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"People don't want density"

This thread on the New Urban Prospect blog is a good launching point for a short subject which seems obvious to me but doesn't to many others: most people say they don't like density because their previous 'density experiences' were with low-density apartment sprawl.

I can get this because my first three homes out of college were all in such complexes in South Florida, and my first place here was as well. You know the kind - every building exactly three stories1 and a dozen or two units, with a dozen or more such buildings arranged around winding parking lots which you have to drive through to get to your door even if you really wanted to walk - usually set on big busy roads to boot. This is the experience most people (including myself) have today with their first after-college housing. It's not very dense, all things considered, but you still don't have much space to yourself; you have no yard; you have to worry about noisy neighbors and thin walls; etc.

The thing that shook me out of this rut was remembering my college days. Unfortunately, far too many UT students live in car-dependent sprawl-suck out on Riverside or Far West, but most people from other universities ought to be able to remember a better experience - one where, yes, you had the lack of space and yard, and yes, you had the noise; but you also could walk to many interesting places without getting nailed by the traffic on US 183.

When I started shopping for a condo in 1996, I knew I wanted to live closer in; but I hadn't yet remembered that walking lifestyle - until I was shown the condo I ended up buying, about 100 feet from the Fresh Plus in Clarksville. I believe passers-by could actually see the big light bulb above my head at this juncture. And, as it turned out, it was a great place to live (if we could find the mythical 3-bedroom non-luxe unit, we'd still be living there, I'm sure). Suddenly, density had advantages. I could walk to a grocery store and be back in 5 minutes, instead of driving 15 minutes to the giant awful HEB on Mopac/Parmer and then shopping for an hour. I could walk or ride my bike downtown to shows or restaurants (and did - usually using my car only for the occasional work commute).

That's the part most people never get to see. Again, in those suburban pod-apartments, all you ever get is the downside of density - you never, ever, get to see the upside. Ironically, even the downside was less 'down' than most people would assume - the simple fact that the neighborhood was active with pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers essentially 24 hours a day tended to discourage noise and other shenanigans. I could sleep with the windows open there (when weather permitted); I can't ever do so where we are now - in a supposedly quieter mostly single-family neighborhood. Likewise, try walking a street in Manhattan at night and you'll be surprised how quiet it is compared to the car noise you hear in most suburbs.

There you go. A shorter distillation of this topic would be more than welcome, if anybody's feeling the urge to coin some phrases.

1: Note that the fact that 99% of all apartment development in this area is 3 stories, and the fact that the MF-3 zoning category allows a maxmium of 3 stories, must just be a coincidence - because, as we all know, the market isn't interested in providing taller buildings, because people don't want them.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Urban Design , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues)

Comments

I've always wondered why Austin zoning doesn't allow up to five stories for apartment complexes - just about everyone else does.

I've seen mostly 3, actually. Where did you see 5? Atlatlatanta?

most medium & large Southern cities go up to five now, I think - Atlanta definitely. Charlotte, Nashville & Birmingham too I'm somewhat sure.