Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Missing Middle

Every seat was taken at The Studio in the Hult Center for Daniel Parolek's presentation on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A packed house was on hand at the The Hult Center in Eugene last week for the 2017 AIA-SWO Design Excellence Series lecture by Daniel Parolek, AIA. Daniel is a principal of Opticos Design, a firm with a passion for vibrant, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Design Excellence committee invited Daniel to speak here to address the growing need for a diversity of affordable housing types that bridge the gap between single-family residences and large multifamily housing complexes. Daniel coined the term “missing middle housing” in 2010 to advocate for a paradigm shift in the way homes are designed, located, regulated, and developed to help fill this gap. 
It’s with good reason the catchphrase “missing middle” is the flavor du jour in urban planning circles. It refers to a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet a demand for walkable urban living. As Daniel explained, well-designed missing middle buildings greatly diversify the choices available for households of different age, size, and income. This diversity of choices is much needed in cities like Eugene, where our population growth threatens to widen a disparity between the supply of and demand for affordable housing. 
Daniel pointed to the mismatch between what the housing market wants and what it provides. Part of this is due to dramatic shifts in household demographics. 30% of households today are single-person. 35% are renters and not property owners. Analysts say by the year 2025, 75% to 85% of households will be childless. Nationwide, 7,000 people turn 65 every day. And yet, the housing industry is geared toward the production of large homes on suburban lots owned and occupied by single families on the one hand, or high-density multifamily housing in large developments on the other. These tendencies ignore the growing segment of our society who are not looking at those ends of the spectrum to fill their housing needs. 
Missing Middle housing types (click image to enlarge)
Missing middle housing is a response to our changing demographics, population growth, and the lack of diverse housing options. Missing middle housing types—which include side-by-side and stacked duplexes, bungalow courts, carriage houses, fourplexes, townhouses, courtyard apartments, and other types—provide a range of choices, a range that is too often absent in many markets. 
The physical appearance of missing middle housing belies the density possible; higher densities do not necessarily translate to bigger buildings. Keeping the individual units small is the secret; 600 to 700 square feet apiece is often enough. Side-by-side duplexes can achieve a density of 12-19 dwelling units per acre; townhouses, up to 29 units per acre. As many as 50 DU/acre are possible with courtyard apartment configurations. Densities of 16 DU/acre or more are sufficient to support a nearby main street with locally-focused businesses and public transportation. 
In a nutshell, the characteristics of missing middle housing include the following:
  • Walkable context (people want proximity to services and amenities)
  • Lowered perceived density (missing middle types don’t look like dense buildings)
  • Small footprint buildings (compatible with the scale of neighboring single-family homes
  • Small, efficient units (smaller units keep costs down)
  • Fewer off-street parking spaces (no more than one per unit)
  • Affordability by design (simple construction)
As Daniel put it “what millennials want, baby boomers need.” For the younger generation, particularly those who delay having children, a walkable lifestyle, close-in to the amenities of stimulating urban centers, is attractive. Significantly, a smaller percentage of millennials than previous generations own cars; those that do not gravitate to areas offering multimodal transportation options. Baby boomers likewise wish to stay active and engaged, but without the need for the large suburban homes they raised their families in. They’re downsizing and seeking a convenient, easy lifestyle in retirement. Missing middle housing can fit the bill for both groups.
Daniel says exclusionary zoning bylaws too often present barriers to the development of appropriate and desirable housing options. In his view, cities need to remove these barriers to give missing middle developments a chance. Some of these barriers include regulations that cater to the automobile (i.e. demanding more parking spaces than practically necessary), unnecessarily segregate uses, or inadvertently foster overly large, overly expensive units. Rather than codes that encourage maximization of developable space by means of uncoordinated parameters, Daniel is a champion for form-based codes that foster predictable results. Form-based codes dictate the urban form, scale, and configuration of buildings to ensure design compatibility and thus the assent of longtime neighbors. 
Daniel believes another key to acceptance of missing middle housing is to remove the baggage that comes along with talking about non-single-family housing choices in communities. He avoids using the terms “density” and “multifamily,” choosing instead to explain to skeptical neighbors why a proposed project will make their community a better place and how it will benefit them individually. Often, this discussion will point out how increased density can help a valued commercial node thrive or support expansion of mobility options. 
An example of missing middle housing: The Arcadia Community project in Eugene, designed by studio-e architecture and now under construction (rendering by Hopper Illustration) 
Some critics, including neighborhood advocate Paul Conte here in Eugene, contend examples of missing middle dwellings are often too small, too expensive, fail to provide adequate off-street parking, or are by economic necessity part of large greenfield developments distant from the urban center (Crescent Village being a case in point). In their view, the introduction of missing middle housing types in healthy, established neighborhoods can only work if it is the outcome of a community-driven process that dives deeply into issues of structural form, market demand, affordability, and traffic impact. Absent such a process, the inevitable results are resistance to change. 
Affordability is certainly a huge issue and a deterrent to the construction of missing middle developments. Housing costs in Eugene during just the past five years have increased by 45%. Household incomes have not kept pace, growing only 16% on average over the same period. Clearly, if a city is to remain a sustainable community it must have an inventory of “workforce housing” targeting households ranging between 60% and 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI). The problem may not be so much a matter of missing middle housing types as it is missing middle economics. Do the attractive housing forms Daniel included in his presentation always pencil out? His answer would be there is no reason why they cannot. He contends affordability is really a matter of design, one that shouldn’t have to rely upon subsidies. 
A bungalow court (photo from the Missing Middle website)
Is truly viable missing middle housing simply a fantasy? I for one don’t want to discount the possibility that such a unicorn is a reality. It isn’t necessary to introduce all the missing middle housing types in and about a given neighborhood. For example, what’s wrong with only inserting alley-way carriage houses in Eugene’s south and west university districts, targeting occupancy by individual college students? I may be na├»ve but I’d prefer to see distributed, small-scale examples of missing middle housing rather than block-busting student housing mega-developments that radically alter the morphology of neighborhoods historically comprised of single-family houses. MMH elsewhere in Eugene would obviously cater to other market segments as well. 
Architects (and planners) have a propensity for latching onto the latest fad, cult, or silver bullet. That said, the missing middle concept has legs. This isn’t a fad. The market is waiting. Done right, missing middle housing can help provide a critical mass for supporting complete, diverse, and walkable neighborhoods, while reducing pressure on the urban periphery. I think the recipe for success demands creative, inspired design, but that may also be the reason why it is elusive: the making of good, deferential architecture that respects its context hasn’t always been our profession’s strong suit. Regardless, it’s clear our housing stock needs diversification. In Daniel’s words, “it’s time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” 
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Daniel Parolek’s lecture to a full house was due to the efforts and support of the following impressive roster of co-presenters and sponsors: 
  • 1000 Friends of Oregon
  • AARP Oregon
  • AIA Southwestern Oregon
  • American Planning Association – Oregon Chapter
  • Architects Building Community
  • Better Eugene-Springfield Transit
  • Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Eugene Association of Realtors
  • League of Women Voters of Lane County
  • Springfield Chamber of Commerce
  • The University of Oregon Transportation and Livability Student Group (LiveMove)
  • University of Oregon School of Architecture & Allied Arts
  • Walkable Eugene Citizen Advisory Network
AIA-SWO’s Design Excellence Committee certainly deserves singling out for yet another noteworthy installment of its Making Great Cities series of lectures. As with every previous presentation, the committee has contributed to a timely, meaningful, and defining dialogue about how to improve our built environment. Daniel Parolek’s visit to Eugene (and likewise to another sold-out audience in Bend) has undoubtedly spurred a conversation that will continue for years to come. 

Daniel Parolek, AIA

Following up the next day on Daniel’s lecture, AARP Oregon hosted a forum on the future of housing at the Sprout! Market Hall in Springfield. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I did hear there was consensus around using missing middle housing in our community to improve housing diversity and affordability. I’m hopeful we’ll soon see an increasing number of exemplary missing middle developments, easing our housing crunch by providing reasonably priced homes of varied types for our rapidly changing population and demographics.  

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