Incremental Urbanism is the Key to California's Future

Posted by Dan Zack on 12/4/2013


New Urbanism became famous for beautiful, walkable, master-planned projects. These developments were located on greenfield sites, and were big--often at the scale of an entire neighborhood or town. In these revolutionary projects, enormous areas were laid out and designed at once, and built out by a single builder or a handful of builders working off of a coordinated design. Our movement knows how to do big master-planned projects, and how to do them well.

While many of the most famous examples--such as Kentlands, Windsor, I'on, Mashpee Commons--are located in the eastern half of the country, we have some good ones in California, too. My personal favorites are Central Hercules and Doe Mill. Central Hercules was built out according to a Dover-Kohl code under the direction of former CNU Northern California Chairman Steve Lawton. Doe Mill was spearheaded by CNU California board member John Anderson. Both feature a variety of housing types, good architecture, a walkable street network, a good alley system with rear-loaded garages, excellent frontages, and nicely integrated open space. When there are opportunities to do big projects like this in areas that are accessible by transit, close to jobs and services, and not environmentally sensitive, we should do them.

Central Hercules

However, these opportunities are dwindling in California. In our metropolitan areas, most of the big greenfield sites are beyond a tolerable commute of job centers and are not served by good transit. They are often environmentally sensitive or feature excellent farmland which should be preserved. For the most part, we need to stay away from the edge.

California's new frontier is within our existing towns, cities, and metropolitan areas. We need to grow inward and upward.

However, we need to be as tactful about location as we are about design. There are some places within our towns and metros which should not receive significant infill development. First, we need to avoid major disruptions to established single-family neighborhoods. Politically, this can kill the whole program, and low density residential areas are not usually located right next to good transit and job clusters, anyway. Secondly, we must resist the temptation to put our initial efforts on large but distant office parks. They offer nice big pieces of land that would be easy to redevelop, but they are often in far-flung locations and aren’t typically ideal for growth.

Rather, we need to focus the next wave of California's growth on two particular areas: Historic downtowns and post-war transportation corridors. These places are usually full of jobs and services and are often served by transit or ready to be equipped with transit. Politically, this is a good proposition, too, since many citizens badly want their downtowns to be revitalized, and the mile-after-mile of strip malls on our transportation corridors are hardly beloved by the public. And, as we know from the work of Christopher Leinberger and others, walkable urbanism in downtowns and transportation corridors is just what the market is clamoring for.

To relieve housing shortages, keep up with new demand, allow continued economic expansion, and to improve sustainability, California needs large quantities of good development located in our downtowns and transportation corridors, and they need it to be designed by New Urbanists. This means we need to be doing old-fashioned lot-by-lot development on small sites, with many landowners, developers, and designers participating. Such Incremental Urbanism is the key to California's future. Unfortunately, we’re not as good at that as we are with the big master planned projects. California needs us to become excellent at it, though.


Incremental Urbanism in Washington DC


While it may seem counterintuitive, Incremental Urbanism can bring a large quantity of good development in a short period of time. Historically, an impressive example of this is the rebuilding of San Francisco after the cataclysmic earthquake of 1906. In an instant, 28,000 buildings in the city were destroyed. Rebuilding began right away. 14,000 building permits were issued in 1908 alone, most of which were for very small projects, carried out by hundreds of different parties. By 1915, visitors to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition could see no evidence that the city had been nearly completely destroyed just nine years earlier.

San Francisco's Post-Earthquake Small Lot Construction Boom of 1908.

RED = the area which burned down.

BLACK = new buildings.

But that was a different era. How could we possibly build on such a big scale, in such small increments, today? CEQA, zoning, the loss of redevelopment agencies, parking geometries, and NIMBY politics all make small infill projects a very daunting proposition in our time.

It can be done, though. Many communities have done good things, but I am most familiar with Redwood City, where I serve as the Downtown Development Coordinator. Through an aggressive program of strategic investment in public spaces and code reform, we have been able to stimulate a building boom in an area which had seen very little investment in recent decades. Just two years after the adoption of our form-based code, we have 1,239 housing units underway, which is more than was built in the previous 5 decades combined. Over 300,000 square feet of office space is also under construction. These projects are on lots which range from as little as 18,000 square feet, to only 2.5 acres at the large end of the spectrum. All of these projects have received their planning department approvals in 3 to 6 months. (To learn more about Redwood City’s New Urbanist renaissance, click here.) 

To be fair, in many ways the small-footprint projects of Incremental Urbanism are much more difficult to build than the typical post-war mega project. Profit margins are slimmer due to a lack of economies of scale. Parking is tougher to design. Second means of egress and other life safety requirements can be tricky to accommodate and eat away at leasable/salable square footage. Excavations right next to neighboring buildings are a challenge. Construction worker parking can't be accommodated on-site and requires creative planning by construction managers. The specter of NIMBY opposition is literally just around the corner. There's no doubt about it: Infill development isn't for the faint at heart.

To counterbalance these challenges, and attract developers to the small sites in our downtowns and transportation corridors, we need to reduce risk the risk involved with such projects and increase the returns to those willing to take them on. This will lure development away from greenfields (where growth often does more harm than good) and toward infill settings (where it helps us secure a positive future of our state).

There are certainly things that the State and Federal governments could do to help, but the biggest impact will come at the local level. The key for us in local government is to create a compelling vision of what these downtowns and transportation corridors should be like, and to then put a good code in place that willing developers can follow. Here are some of the most important things for those codes to address:

  • Get Public Input First. This is California, and the public is going to want to be involved. Frankly, it is for the best that they be involved. It'll make the code better, reduce opposition, and help to ensure success. However, the time to wrangle over height, density, aesthetics, and parking is before the creation of a code, not during the review of individual development projects. Before the code is written, solicit input from far and wide, and feed it into the code. Come up with something that will attract the right kind of development to the right parts of your city, and that your public can support. If you do that properly, you won't have to wrestle with these issues on each and every project. Rather, when individual projects come in, the planning staff's task is to simply check whether the proposal conforms to the code.


  • Do Environmental Review at the Neighborhood Level. California certainly needs CEQA reform in order to help infill complete with greenfield development, but cities can do a lot on their own to ensure protection of the environment while not allowing such reviews to add cost, delay, and uncertainty to good projects. They key is to perform as much of the environmental review up front as possible. Planners need to estimate how much development will be produced by the code, and where it will be, and conduct a detailed Program Environmental Impact Report on it. Then, projects which conform to the code will have already been thoroughly studied and most won't need in-depth project-level review. Also, cities should officially adopt a Level of Service (LOS) threshold of “F” for areas that will be the focus of walkable infill development.


  • Don’t Fuss Over Format. We are lucky to have the model codes of our CNU comrades, such as the SmartCode and the codes of the Form-Based Code Institute, to guide and inspire us. These tools are great, and a code based on these formats may be the right fit for your town. However, they are not the only way to do it. Custom codes like the Redwood City Downtown Precise Plan or the Mountain View Downtown Precise Plan might be better in some situations, and sometimes improved zoning (gasp!) might even do the trick. Content is more important than format, and having a document that can be used competently by planners at the counter, developers, realtors, lenders, appraisers, and other local professionals is an important part of turning the vision into reality.


  • Choose Certainty Over Flexibility. Flexibility sounds nice, doesn't it? However, flexibility means uncertainty, and uncertainty is trouble for development. We shouldn't attempt to create codes with the flexibility for an infinite variety of wonderful possibilities. We must learn to rely on discretionary approvals as little as possible. It not only stretches out the review process and adds to the difficulty of developing infill projects, but it also increases the chances that the public will end up with projects that they didn’t expect and don’t like. Rather, we need to identify a range of outcomes that will be acceptable and allow those things by right. Uses and building forms that are unacceptable should be unambiguously prohibited. Granted, by having clear and detailed rules it is possible that we may miss out on the coolest building ever, but to build great neighborhoods quickly we have to accept that risk. Fuzzy rules and a highly discretionary process might keep the door open for a hypothetically amazing building that the code doesn't contemplate, but such a system will keep us from achieving our overall development goals.


  • Legalize Density. Many of us in the New Urbanism movement already know this, but it bears repeating: Be very careful when regulating floor-area ratio (FAR) and dwelling units per acre (DU/Ac). On their own, they do nothing to create nice places, and can encourage poor building forms. In areas with high land costs they can kill development altogether. I suggest removing these requirements completely, but in situations where they can’t be eliminated we must take care to raise them high enough to facilitate the kind of development that is desired.


  • Remove Minimum Lot Sizes. If we want to facilitate small lot development, then it should go without saying that we should lift prohibitions on it. It addition to removing requirements for a minimum lot size, which are pretty obvious, we must also remove less conspicuous but equally problematic rules requiring a minimum lot width, or rules which tie the allowed number of units on a site to the lot. A hypothetical example might read “The minimum building site area shall be 5,000 square feet for one dwelling unit, 7,500 square feet for two dwelling units, 10,000 square feet for three dwelling units, and 2,000 square feet for each additional dwelling unit in excess of 3 units on the same lot.” These kind of rules unfairly and needlessly give privilege to large lots at the expense of small lots. This is especially perverse when we stop to consider the fact that densification of small lot neighborhoods would be accomplished much more appropriately by a structure like a triple-decker than the garden apartment complexes that these rules encourage.  


  • Reduce or Eliminate On-Site Parking Requirements. It's important to be aware that some seemingly benign regulations can act as a de facto density limits. Chief among them are parking requirements; reduce or eliminate them in areas where you are encouraging walkable infill. The availability of public parking, walkability, transit access, shared parking, and other factors are all strong justifications for taking a different approach. The work of UCLA professor Donald Shoup is a must-read in this arena.


  • Reduce or Eliminate On-site Open Space Requirements. If the requirement is too high, or the options for fulfilling the requirement are too limited, then dense, walkable, small lot development could be inadvertently inhibited. Whenever possible, focused on creating shared public open spaces and reduce or remove requirements for on-site open space.


  • Re-Think Height Limits. Of course, a successful code will cunningly address the dreaded Boogie Man of height. The right height varies from town to town and from neighborhood to neighborhood, but we must remember that height is not only an aesthetic issue, but an economic issue, too. It will be worth the effort to do an economic analysis of the area’s land values, construction costs, and rents. This can provide an understanding of the height at which a typical project will be profitable. Codes that do not allow that height will not result in much development, regardless of the virtues of its design provisions.


  • Tackle Architectural Style, If You Must. In communities which have strong feelings about architectural style, we shouldn't be afraid to regulate it. To keep the pubic's support, they need to like what they're getting. It wise to seek out the public's range of preferences, and create detailed rules that will deliver buildings that they generally like. We must avoid ambiguous rules that say things like “buildings shall be aesthetically pleasing” or “projects should be context sensitive.” Planning staff, the public, and the policy makers need to determine the range of things that are attractive and context-sensitive beforehand, and put them in the code. This is particularly important when new development under the code is likely to be taller than existing buildings in the area. The new buildings will not fit in in terms of scale, so it is that much more important that they fit in aesthetically.


  • Hold Developers to the Rules. To keep the public's confidence, we absolutely must deliver on our promises to them. People need to like what they're getting, and they need to feel like it matches the concepts that they accepted during the public participation process. When projects are proposed that don't comply with the code (and they will be) we shouldn't feel compelled to find a way to make an exception. We must hold the line. If the code is good, then developers will find a way to deliver what we are looking for.


  • Quickly Approve Projects Which Follow the Rules. On the flip side, it is important to not move the goalposts, and to not drag our feet. It is essential that cities quickly approve projects that follow the rules in the code. We must establish an acceptable range of things that can be done, and then approve projects that fall within that range. The development community will be watching to see how the first couple of projects fare; when they realize that a city will treat them fairly and approve them rapidly if they are in compliance, they will flock there with projects which implement the vision. If we flounder, and the process drags out, they will stay away.


  • Let Go (a Little). Planners can sometimes be controlling, but we have to let go a bit. We have to accept that not every building is going to be our personal favorite. Fighting with developers who are following our code sabotages the climate of certainty that we must establish in order to make Incremental Urbanism a success. If developers propose something that isn’t ideal, but follows the plan, then we should approve it and then amend the code so that we can keep that flaw out of subsequent projects. Also, as I discussed recently on my personal blog, we have to understand that Incremental Urbanism can be a little quirky at times, and learn to accept and love these quirks.

By creating certainty, allowing sufficient density, and granting quick approvals to compliant projects, we can channel the next wave of California's development into walkable downtowns and transportation corridors. Incremental urbanism can help us meet our housing needs and lead our great state into a sustainable and prosperous future... one lot at a time.

Dan Zack, AICP, CNU-A is the Vice Chairman of the California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism and has been a member of CNU since 2000. He has worked as the Downtown Development Coordinator for the City of Redwood City for 10 years. Dan blogs at and tweets at