11/3/23 - Low Density Hijinks

If you've been reading along for the past week or so, you might be thinking, "he's going to end on this bologna?" Well, no. I'm going to end on things I like in the new zoning code, but I realized that while I mentioned the reduction in density from R-1 to LDR, I never actually covered what that looks like. So today, let's take a look at three basic (40' wide) city lots that are next to one another. What can we do with them under the current code? What can we do with them in the new code? Cut to the chase - what are the lots!?

Boom! 29, 35, and 39 Morrill St. All 3 are city owned and vacant. All three are 40' wide and 154' deep. They're zoned R-1. In the new code, they'll be zoned LDR (samesies!). So what are our options? Well, ignoring things like convents or adult family daycares, let's see about knocking out some houses...

Plan A - Single Family Homes

We have 3 lots, and with a little elbow grease, now we have 3 houses. They meet the parking and coverage requirements with ease, and if we just pick up any old design that Habitat or the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership is using, we'll meet the residential design standards. This project would be allowed of-right in the new code, and as an added bonus, we could build the same houses in some wildly contemporary style with flat roofs and colorful metal panels and no porches. Oh, and with a brick or stone front patio (but not a concrete one). Cool.

Plan B - Attached Single Family Homes

Wammo Blammo! With some administrative short subdivision chicanery, now we have 4 lots, each 30' wide. We go grab the design for the Cornerstone doubles in Stadium Estates, and it's off to the races. This plan is fully legal in the current code (attached single family homes need 30' of frontage and a minimum lot size of 3,000sf) and a pretty nice way to gently densify. We got 33% more units on the same land. The project wouldn't be allowed of-right in the new code. 

Wait what? Yeah, so in Table 4-1, we find that lot frontage must be +/-20% of the average frontage on the block frontage. You're never going to believe this, but the average frontage is 40' and 40' - 20% of 40' actually only allows you to create 32' wide lots. Enjoy your 3 modern houses or getting a variance and being hounded about why you can't just do a project that's of-right.

Plan C - Townhouses

So townhouses are a little tricky. Theoretically we could go ham and build 8' wide townhouses under the current code, but let's humor the new code a little and build 20' wide townhouses. That'll surely do the trick. So we remix the lots and now we have 5 townhouses lots; the middle lots are 20' wide and the end unit lots are 30' wide so we can put in a driveway loop. We need to put a parking space on each property to meet the current (and the new) zoning code, but the shared driveway is A-OK. Alright so now we've increased the number of units by 66% with this one simple trick. Toss some gables and some D4 siding on these bad boys, and we're good to go. How about in the new code? 

You're never going to believe this, but we're not allowed to build these either. And I know what you're thinking, it's just because 3.3.G.7.b prohibits vinyl siding on townhouses, so switch to Hardie and move on with your life. Except allow me to direct your attention to 24.4.J.3. It's so critical, I'll go ahead and duplicate it here:

For townhouse developments, lot frontage requirements are used to calculate the required frontage of the overall development site for the townhouse development, not individual townhouse dwelling unit widths.

And there it is. Like with Plan B above, we can make lots as wide as 48' (+20%), but the townhouses count as 120' of lot frontage which falls just a little above what we're allowed. Enjoy your 3 modern houses or getting a variance and being pummeled over why you can't just do a project that's of-right.

Plan D - A Pocket Neighborhood

Ok now we're cooking with gas (not recommended for your lung health). I can close this out of the current code pretty quickly. We could combine all three of these lots into a single large lot. We'd then be allowed to build 3 small-ish houses, probably without a variance. More than that, though, and we would need one. 

In the new code, a pocket neighborhood is a specially permitted use, so it's not of-right either, but what kind of project could we do with the land we have on tap? Well, if we consult our prior post on this, certainly not 8 units! But realistically, imagine we wanted to do something like the design from that post. From side to side we need 80' of setbacks and common area, so this works with 20' wide houses like our other plans. Assuming we lose 35' out of 154' to front and rear setbacks, we have 119' to work with. That lets us go 3 houses deep with some 10' setbacks between the houses to meet building code requirements. We get 2 houses and the parking lot on the other side and another house to the back. So while it's not of-right, we can make it to 6 units with a pocket neighborhood in the new code, which is certainly progress. Though we could also just stick to building 3 houses of-right instead of explaining ourselves to the CPC.

Wrapping up, I'm struggling to square how making LDR more restrictive than R-1 meets any of the goals of the Housing Action Plan from Rochester 2034. I guess it's not entirely more restrictive. You can have a vending machine in your back yard now, and you can have a very fancy front yard patio, but I don't think that meets the goals of the Plan either. Nor does the ability to build a house that's mostly garage. In an even more surprising twist, these exact same rules apply to MDR in the new code. This strongly preferences the construction of rental-oriented housing over owner-occupied housing. If these same 3 lots were MDR, one could build 12 rental units across 3 buildings. This seems further at odds with the idea that we should be encouraging owner-occupancy.

I will say, the one thing that the new code does really hit out of the park is the broad variety of single family styles available now that the residential design standards are gone. Right now it can be very challenging to build smaller/single story homes, and unlike the current code, the new code allows for nearly unlimited options when it comes to that, so I guess I should be thankful for that bit of progress.