1/29/24 - The Letter

Without further adieu, my feedback to the ZAP team (less the existing content of this website - item E below).

Dear Mr. Simonis,

Thank you for you and your team’s hard work on the ZAP project. I am writing as, first and foremost, a resident of our fair city. I am also a small developer, a small business owner, and a consummate urbanist. In each of those roles I find myself frustrated with the new code. The level of quality on display in the Rochester 2034 Plan is missing from the proposed code meant to align with it, where there are three critical issues:

As we both know, the devil is in the details, and the overview above cannot begin to cover them. It is with that in mind that I provide the following attachments as additional feedback:

A.) A series of progressive recommendations I am making seemingly outside the bounds of the existing ZAP reform. I have been hesitant to explicitly make recommendations that one might consider bold earlier in the process so as not to put my thumb too strongly on too many scales. I present them here with the hopes that they receive some amount of consideration;

B.) A brief plan to approach this process differently. In talking to other developers in town, I am not the only person who has provided this exact process, but I do so happily here and in writing;

C.) A list of mostly actionable technical recommendations and callouts to vagaries in the proposed code;

D.) A series of recommendations I have previously made about how to update the current zoning code. Some of these things have actually been done in the new code, but most of them have not. The recommendations remain the same; and

E.) The contents of the blog I wrote about the ZAP at www.rochesterzapped.com. These musings are not always actionable, and are written largely informally, but contain critical feedback about the process and the results of the ZAP.

Thank you, again, for your commitment to making Rochester the very best version of itself; the one we all know it can be. If there is anything I can do to clarify the contents of this memo or the attachments, please do not hesitate to be in touch. I have, throughout this process, been ready, willing, and able to stay involved, and I continue to be.

Very Truly Yours,

Matthew Denker

A.) Progressive Zoning Recommendations

I have the following recommendations seemingly outside the bounds of the existing draft zoning reform. They are offered without lengthy explanation for the change, though I am happy to provide said same upon request.

B. An Alternative Plan for Updating Rochester’s Zoning Code

I suggest a plan consisting of three parallel efforts to develop a better code for Rochester starting with the existing 2003 code.

Beyond these three steps, some of the better concepts from the ZAP code, including the new diagrams and the use table, could be rewritten to match the revised code instead.

C. ZAP Code Recommendations

Zoning Code Suggestion Table

D. Thoughts on Zoning in Rochester



The purpose of this document is to lay out some potential changes to Rochester’s zoning code. It is organized into four basic sections. The first is a few (large) meaningful changes that would immediately improve the code without drastically changing it. The second is a short list of minor changes. The third is a number of foundational changes to the code that are, in many ways, purely aspirational (but many that have been tried elsewhere). The fourth is a collection of prior writing about zoning in Rochester. Some of it is incorporated into the earlier sections. Some of it covers some uniquely weird issues like setbacks in CCD-G.

Potential (Large) Zoning Changes

Currently, R-2 and R-3 zoning treat units disparately depending on their configuration. A single family home in either district requires the same 5,000sf as in R-1. But doubles only require a 6,000sf lot and any additional units require 3,000sf per unit. That means a lot like 54 Jefferson could support a 4 unit building (with a special permit) or two doubles, but not 4 houses. Additionally, the same 4 two bedroom units would need 5 parking spaces in an apartment building, but only 4 as doubles or singles. Also, 4 small houses on one lot is likely to be interpreted as 4 primary uses on one lot (allowed), but 4 townhouses on the lot is likely to be interpreted as multifamily, requiring a special permit. R-3 goes even further with a very odd set of cuts where the current zoning suggests you are allowed to build a 3 family on a 3,000sf lot - § 120-28B(1)(c)[3], but you need 6,000 for 2, and 9,000 for any multifamily more than 3 (and could immediately build 9 two bedroom units with 100% lot coverage).

A more reasonable gradient might be 3,000sf and 1 space per unit in R-2, and 1,000sf and 1 space per unit in R-3 (or ideally <1 space per unit).

There are a number of issues with the residential design standards. One overarching issue is a lack of definition about how much is enough to be compatible. Imagine the 200’ rule on a completely standard street of single family homes on city lots 40’ wide. We’ll call it Any St., Rochester 14621. That means that a lot in the middle of it will be compared to 21 houses (5 right, 5 left, and a matching 11 across the street). How many of these houses need to have a front porch before a front porch is compatible? 1? 10% (2)? 50% (10? 11?)? The exact wording says majority, so we could say 11, but that suggests that neighborhood change would happen at an absolutely glacial pace, and that there will never actually be a satisfying mix of housing on a given street. One would certainly never arrive at one of the streets in Corn Hill following these standards. Further, in some cases the standards seem to be interpreted as 200’ in street frontage, while other times it seems they look at 200’ as a circle without concern for what street the comparative property is. While only 4/6 are required, massing and floor area are tightly coupled with one another. It’s not clear that they shouldn’t look more broadly at a neighborhood as well. In some cases, this would be inappropriate, like on Linden Street from Meigs to Goodman, and in others a broader look would be worthwhile, like on Atkinson Street, where there is no real majority of anything. In any event, there are 6 residential design standards, so they can be tackled separately -

(a) Roof style and overhang (e.g., gable, mansard, hip, A-frame, or flat);

Roof style is fine, but the various roof styles lack definition in the code, and thus remain inscrutably open to interpretation. Is a split gable a gable roof? Something else? What about a hip and gable roof? Is that compatible in a row of houses with hipped roofs? With a row of houses with gabled roofs?

(b) Building massing (e.g., ranch with attached garage; two-story with attached garage; bungalow);

Fine, although this seems somewhat duplicative with floor area.

(c) Floor area:

That neighborhoods are allowed to trend rapidly ever larger, but are limited to only 80% of the typical unit size makes desirable, affordable infill incredibly challenging. Especially considering efficient modern design can yield more usable square footage than a similarly dimensioned older home.

(d) Front porches (existence of);


(e) Exterior building material; or

This one is entirely too open to interpretation right now. It’s broadly accepted that a facsimile of an older material counts (vinyl shake = cedar shake), but that’s informal and beyond that, there are a broad variety of siding patterns that have, over the years, been more or less popular. The ‘majority’ requirement above would, if enforced adequately, result in all homes being covered entirely in lap siding and nothing else. Unfortunately, enforcement is all over the map, and it’s obvious that some developers are more willing to push the envelope and see if it passes than others. You can see this in a neighborhood like JOSANA where the habitat homes are all exclusively vinyl double 4, while the RHA houses (Stadium Estates) are typically graced with shake details in the gables. 

(f) Pattern of window and door openings (e.g., central door and four windows; offset door and three windows).

This has the same interpretation issue as the others.

Overall residential design standards can have their place, but the ones that exist now are maddeningly open to interpretation with unpredictable results, and the only way to make them more predictable, from the developer side, is to design less interesting designs to play it safe.

So loosely speaking, zoning interpretations have generally agreed that if something looks like something, it is something. For example, the Konar building on South Ave is broadly interpreted to have a mansard roof, despite the fact that it only looks like one (and one might imagine that even a fake mansard roof in Grove Place, where one is required on a 3 story building would pass muster). Similarly, if someone proposed a single family home with a shed roof set behind a parapet all the way around, this would (likely) be interpreted as a flat roof (for example in the case of residential design standards). That’s fine, perhaps even encouraged, but this starts to fall apart at edge cases, and ties back to the design standards in challenging ways. Is an up/down double that looks like a house a single home, or a double? How about a row of townhouses designed to look like one large house? 

Formalize the theory.

Minor Zoning Changes

Current setbacks are not written strictly as a hierarchy and it leaves the appropriate front yards too variable. Look at 154 Atkinson (2008) and 150 Atkinson (2011). I doubt either of these needed a variance, so how does this happen?

This was adjusted some a few years ago, and is getting much closer to where it needs to be. There can still be a transparency requirement on non-major frontages, but to meet the requirements of accessible housing in small buildings, it needs to meet an acceptable transparency for a ground floor residential (~15%).

Why build an extra 18’ of driveway when there will be sufficient setbacks on both sides of a house? This would also eliminate confusion when enforcing zoning such as at 213 Orange St, where illegal side yard parking was either approved or built.

The free appeal of site plan findings to CPC means there is basically a public approval process for all multifamily housing despite it being allowed of-right in various zones.

Like a stoop. Which is in a front yard, but not a deck.

Foundational Zoning Changes

This list is precursory, and contains no particular recommendations for these changes right now. Other cities from Minneapolis to Portland to Buffalo have tried some combination of these to currently unknown effect. The only item of particular local importance is the CCD form based code. It is currently so ungainly as to be unmeetable. A whole separate document on just this part of the code could be written, and there is some writing on it below. Some of it is just straight at odds with fire code. A basic example would be 9’ max combined sideyards in CCD-G. You need to be 5’ from the lot line to have windows. But CCD-G also requires 10% transparency on the side faces of a building. The only way to adequately meet these dual requirements, if one wanted to build some adorable new small houses close together (but not attached), would be to have sprinklers. That’s expensive, and lo, despite Grove Place being one of the priciest and chicest spots to live downtown, there is significantly less infill than one might expect.

Further Writing

On Front Yards and Corner Lots

Hello fellow urbanists! I've been wanting to talk about our zoning code from time to time for a while, and in lieu of doing any useful work this afternoon, I am going to now assault you with a geometry problem. This is going to be long and dry and boring, so bail now if that's not what you're looking for on a Friday afternoon! Don't say I didn't warn you.

So let's start with lots in the city. For whatever reason, the most typical size of a lot in Rochester is 40x100. Some of that is to create 200' wide blocks that run on in perpetuity, and some of that is surely someone somewhere starting the trend and everyone continuing it. How we got here isn't important for today's exercise. Despite our horrifically long blocks, some of these 40x100 lots are on corners (amazing, right?). It's at this point that you have to imagine the gears come clear off since I must be writing this stupid post for a reason. Well you're right, but let's show our math.

So imagine we have one of these corner lots in one of the cities vast R zoned swaths of land (we're talking 50% of the city here). We'll pick 73 Austin St, as it's owned by the city of Rochester (Don't worry about it being 120' deep, it doesn't help). This lot is zoned R-1. Let's take a look at what we're allowed to build according to § 120-8 Permitted uses. Ahh, a single family home. Perfect. Now let's take a look at our lot requirements in § 120-11 Lot, area and yard requirements. Says here we need 5,000sf. But we only have 4,800. Guess we can't build anything. 'But wait, Matt, the city thought of that,' you say. Well I'll be damned! § 120-201 Nonconforming lots of record says we can build, and we can ignore the lot requirements. Back in business. Thanks, you! So what kind of yards do we need on this bad boy? Well, there's a diagram. Looks like we have 2 front yards, a side yard, and a rear yard. Cool. Here's what the code says about front yard:

Minimum front yard setback, principal uses and structures: where applicable, the average front yard depth of buildings on the two lots adjoining a property; or the average front yard depth of buildings on the block frontage on which the property is located; or 20 feet.

Cool. This means it's open to interpretation at all times how large your front yards need to be, since there's no definition of the lesser/greater of the two potential measurements. This is a tractable problem as per the same definition in Irondequoit:

No building shall extend nearer to a street line than the minimum distance of the setback of the average of existing dwellings within 200 feet on either side thereof, except that no building shall be required to set back more than 50 feet from the property line in R-1, R-2 and R-3 Districts and 75 feet in R-R Districts. In all cases however, the minimum front yard depth shall be 30 feet in R-1, R-2 and R-3 Districts and 50 feet in R-R Districts.

Anyhow, let's imagine we're setback 20' from both corner fronts, because that's a pretty safe assumption. If we look at sideyard and rear yard definitions, we'll discover that one side will get 5' knocked off and the other side will get another 20' taken. Since 20' and 20' is the whole 40', I think it's safe to assume that the rear yard will be to the lengthwise side of the lot. So now we have a final area for the building of 15'x60' That's not so bad at all. 15' is a little narrow, but I think we can make that happen.

So what else do we need. Well, we're required to have a single parking space. That doesn't seem overly burdensome. Let's go for it.

Parking for single-family, two-family and attached dwellings in all districts shall be limited to no more than three vehicles for each dwelling unit. No parking for such residential uses shall be located in the side or front yard except in a legal driveway that provides access to the rear yard, a detached or attached garage.

I'm sorry, WHAT? Ok, well, fine. We'll put it in the back yard. So what's the size of a parking space anyway? 18'x9' you say? Alright, we'll just toss it back there. Hold on, our backyard is only 15' wide on account of the width of our house? So there's nowhere to put a space? So we can't actually build anything on these lots without a variance? So the idea that if you need a variance your project is hugely problematic and needs to be changed will limit the production of any replacement housing on these lots? The shock conclusion of this entire exercise is yes! Nearly all of the existing corner lots in the city would be illegal now. If one of them burns down in a fire, to go replace it you're going to have hearings and angry neighbors and hurt feelings and at the end of the day maybe it would just be easier to move to Henrietta and be done with it. It's like Goodbye to All That but for Rochester and would be developers. Thanks Joan.

And thank you dear reader for making it through all of this (assuming you didn't skip to the end here, in which case NO THANK YOU FOR YOU).

I believe, sincerely, that we can be the city in our mind's eye if we can get out of our own way long enough to succeed. I'd like to think we're making progress. The new comp plan is great. But we also need to kick the tires in a real and meaningful way in its implementation via the zoning code. No one is about to be more willing to except new development in their neighborhood. The city was easy to drain, it won't be easy to fill again - not everyone left and they seem to like the space (at the expense of society as a whole, of course).


Hello fellow urbanists! I've been wanting to talk about our zoning code from time to time for a while, and so I will continue to do so. This is going to be even longer and dryer and boring-er than the last one, so bail now if that's not what you're looking for today! Don't say I didn't warn you.

Ok, let’s talk about Grove Place! So it’s a neighborhood. Some people here might even live in it. It happens to have been afforded its own subset of downtown zoning just for itself. It’s probably the single greatest example of livable, walkable urbanism in Rochester, and frankly, we should all live there, but since there’s only about 5 units in the entire neighborhood, fat chance. So why don’t we add some, you say? Great question. Some people have considered just that over the years. Most recently there was a plan to tear down the defunct restaurant space at 58 University and replace it with new apartments. The initial plans (5 story) and the revised plans (4 story) are in this post.

Neither of these plans passed muster with the neighborhood, and they’ve been fighting them for years now. One has to ask, why wouldn’t the developer have considered a plan that is of-right? Well, let’s see what you could do with 58 University of-right and answer that for ourselves!

First things first, we’re going to assume that a multifamily apartment building would be the highest and best use of the property. If you already have an office tenant lined up, you might have some options, but on spec, assume apartment building. We’re allowed to do that, so no problem there. We’re also allowed to build without any parking, so we could easily just pencil in something that’s the 66x132 that the lot is and call it a day. Make it as tall as we can wood frame and call it a day. Oh what, Grove Place is sort of a form based code and there are a bunch more regulations than that? Well alright then. Time to roll up the sleeves. Away we go.

I’m going to spare you this crazy table of design tolerances that will allow you to avoid a site plan review (You will not be able to avoid a site plan review - all new multifamily housing in the city requires a site plan review [§120-191D(3)(a)[14]]. All site plan reviews can be freely appealed to the City Planning Commission. You WILL have a hearing for whatever you propose in this, the year of our Lord 2020. This exercise is more about getting to a project to which they can’t, legally anyway, say no). Buildings greater than 2 stories may be longer than they are deep. Based on the lot size and orientation, this is probably a thing we’re going to have to pay some mind to. Minimum lot frontage is 25’, and we have this. First hurdle cleared (second if you’re counting building residential). Next thing is that our building can be no more than 20% of the block length. We’re also limited to 30% of the block depth, but it’s not entirely clear how this works on a corner lot. Perhaps we could build an L-shaped building? We might have to. Anyway, the University Ave block is 490’ and the Gibbs block is 280.’ That means our building can be 98’ on University and 56’ on Gibbs. We only have 66’ of frontage on University, but we have 132’ on Gibbs. I guess we have 76’ back there for surface parking if we want it. Or we could build a second building later. Whatever. Our building will be 66’x56.’ We’re also limited to 3 stories, so let’s assume we now have a maximum square footage of 11,088. That’ll allow us about 14 800sf 1BR apartments. Maybe. Please hold.

Ok, so next, we have a length to height ratio of minimum of 1:1.5 and maximum of 1:2. So our length needs to be 2/3rds to half our height. I’m including the diagram in the code here, because it is completely nonsensical and relates in no meaningful way to the regulation it is purporting to clarify.

Since we’re limited to a max height of 36’, what that really means is that the maximum length we’re allowed is actually 24.’ If you’re keeping track, we’re actually now limited to a building that is 24’x24.’ I don’t know that this was the intention of this bit of code, but here we are. I feel like I could stop now, because this is a single, reasonable sized townhouse and nothing else. Indeed, it suggests that this lot could only be developed into 3 story townhouses and nothing else. We lose another couple feet to setbacks (8’ on University and 6’ or so on Gibbs, based on some complicated rules regarding average setbacks from 3 adjacent properties and mins and maxes). Side yards have no minimum and a maximum combined of 9’ (also insane considering you need 5’ on the side of a building to put in a window, meaning you will only ever have windows on 1 side of a new house in Grove Place, but I suspect no one writing this was keeping track). You also need a 10’ backyard. Fine. I actually have a brilliant plan coming together here.

Let’s talk about facades, since they too are regulated. Max length of a facade plane is 25.’ I find this amusing since we’ve already discovered we can’t actually build something wider than 24’ of-right. Anyway, book it. Code says the first floor of the primary street frontage shall include at least one structural facade feature: turret, covered entrance, raised porch, or bay window. Sure. We’ll get there. It also says all facades fronting a street shall conform to the district criteria and be equal. Also fine. We can have a garage door, but we won’t. We need luminaires (not to be confused with luminaries, which we also need, but aren’t getting) no higher than the top of the first floor. Sure!

Windows! We got them, you want them. First floor must be 25-50% windows - can do. Upper floors need to be 20-50% - mmmkay. All other facades must be 10% - hilarious, since if we build something free-standing, it cannot have windows on one of the walls because it will be too close to the lot lines. Who checks this stuff? Anyway, our windows need to be 1.5-2x as tall as the are wide (vertically oriented) - no problem. Windows also need to be transparent (hah) and must be setback 3-6” from the facade. This is, seemingly, to encourage brick as a siding material, but one can buy windows that are set deeply too (exterior framing is all 2x6 now, so getting the 3” isn’t that difficult).

Entrances are also important and regulated. We need one on each street - ok. They can be a max of 3’ above the sidewalk - ok. Doors need to be at least 10% translucent and a max of 70% (including sidelites) - we can do that too.

We don’t need a porch since we’re 3 stories. Our roof must be flat or mansard (effectively also flat). Mechanical equipment is to be screened from the street - sure.

So now we need to come up with some exterior materials. What’s the code say? “In addition to windows for buildings 2 1/2 stories or greater, the primary construction material shall be clay brick, stone, wood or vinyl bevel siding, stucco [exterior insulation finish system (EIFS)] or decorative concrete.” Well that’s fine. If we’re interpreting this strictly, we can’t actually do anything fun with panels or limestone, or marble, or a whole bunch of stuff, but we’re good with vinyl, so jackpot. We can at least build this new building (or as you’re going to find out soon, buildings) inexpensively. We’re also only allowed 2 primary construction materials with one of them being at least 70% (which makes literally no sense. The natural split on a 3 story building would be for the bottom 2 stories to be one thing and the top one to be another. That’s 67/33 split. Seriously people? Thankfully we can also just do 3 sides of a building with 1 material and 1 side with a different material. Bingo Bango Bongo, folks! We’re also limited to 3 colors (sure!).

Because we’re building a 3 story building, we need a dumpster enclosure (ok!). We’re allowed a sign (who cares). We also have to have house numbers that are 2-5” and are at the entrance. We also need a heritage sign saying the building was constructed half past never at 5’ high - that’s limited to 1.5sf). We could have awnings (we won’t). We can have a side parking lot (we might). There are all kinds of rules about that, but we’ll see what fits on site. We need some landscaping and some 3’ walkways and we can have some luminaires and what have you (ok). And that’s about a wrap.

So what do we actually think we can pull off building? Nothing, HAH! No no, I digress. I think we have the opportunity to do something somewhat clever. I’ve attached a potential site plan and a basic concept for a facade. We basically end up with 4 buildings. 2 that are 24x24 and 2 that are 48x24. We get 12 units. 6 576sf 1BR apartments (ground floor of each building) and 6 1152sf 2BR townhouses. The townhouses will each get a parking space in the lot behind. We do some clever stuff with the facade materials to hit the numbers. For bldgs 1, 3, and 4, we’ll have 2 stories of brick and then a mansard roof to the street. The other sides of the buildings will be vinyl plank. This keeps the vinyl plank as the primary facade material (>70%) with the brick being the secondary material (<30%). For building 2, the two faces to the street will be 3 stories of brick. Then the north wall will be one story of brick and 2 stories of vinyl. It will have a flat roof. This will flip the script, so to say, on the other buildings and primary/secondary materials.

The door to the street will, in all cases, be to the 1st floor apartment. The townhouses will have entrances off of the gated private alleyways to be constructed, as will the rear apartment units on buildings 2 and 3. Trash enclosure will go to the rear of the parking lot. It will have the necessary screening for the district.

It’s important to note that this is a far cry from the 31 units that were planned (in the revision) for this corner and shot down. That said, they would be fabulously expensive units (just based on the prices at Vida, I’m confident we could get $2500+ a month from each of the townhouses and the 1BRs would be $1200 each). Certainly reducing density significantly reduces affordability, but I doubt the people who already live in Grove Place much care about that. The strength of this project isn’t in it’s broad affordability, but more in it’s firm legal standing as an allowed project. Could there be better projects than this? Not according to the zoning!

Anyway, thanks to anyone crazy enough to have made it all the way through this. I’m sure people smarter than me will have something to say about it (assuming they are still awake). Any errors are my own (but if you like what I have to say, are the developers behind 58 University, or want to pay for my expertise - you know how to find me). Until next time (when I think we might talk about something more personal to me, again), try to stay sane - it's a madhouse out there!

On Demography

In the 1950 Census, Rochester had a population of 332,448 citizens. By 2010, a mere 60 years later, the population had declined to 210,565. But what if we could get our population to a new high? What would it take, and what would Rochester look like? 


In 1950, Rochester was, physically, about the same size as it is now. The Charlotte annexation had happened all the way back in 1916, and little to no land has been added to the city since. That means that for whatever the population, we’re working with the same land area. Since the city is 35.8 square miles or 22,912 acres (of land, there’s also 1.3 square miles of water), we’ve gone from a population density of 14.5 people per acre in 1950 to 9.2 people per acre. Just for reference, an average city lot of the type you might find in the 19th Ward or Corn Hill or the South Wedge is approximately 0.1 acres (40’x100’). If the entire city were bulldozed and replaced by single family housing that looked like the 19th Ward, every single person (man, woman, and child) in the city could have their own house and every 10th one would still be vacant.

But before we get to what we need today, let’s take a look at the housing situation in 1950. At the time, 6,006 of Rochesterians were institutionalized, 10,394 were not in households (meaning they were transient, homeless, or some other non-established status), and 316,088 lived in established households. It’s this final group that we’re most interested in, because it translates directly to what needs to be done to support a similar population today (from a housing perspective, if not a transportation/school/other infrastructure one). These 316,088 people lived in 99,437 households, which for our purposes I am shortening to ‘units’ from here on out. This translates, citywide, to 3.18 persons per unit. In addition to the 99,437 occupied units, the city also had 1,673 vacant units. This is a vacancy rate of 1.7%, which would translate to an incredibly healthy market these days (NYC had a vacancy rate of 9.2% of units from 2010-2014). We could also look at occupancy by unit tenure, but I think this would needlessly complicate the analysis, as we’re not really trying to figure out what sort of marketing it would take to get all these new people to Rochester. We just want to see what it would take to house them. Now that we’ve set the stage for what Rochester looked like in 1950, let’s take a look at Rochester now (in 2010, work with me).

In 2010, 3,657 Rochesterians were institutionalized, 6,543 were not in households, and 200,365 were in households. As percentages go, these numbers are incredibly close to 1950. In fact, not a single one of them is an entire percentage point off, and I’m actually somewhat surprised by the consistency. What is again important to us, though, are the number of people in households, and the number of units they occupy. These 200,365 people lived in 87,027 units or 2.3 persons per unit. Additionally, there were 10,131 vacant units of housing. This is a vacancy rate of 10.4%. As we can see, the vacancy rate is much higher and the occupancy per unit is much lower. This is a demographic shift that has happened everywhere in the country, and is highly unlikely to be reversible (people have less children, expect to live in their own houses, and do not live cross-generationally as much as they used to, among other things). Surprisingly, Rochester has seen a net loss of only 3,952 housing units in the past 60 years despite losing a third of its population (I say net because surely some new units were built and some old units were lost and there’s really no good way to get these two numbers over the past 60 years).

So we’ve arrived at the crux of the argument. Imagine we wanted to get to a new high water mark for population by the 2020 census. Let’s set aside zoning and building code and approvals and funding and just look at exactly how much more housing we need to build and what form it might have to take to build it all.

For starters, I think we need to assume that any population growth happens proportionally. That is to say, because the percentages of institutionalized and non-householders has been so steady over the past 60 years that we are looking at a household population of 316,089 to hit our new record (along with 6,006 institutionalized and 10,394 non-household populations). We should also be shooting to meet the vacancy rate of New York City of 9.2% (as opposed to Rochester’s current 10.4%). For the purposes of this analysis, we will not bias the source of the vacant units, even though in reality it is likely that less of our new units will be vacant and more of our old ones will. Also, since I think this is likely to come up later, we need to consider the average household size demographic shift. I think there is a perception that occupancy is lower in the city than it is in the suburbs, because families or something. Well occupancy in the city of Rochester is 2.3 persons per household, while for Monroe County as a whole it is 2.4. For Monroe County excluding Rochester, the number still rounds down to 2.4 (it’s 2.427… to be more exact, but this really complicates our math). For our calculations, I think we should use the 2.4 number since we’d like Rochester to look more like the total population and less unique (even if it’s not particularly unique to begin with). So what does this all mean, really? Well, It means that we need 131,704 units of housing total to accommodate everyone at the current occupancy rate. Since there will also be 9.2% of our units vacant, there will be another 13,344 units in the city with no one living in them. This gives us a total of 145,048 units within the city limit. We know that today (2010, work with me here!) there are 97,158 units. That means we need to build 47,890 new units to get to a new record population. If you’re keeping score, that’s almost half again what’s already in the city, and about 44,000 more units than the city had at its peak in 1950. In the extreme, that means building 53 of these downtown in Rochester. 

Spread out across the whole city, it’s another 2.1 units per acre. That means cutting every single family home into three units wouldn’t get us there (and would probably upset the residents of Park Avenue immensely!). Let’s go somewhere in the middle. When I lived in New York City, I was in Washington Heights. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it looks generally like this. There are a minimal number of buildings taller or shorter than about 5 or 6 stories. It’s pretty built out. It also has a population of 58,259 is home to 19,202 occupied housing units and has slightly more people per unit than Rochester (3 per unit). It’s also only 384 acres of land, so it’s dense, if not tall at about 50 units per acre (there’s almost no vacant housing in the Heights). Anyway, say we were to build new housing at this density (which is not so different from Charlotte Square, actually, at about 60 units per acre). We would need 958 acres of land (about 4% of the city) for this endeavor. And lo, our handy zoning map tells us that this might be a problem. Even if all of downtown were already vacant (I checked, and it’s not, despite news reports to the contrary), there’s not enough land there to build everything we need at the density we’re targeting to hit this new population. Indeed, the easiest ways to get there are to: A.) Replace about 10% of the city’s single family homes with this new high-density residential, B.) Remove a third of the industrial land and replace it with high-density residential (difficult due to the shear amount of industrial land that is actually the airport), C.) build on park land (not only is this not politically feasible, but much of it is locked up in far flung places such as Genesee and Durand Eastman Parks), D.) Build significantly denser than we’ve discussed (good luck!) or E.) Some combination of the above. 

In any event, the amount of construction involved would be mind boggling. Take the city adding the most new units per capita in the entire country, Seattle. They’ve built about 22,000 units in the city in the past 2 years (and only 30,000 in the past 3), and that looks not unlike this…

And that’s barely two-thirds of what we’re talking about in Rochester. I’m not sure we could ever get to where we were, but I am positive that if we did, it would be a completely different Rochester than the one we had in 1950 and definitely the one we have now.

On Zoning in General

There is too much dynamic content for these to be copied and pasted. Sorry for the links to the 5 part series on zoning.