negative effect on price?

3. I wonder how much the generally bland subdivision names feed into the critique that suburbia is a homogeneous place. With many subdivision names not anchored to any particular place, you could be in a “Thousand Oaks” in Ohio just as well as Texas. Is this simply another piece that suggests that Americans aren’t anchored to any particular places?