Testing Density

In urban multifamily development today, it’s often about density. So say the stakeholders who weighed in for IvyLee Rosario’s cover story this month.
Executive Editor Paul Rosta
Executive Editor Paul Rosta

In urban multifamily development today, it’s often about density. So say the stakeholders who weighed in for IvyLee Rosario’s cover story this month. Particularly in major cities, multifamily projects are getting taller and units are becoming more compact.

One reason is demographics. Reversing a decades-long trend, urban population growth nearly caught up to the suburbs between 2010 and 2015. In the 50 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, cities grew 3.4 percent on average, close behind the suburbs’ 3.7 percent uptick, the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing reported in June 2018.

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Other trends are at work, as well. For residents of multiple generations, a smaller rental unit makes for an attractive financial and lifestyle choice. And forward-thinking municipalities tend to welcome dense development for its potential to bring vitality while reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

The road to density is full of bumps, however. A new survey by the National Apartment Association finds that developers, public agencies and other stakeholders regard community involvement and NIMBY-ism as the most impactful factors for multifamily development. And density ranks high among factors that communities cite to restrict growth. Roadblocks persist, even where high-end rents and lagging development squeeze out affordable housing.

An innovative strategy in New Rochelle, N.Y., suggests some potential answers. As detailed in a recent MHN guest column by Luiz Aragon, the city’s planning commissioner, New Rochelle overhauled its development model in order to jump-start a $4 billion downtown redevelopment. Fast-track zoning and a generic environmental review process help sponsors make reliable cost and schedule estimates. The model draws extensively on community input and gives priority to projects that promise to produce vibrant places. So far, 11 projects are underway and another 25 have been approved. The framework created in partnership with RXR Realty, the project’s master developer, calls for 12 million square feet of new construction, including 6,370 residential units.

Considering the complexity of big-city development, it remains to be seen whether New Rochelle’s strategy can be scaled up for larger municipalities. But wherever a compact, vibrant urban environment is the goal, taking a fresh look at the landscape is an important first step.