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Thursday
May152014

We need small homes

If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.

- Stephen Stills

Once again, Brainerd is making statewide news. The city recently is in the headlines of the state’s paper of record, the Star Tribune, over a proposed ordinance to allow what they are calling “tiny homes,” houses as small as 400 square feet.

I think this is a great move, but apparently not everyone here does. From the article:

“Who’s going to want a 400-square-foot house next to a 2,000-square-foot house?” [City Planner Mark] Ostgarden said. “That’s going to look like a storage building, or a dollhouse.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Joe Minicozzi. When he presents to audiences he often talks about a redevelopment project he worked on where the homes were 400 square feet. He’llask the audience the same question the city planner puts forward – how many of you would live in a 400 square foot home – and nobody raises their hand. He then changes the question to:

How many of you have lived in a 400 square foot home?

…and almost every hand goes up. Most of us lived in modest quarters at one point or another. It is a natural transition that most everyone goes through to reach greater prosperity. So if we ask a different question – a more sophisticated question -- we get a different answer. When we only examine our own lives as they are today and assume that our desires are representative of the whole, we miss out on opportunities that may be available to the community now, options that could actually benefit someone who has not been as the same path as we have.

Hundreds of small homes already exist in the city. Hundreds more began that way and were added on to by property owners. This is how you build a strong tax base over time.This is not a minor issue. Brainerd’s land use code is one of the most destructive obstacles to growth in the city. It makes hundreds of properties non-conforming, which means there isn’t a clear path for them to be substantively improved, a regulation that unnecessarily stifles private investment. The code also prohibits development of hundreds of platted lots, parcels that are currently served with expensivesewer, water, storm sewer and streets.Thankfully there are some who see the problem – and the opportunity – in changing it.

Planning Commission member Sarah Hayden said the group took the issue on a year ago to promote building on vacant lots.

There are 465 vacant lots in the city, she said, many of which had previously held houses or are odd-shaped and “can’t be built on while meeting current city codes, or would leave a small yard” if houses were built.

Hayden said adding flexibility into the city code was important and it will be more accommodating for some people in the community. Smaller houses are low maintenance but affordable, she said.

So for a city with the highest unemployment in the state, a city starved for investment, this seems like a logical step. Let’s get something going, right? From the Star Tribune article:

“The planning commission’s job is to maintain or raise the value of this city, not to lower it. And in this case, they’re lowering it,” said [City Council member Gary] Scheeler, who believes the city will get more value out of those small odd-sized lots if they stay vacant, giving neighborhoods some green space.

While Councilman Sheeler is totally wrong on how value is created within the city, I believe I understand what he is reacting to. Brainerd’s land use code is heavy on things like setbacks, coverage limits and use regulations but contains absolutely no provisions to ensure that buildings fit within the neighborhood. There is no build to line. No minimum architectural standards. Nothing that deals with the bulk, form or disposition of a structure. In short, the ordinance piles on the red tape and bureaucracy for a bunch of things that repel investment yet it is completely silent on matters that would address Sheeler’s (and the neighborhood's) concerns about maintaining property values.

When it comes to maintaining and improving property values, I am concerned too. That doesn’t mean changing the code to allow small homes is the wrong move. It is an absolutely essential move, but it needs to be one of many. We need to repeal most of our code and replace it with language that is more modern, flexible and provides better outcomes. I detailed what this would look like previously in the From the Mayor’s Office series on the Strong Towns blog.

For Brainerd, the question isn’t: how do we get big, expensive homes built in our neighborhoods? That clearly isn’t happening with current policy and there is no realistic expectation that will change soon, even with a change in the code. The real question we need to be asking is this:

How do we leverage the investments we can get to improve our community and drive demand for additional investment?

Investments in small, starter homes used to be the catalyst for neighborhood growth throughout Brainerd. A family would build a small, starter house. When they had a kid, they built an addition. A second kid and they would add a second story. A third kid and they would sell that house and move up to something bigger. This was not only affordable, but practical. Our historic neighborhoods are filled with examples of this.

They key here is not the size but in ensuring that (a) all of these incremental investments fit within the context and flavor of the neighborhood and (b) that small houses are only the first increment of growth, that they continue to attract investment so they mature over time. To make this happen requires an understanding of urban design, a talent completely absent at city hall. How do the buildings line up? How do they address the street? What is the interaction between the public realm and the private realm? How is the street designed to improve the value of the home?

Despite being an historic city built on an historic grid, we have a suburban code, suburban street standards and a suburban approach to development. This is the main philosophical shortcoming of the city's planning and engineering departments. Their approach is to force radically different, and destructive, DNA into an otherwise healthy body. Instead, this city should be embracing the strengths of Brainerd’s current grid pattern. I explained these strengths, and how we capitalize on them, in a video we released last year.

Embracing the strengths of Brainerd’s historical development pattern means allowing smaller homes -- the next level of investment for a vacant property -- as a way to kick start the incremental pattern of growth that will make Brainerd a strong town once more. The ordinance should not only be approved, small houses should be allowed in most neighborhoods by right. We shouldn't be requiring the red tape, expense and uncertainty of a conditional use permit, as is currently proposed. 

Let's get this done.

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