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Darden Rice’s plan for complete neighborhoods – a movement towards affordability in more than just housing costs

Darden Rice

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Photo courtesy of St. Pete Flickr

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We have an affordability emergency in St. Pete. In addition to housing costs being expensive, we have an emergency in the costs of transportation. Many citizens are also struggling to afford the AAA estimated approximately $9,000 per year ($750 per month) required to own a car to get to jobs. We also have an emergency with the cost of operating local businesses. Local businesses and citizens are getting pushed out of St. Pete with nowhere else to go. We are in danger of losing our local artists due to high costs of living and artist studio space. Citizens who contributed so much to the renaissance of St. Pete are getting squeezed out of our city.

As I wrote in my op-ed last month, I am looking for the City of St. Petersburg to move towards Complete Neighborhoods. The idea behind Complete Neighborhoods is to plan our neighborhoods so that everything is walkable, generally within 10 minutes. When we look at zoning issues for missing middle housing affordability through a complete neighborhood lens, we are looking at more than just increasing housing supply. Complete Neighborhoods takes into consideration these principles: 

  1. Housing Costs – Citizens need to have access to safe and attainable housing.
  2. Transportation Costs – Citizens need to have access to walkable employment so they have the option to forego the $9,000 per year ($750 per month) cost of owning a car.
  3. Business Costs – Citizens need to have access to affordable commercial and live/work space to start local businesses, artist studios and other entrepreneur space in order to create walkable employment opportunities.

The City of St. Petersburg City Development Administration recently released a zoning plan for the missing middle to potentially rezone multiple busy St. Pete streets (also called Future Major Streets) to allow for eightplex and quadplex apartment units, as well as some other small-scale rental types. The City staff is considering rezonings on streets with high traffic like 9th Ave. N/MLK, 16th St., 4th St., 22nd Ave. N., 22nd St. S., 5th Ave. N. and many other streets with the most traffic in St. Pete. 

The challenge with this strategy is that it focuses too much on developing non-active rental units on designated mixed use development areas and on busy streets in non-walkable neighborhoods.  By perpetuating challenges to walkability, the proposed plan ensures that many neighborhoods will always require a car to get around in the future. 

Developing these eightplexes, fourplexes and other rental housing types in areas where limited walkable employment opportunities exist will still require automobiles for employment that will cost citizens $9,000 per year. Additionally, developing housing without commercial space in designated mixed-use areas of our city will cost future local business opportunities and cause walkable holes within our neighborhood mixed-use districts. Even for areas with existing single family homes on busy streets, the better long-term plan would be for smart adaptive reuse opportunities to repurpose these older homes into smaller commercial uses such as artist enclaves, neighborhood markets, cafes, restaurants, smaller offices and live/work opportunities. Finally, in doing my own outreach to the community, there is a concern that this proposed solution is one that does not work in the real world, because I have been told by multiple professionals in the real estate community that busy streets are the least desirable places to develop smaller apartments.

Given the above, I support an alternative to the City Development Administration’s current plan. Therefore, I have sent a letter to the City Development Administration asking that it pivot away from this plan of allowing the development of quadplexes, eightplexes and other non-active housing types on busy streets. It’s not that I don’t approve of this development, but I disapprove of where it is being placed without giving thought to a comprehensive complete neighborhood planning strategy. Mixed-use apartments could certainly exist with ground floor commercial on busy streets, but we should not lock out opportunities for active, walkable ground floor commercial opportunities such as artist studios, smaller professional offices, restaurants and other small retail uses that give neighborhoods character. 

Even with proposed “Missing Middle” zoning changes, the emergencies in affordability still exist. I would like to see the City Development Administration immediately concentrate on solutions that not only focus on housing costs, but also focus on solutions to reduce the costs of citizens’ transportation to and from work, as well as the costs of local business space. I have suggested the following six Complete Neighborhood oriented zoning solutions to the City Development Administration that should be adopted and brought forward sooner rather than later:

  1. Require mixed-use development in all of downtown and in some neighborhood business districts, close existing mixed-use loopholes, and provide developers additional incentives to develop mixed use.

Mixed use buildings are key in creating complete neighborhood opportunities for walkable employment that save citizens $9,000 in annual transportation costs.  We have to adjust our zoning rules to have more ground floor retail. Over the past few years, thousands of apartment units have been developed in downtown with absolutely no ground floor retail. Multiple new apartment units with little new retail supply developed have caused retail prices to surge, and this has tremendously hurt local businesses downtown. Some mixed-use requirements exist, but there are loopholes like apartment lobbies, apartment gyms and other uses that allow a run-around of the requirements.

I do not want to continue to see local businesses priced out of downtown, and I do not want to see our downtown (and adjacent neighborhoods) continue to become a Swiss cheese of walkable and non-walkable oriented buildings. This creates less opportunities to connect the prosperity of downtown with adjacent neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods in Midtown.

I propose that the City amend the downtown zoning rules to require at least 50% ground floor commercial space on all new building sides and disallow apartment gyms and other common spaces to be counted towards this. Any new apartment units built on the ground floors should also be designed from the outside to be retrofitted into retail. In return for this new downtown requirement, the City should exempt property owners with existing buildings from storefront width requirements on and off of Central until they redevelop or substantially alter their properties. I would also like to see an increase in FAR exemptions for ground floor retail, and possibly an expansion of the size of parking-free units to help even out the additional costs of this extra requirement.

  1. Make neighborhood scale mixed-use development feasible outside of downtown by giving parking relief for developments outside of downtown, and modifying the unit/acre requirements.

Mixed-use development is much better than auto-oriented fast food and strip retail because mixed-use development requires less cars and is more reliant on walk-up traffic. Additionally, mixed-use developments allow for developers to build even more housing for the missing middle and for local retail. The more these fast food restaurants, strip retail development and other car-oriented developments are developed, the more problems with traffic we see. Local businesses get squeezed out. This is not a winning formula for St. Pete’s future. Yet our commercial zoning is based on this strategy.  

The parking required for mixed-use development makes neighborhood mixed-use impossible to develop outside of downtown. The City should allow for an administrative mixed use development parking exemption for buildings that have at least 50% ground floor retail, both inside of downtown and outside of downtown. If it is tied to nearby bus service, that might make sense.

Additionally, 30 units/acre, the current density of many mixed-use districts in St. Pete, is not enough density to create mixed-use. This only equals six apartment units allowed on a typical 10,000-square-foot lot. This is another reason we are seeing a lot of one-story fast food restaurants and strip retail being developed on commercial roads, instead of vibrant mixed-use housing to serve the missing middle.  

St. Pete’s zoning system is obviously broken outside of downtown. We need to work with Forward Pinellas and the local apartment development community to find out what is the appropriate density needed for mixed-use development and zone appropriately. If we get this right, we have the potential to develop a lot more missing middle apartment units.

  1. Allow artist live/work space on most busy streets for a majority of St. Pete neighborhoods.

On or near a majority of Future Major Streets, the zoning code should be amended to allow for live/work artist studios. I want to see a bunch of older homes and other buildings adaptively reused so that artists can actually open up their own artist studios where they live on Future Major Streets.  

With the success of the Warehouse Arts District and Kenwood’s Artist Enclave, I see absolutely no reason why this concept can’t work in many other areas of St. Pete. This would create multiple artist enclaves throughout the entire City, and provide better opportunities for local artists.

  1. Allow for new small ground floor commercial uses and live/work opportunities on many busy streets that currently only allow residential uses.

There should be more opportunities for citizens, rich and poor, to be able to walk to jobs, markets, neighborhood cafes, clothing shops, professional offices, pharmacies and all of their other daily needs without having to pay $9,000 a year to own a car.  

On various Future Major Streets, I would like to see the City staff allow for smaller, neighborhood commercial opportunities such as neighborhood cafes, professional offices, neighborhood retail, small fitness businesses and other neighborhood scale uses that serve St. Pete’s neighborhoods.  

Live/work opportunities should definitely be available. If citizens want to work where they live on a busy street, I am all for it. Additionally, for places such as Midtown, who are we to tell citizens who live on busy streets that they shouldn’t be able to use their homes to also double as side businesses? This seems like a no-brainer to me, to provide additional ways for citizens to make extra income.

  1. Allow a commercial parking requirement exemption for adaptive reuse of all buildings 50 years or older on all Future Major Streets.

The City should create up to a 10-space parking requirement break for adaptive reuse of all buildings 50 years or older for all commercial and industrial uses. Older buildings provide excellent opportunities for local businesses and walkable retail. However, many times local businesses cannot reuse older buildings because they weren’t built with enough parking to meet modern parking requirements.  

While 10 spaces might not seem like a high number, the cost of paving a parking spot is tremendous for a new local business that might also have other expenses like ADA compliance. This could be the make-or-break of a new business opening or not. I think we should let smaller local business decide what parking works for them, not local government.

  1. Create a skinny home/duplex/ADU zoning category and use it behind Future Major Streets and near commercial employment opportunities.

The City staff’s missing middle housing, which are smaller scale housing types geared towards providing more living opportunities than one house on one lot, should be placed behind properties on busy streets and should scale down in intensity block by block behind commercial/mixed use districts. It makes sense to do it this way, because this will give citizens opportunities to seek employment opportunities within a short walking distance from their homes, which saves citizens the estimated $9,000 per year in automobile expenses. Auto-oriented housing will cost citizens an extra $750 per month (plus driving time), which is something the City should strive to avoid for future City planning.

I will reiterate that I am in favor of the 8plexes, 4plexes and other missing middle typologies with proper neighborhood outreach. I am just not in favor them being placed on busy streets where mixed-use development, walkable commercial and live/work opportunities should go for local businesses in the long term. The placement of these housing types needs to be evaluated further.

There is a significantly better opportunity right now for missing middle housing, and that is to look at creating a skinny home/duplex/ADU zoning category. This should be done immediately on the interiors of various neighborhoods to provide four homes on one traditional 5,800-square-foot lot that are all geared towards providing more affordable living opportunities than exist today.  Some neighborhoods, after proper outreach, might even want to overlay their entire neighborhoods in this category to provide a more affordable choice than large lot, large single-family homes.

This skinny home/duplex/ADU concept is very similar to what former Councilman Karl Nurse and former City employee Shaun Amarnani proposed to look at almost three years ago for the South St. Pete CRA on the Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee.  Besides KarI Nurse, I sat on that committee with fellow council members Amy Foster, Ed Montanari, and Charlie Gerdes. We all voted 5-0 to advance the concept of smaller lot homes forward, and we still haven’t seen it come to fruition. I am not sure what the holdup is.

Back then we were all very, very worried that new home prices were becoming unaffordable for everyone when they were approaching $400,000 for new homes in the CRA. With almost three years of inaction on this issue, now new home prices are currently exceeding $600,000 in the CRA. I have to believe the Council will probably be even more supportive of this concept if it comes forward again. Let’s get the skinny home/duplex/ADU zoning category created, do the proper outreach, and get some neighborhoods rezoned immediately rather than waiting for another few years on this. This strategy will not only help with housing affordability, it will help provide employees opportunities for walkable employment, and customers for the nearby local business.

Given the crises we are facing, we don’t have that long to wait. We need an affordable plan which includes the thought process of the movement to Complete Neighborhoods today, not two to three years from now. Citizens, I urge you that if these six policy recommendations resonate with you, please make sure to speak up and let your elected officials know. Let’s work together to solve affordability for citizen housing, citizen transportation and local businesses at the same time.

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