A couple of years ago, my sister and I were driving along Richmond Road, a “stroad” that connects our childhood home to downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Over the winter I was studying for the GRE in anticipation of applying to planning school, but like all good applicants, I was already overconfident in my analytical abilities. As we drove, I mocked the ugliness of the urban design, the hostility to non-drivers, the financial unsustainability of the infrastructure—you know the drill, dear readers of Strong Towns.
At the end of this rant, my sister asked, “Do you think that studying urban planning has made you a happier person?” In that moment I laughed the kind of nervous laugh that bursts out when someone sees right through your act. After a moment of thought, I provided some kind of half-baked answer along the lines of, “Well, not exactly, but with this knowledge of what’s wrong we’re going to improve everything, and then I'll be happy.” But the lesson was clear: I had fallen victim to “everything sucks” urbanism. It’s annoying, alienating, and something that I (and the broader urbanist community) need to do a better job of avoiding.
Toward this end, I would like to talk today about an a place that I might not have appreciated were it not for studying planning: Chelsea Woods, nestled away along Old Todds Road. Before I became interested in urbanism, I might have ignored the neighborhood altogether, and in the early stages of this interest, I might have wrongly disparaged it as petit sprawl. I now find that there is a lot to love about Chelsea Woods, and in fact that it provides a useful model for minimum standards for single-family zoning. Chelsea Woods provides an example of what dignified, market-provided, affordable housing might look like, if only our zoning codes would allow more of it to be built.
Despite its modest size of approximately 8.7 acres, Chelsea Woods hosts 73 houses along two cul-de-sacs. The resulting density of about 8.4 dwelling units per acre is considerably higher than your standard post-war single-family housing subdivision, and high enough to even support adequate bus service. Accordingly, a city bus stop sits just outside Chelsea Woods in a ditch along Old Todds Road, unserviced by a sidewalk or bus shelter. It’s not pretty, but it’s a modicum of mode choice, a rarity in single-family suburbs.
Chelsea Woods achieves this high density by ignoring post-war development standards. The subdivision is subject to a rarely mapped “R-1T” zone, which the zoning code describes as “Townhouse Residential,” despite the neighborhood’s lack of townhouses. Under R-1T zoning, the minimum lot size is 1,500 square feet, lot coverage restrictions are nonexistent, rear and front minimum setbacks are only 10 feet, and single-family homes are practically exempt from side-yard setbacks. Minimum lot widths are set at 15 feet, meaning that flag lots can be built on what might otherwise have been unused land.
In practice, actual lot sizes tend to hover around 2,500 to 5,000 square feet depending on local site conditions, indicating that the minimum lot size rules are not binding. Setbacks are a different story: most homes bump right up against the 10 foot minimum, indicating that this rule is binding, and that residents might have been fine with homes even closer to the street (since these homes were built as close as was allowed). Lot coverage runs as high as 40 percent, with 300 square feet of land consumed by the required front and rear yards.
All in all, Chelsea Woods’s single-family homes efficiently consume land in a way that would be illegal in much of the city. Consider Lexington’s R-1C zone, which blankets something like a quarter of the area within the urban growth boundary: every home must sit on an least an 8,000 square foot lot, at least 60 feet wide, set back at least 30 feet from the street. Every single home in Chelsea Woods would be illegal under these standards. As we shall discuss below, exemption from these all-too-typical zoning rules helps to keep Chelsea Woods affordable.
As far as parking requirements go, R-1T rules require each of Chelsea Woods’s homes to provide one parking space per unit. But something that surprised me about this neighborhood was the fact that a number of the homeowners in the neighborhood have converted their garages into additional floor space. How many people really need a garage when they already have a driveway and ample on-street parking?
Whether these were part of the original plan or later additions, and whether they are legal or illegal, I cannot say with certainty. My guess is that the relevant regulatory agency might have signed off on the garage conversions on the thinking that paved driveways qualify as an off-street parking space. Either way, this should signal to developers that low- and middle-income home buyers might not actually be so keen on having so much sheltered parking relative to living space, and it should signal to planners that they shouldn’t throw up roadblocks to the conversion of existing sheltered parking to living space.
What most impressed me about Chelsea Woods—and what I believe we have the most to learn from—is its startling affordability. This neighborhood was built between 1986 and 1987, and the homes originally sold for between $50,000 and $60,000. That would mean a monthly mortgage payment of approximately $400. When they were originally built, these homes would have been affordable to a household earning only $14,400. Today, most of the homes are selling for around $120,000, meaning that the monthly mortgage payment for one of these homes would be approximately $775, and it would be affordable to families earning around $28,000, or 40 percent of the area median income (AMI) of Lexington.
I want to reiterate this for any unbelieving coastal urbanists: These are market-provided single-family homes in great shape, in a city experiencing explosive growth and a mounting housing shortage, and they're affordable to people earning 40 percent of area median income.
Now I don’t mean to imply that Lexington holds the key for San Francisco or New York’s housing woes. But most cities are more like Lexington than like San Francisco, and they have a lot to learn from a neighborhood like Chelsea Woods. The homes are affordable for three major reasons: First, they consume relatively little land. Chelsea Woods offers nice homes on lots far smaller than what would be permitted virtually anywhere else in Lexington. Given that land can make up a substantial percentage of a home's cost, this is a major source of savings.
Second, the homes are small. Most homes hover around 861 square feet. This might seem small to you, but most people simply don’t want or need much above 1,000 square feet, particularly young families and retirees. Lexington doesn’t have any minimum floor area requirements for residential developments, but where such requirements exist in other cities, they commonly mandate that homes have at least 1,000 square feet of floor space. This largely serves to prohibit the construction of new affordable housing. Neighborhoods like Chelsea Woods couldn’t exist under such a standard.
Third, at least in this area of town, Lexington has allowed quite a lot of reasonably dense neighborhoods like Chelsea Woods to be built over the past quarter century. This allowed new supply to soak up all the new demand as people like my young parents moved to the city in the early 1990s. With the population projected to keep growing and incomes projected to continue rising, Lexington ought to permit the development of a lot more neighborhoods like Chelsea Woods in the years to come, and stop forcing new subdivisions to take the land-hogging, expensive R-1A/B/C/D form.
It’s easy to ignore a place like Chelsea Woods. To the uninitiated, it’s just another neighborhood. To the aesthetically-minded urbanist, its cul-de-sacs, inexpensive materials, and uninspired urban design might at most provide cause for minor offense. It’s certainly no Seaside or Greenwich Village. But not every neighborhood needs to be.
Chelsea Woods serves its purpose of providing dignified housing for Lexington’s working people admirably and to little acclaim, creating a platform from which the city’s surging Appalachian and Rust Belt migrants can find a good job, start a family, and enjoy some degree of stability. Is Chelsea Woods perfect? Hardly. But perhaps we, as urbanists, should spend more time trying to understand and appreciate the humble, marginally better neighborhoods that are already tucked away in our cities. Doing so, I would suggest, will make you a happier person.
(All photos by the author.)