January 25, 2010 Guest Columnist
SB375 Fuels Interest in Urban Infill Sites

By KEVIN R. NEWMAN
 

There is little legislation coming out of Sacramento since the California Environmental Quality Act that has stirred the blood of both real estate developers and cities more than SB375. As surely everyone in the real estate industry now knows, SB375 is part of the state's pioneering initiative to reduce greenhouse gas by decreasing the amount of carbon that spews into the air from vehicle and other emissions.
The primary goal of SB375 is to reduce significantly vehicle miles
traveled by implementing a series of "Sustainable Community Strategies" throughout California. The purpose of these SCSs is to integrate the regional planning processes for transportation, land use and housing to more efficiently provide residents with alternatives to using single-occupant vehicles - about 40 percent of carbon in California's air comes from private vehicles.

Even though there is a high level of discussion and debate over how to achieve the goals and objectives of SB375 - and not everyone believes it's necessary - there is no question that it has the potential to change the landscape for the future of housing development in California. Since SB375 places considerable emphasis on tying new housing development to access to public transit, the discussion also has increased the focus on transit-oriented development as a key method of reducing the daily use of private vehicles.

The problem is, right now there is only a limited number of these TOD sites of adequate size - five-plus acres - available to accommodate the more traditional "podium" and "wrap" designs for residential or mixed-use development in urban areas. But these designs require large volumes of increasingly expensive concrete, and in today's economy and housing markets, the larger projects are almost impossible to pencil out due to the construction cost. Lenders simply are not interested in funding these projects.


Bigger Supply of Smaller Sites

So while interest in urban infill and especially TOD increases, the inventory of sites that are larger than five-plus acres is limited. However, there appears to be a bigger supply of smaller sites in the two- to four-acre range that would be available for development if there was a financially viable, community-friendly design that would not only fit on a smaller site but be more attractive to the banks and satisfy the many challenges of urban development. Up to this point, these smaller sites have been pretty much ignored by builders.

We are now in a different world. Due to changing market and financial conditions coupled with new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as California's measures AB32 and SB375, we believe there will be tremendous pressure put on developers and cities to build housing and mixed-use projects on smaller sites in urban areas.
We also believe that architects and other designers have an opportunity to fill this void by forgoing the old ways of designing projects and concentrating on new, more innovative concepts that will find a place in a more constrained urban environment.

Tom Hart, deputy director of the California Redevelopment Association, tends to agree. He says the demand for concepts designed for smaller sites, many of which are frequently within cities' redevelopment districts, underscores both the challenges and opportunities of developing within urban areas. "These concepts will be important to both the public and private sectors as they work together to find ways to economically develop smaller sites," Hart says. "With these new concepts, we may see more urban redevelopment projects moving ahead sooner than later."
For sure, there are a number of challenges associated with developing on smaller sites. One of the bigger challenges that architects must address is the importance being placed on improved sustainability along with providing sufficient green or open space in higher-density projects to satisfy the requirements that many cities have as part of their development criteria.


New Development Concepts
In light of today's market and environmental realities, and after several months of research that included multiple meetings with developers, public and private sector planners, and marketing consultants, our firm gained a much better understanding of what it will take to create the new concepts designed for two- to four-acre sites.

As a result, our firm has designed a lower-cost concept for smaller sites that we call New Block, which can accommodate up to 45 units per acre. The most important factor in reducing the cost of construction for this concept is the use of surface parking that utilizes more cost-effective Type V wood construction, which significantly cuts construction costs compared with podium or wrap.

Without concrete, we have found that construction costs can be reduced about 35 percent from about $200 to $250 a square foot to about $130 a square foot. Another major obstacle we had to overcome is how to develop on a smaller lot while complying with open space requirements that are common in many cities. Our solution was to use a sustainably designed, green-roof system on top of the parking lot cover that creates both a pleasing visual feature and usable open space.

The green roof we selected can support various grasses and/or native plants that are carefully chosen to adapt to the local seasonal cycles and to attract birds and other species (including endangered species, another environmental advantage). Also, this green roof space provides an exceptional outdoor amenity with decorative hardscape that can be used by residents for such activities as social and family gatherings, movies, picnics and restful retreats.
Finally, to reduce greenhouse gas and spur housing development, local governments have indicated they are more interested than ever in pursuing public/private partnerships with builders to develop urban sites. This is especially true in such states as California, where the impending implementation of carbon reduction legislation has placed increasing importance on developing sites closer to public transit.

Mark Asturias, housing manager for the city of Irvine, is a proponent of more infill development. "Irvine is seeking new development concepts such as New Block to provide a diversity of housing for its residents," he says. "We are interested in innovative concepts that can be built on sites within areas near transit service in order to reduce the use of private autos. As cities mature, we expect the demand for urban sites will undoubtedly increase as cities and developers strive to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and as residents seek a variety of housing opportunities near transit and mixed-use development that reduces dependence on the automobile."

As SB375 and similar measures come closer to reality, it appears that demand for these TOD and other infill sites will quickly outpace the supply in many areas. But we believe that necessity is the mother of invention and new concepts designed to utilize smaller urban sites will pave the way for increasing urban development opportunities at a time when they are needed the most.

Kevin Newman is chairman of Newman Garrison + Partners Architecture and Planning.