Why Would a Town Ban Duplexes in Its Core Neighborhoods?

The Strong Towns movement is inspiring real change and on-the-ground activism in communities across North America. To amplify our power to bring about change, we encourage our members to form Local Conversations groups with other Strong Citizens in their community or region. We’re all stronger and more effective when we learn from each other and take action together.

One such group is Stronger Denton in the city of Denton, Texas. Stronger Denton is a Strong Towns local conversation dedicated to making Denton more financially resilient. You can join the conversation in their Slack channel, #place_denton.

Sometimes progress toward a stronger place is two steps forward, one step back, as the following essay about proposed zoning changes in Denton reveals. The members of Stronger Denton who contributed to this essay are Eric Pruett, Glen Farris, Suzi Rumohr, and Strong Towns staff member, Community Builder Jacob Moses.

What does a city do when its code prevents elected officials, residents, and small-scale developers from achieving the city’s long-term goals? That’s a question our city, Denton, Texas—a college town about 30 miles north of Dallas—faced in 2015 after it adopted the Denton 2030 plan.

The plan included all the goals Strong Towns advocates love—invest in the historic downtown, create infill development—yet the existing, out-of-date code limited its effectiveness.

That’s why, in December 2017, the city began creating its new development code. The code, which satisfies criteria that Strong Towns looks for in a well-written code, showed promise: it would legalize accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and allow property owners—through a specific-use permit (SUP)—to build duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes in core neighborhoods.

As a Denton-based Strong Towns local conversation, you can imagine our excitement. Sadly, it didn’t last long.

At a planning and zoning commission meeting in early April 2019, affected residents in neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes spoke against the specific-use permit provision that would provide the option to build multifamily homes in core neighborhoods. They noted concerns of increased traffic, lowered property values, and a desire to “keep established neighborhoods intact.”

Despite a long-term plan that prioritizes a “compact development pattern, which includes expanded areas of mixed use [and] a broad array of housing,” Denton now risks abandoning one of the most essential provisions to achieving its long-term goals.

Zoning Districts in Question

The code, along with the proposed zoning map, lays out what private landowners can and cannot legally build. The higher the designation (R3, R4, etc.), the more intense development a landowner can build.

Proposed zoning and code changes

The table to the right shows the proposed zones and their permitted uses compared to the existing code.

A few important definitions to understand:

  • BR: By Right. Developers may build these housing types without public input or special oversight from a city board or commission.

  • SUP: Specific-use Permit. The City must grant a special permit to the developer. The city notifies nearby property owners of the request and holds a public meeting to decide whether or not to recommend it. Then, City Council holds another public hearing to grant or deny the SUP. This process allows the city to deny or place requirements on the development to satisfy concerned neighbors.

The main changes: in R3, duplexes require an SUP; and in R4, duplexes can no longer be built by right—the property owner must obtain an SUP.

Mixed Priorities in Neighborhoods

The draft Oak Gateway Area Plan describes neighborhoods zoned R3 and R4 whose residents want incremental development to supply housing that maintains the character of the neighborhood and keeps rents down.

Map of Oak Gateway Plan sub-areas

The plan includes language like…

“Approve appropriate Zoning Districts that allow increased diversity of housing types so long as they visually fit with the established neighborhood scale. These could include townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units, cottage homes, courtyard homes, and patio homes.

“Approve appropriate Zoning Districts that require smaller‐scale ownership housing such as accessory dwelling units on single‐family lots, townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, cottage homes, courtyard homes, and patio homes.

These neighborhoods—less than a mile from downtown—have a mix of older development, built on lots that could accommodate missing-middle housing of the types described in bold above without disrupting the area’s look and feel.

Street view of block in neighborhood to be zoned R3: duplex (left), single-family home (right)

Street view of block in neighborhood to be zoned R3: duplex (left), single-family home (right)

In fact, these neighborhoods, whose residents have said they want improved walkability, already contain dozens of duplexes that were built when the codes were less restrictive.

What would happen to these neighborhoods if the city removed the SUP option? There will still be demand for new homes in Denton, but no option to add those new homes incrementally to existing core neighborhoods. This increases the likelihood of a more dramatic, entire rezoning of the area to meet demand—allowing developments that conflict with both the Denton 2030 plan and neighborhoods’ goals.

Residents Opposed to Duplexes

Residents opposed to the proposed code live in strictly single-family neighborhoods considerably further from downtown—also zoned R3.

Proposed zoning map

Proposed zoning map

Now, to give you perspective: In the past seven years, only 118 duplexes have been built in Denton. 10 of these are in high-demand neighborhoods within less than a quarter mile of one of the two universities.

Should council remove the SUP, only five of those 10 duplexes could have been built without a costly full zoning change.

The remaining 107 duplexes were in duplex-only developments on greenfield land—previously undeveloped area at the edge of town. And only one duplex was built in a single-family neighborhood outside the core neighborhoods, adjacent to two existing duplexes. This demonstrates the extreme difficulty, under the current rules, of adding small-scale infill housing to existing neighborhoods in Denton.

Without an SUP, the increased cost and time devoted to a full zoning change could block the missing-middle housing the city desperately needs. Developers could still satisfy the demand for homes, sure. However, it would require huge leaps in development intensity (think multi-story apartment building) far from the universities and the downtown core.

As you’d expect, this means more public infrastructure, more traffic—and worst of all—missing an opportunity to expand the range of the city’s housing choices.

A Strong Towns Approach to Neighborhood Growth and Change

A key Strong Towns tenet on neighborhood growth and change can be summed up in the following pair of statements, the first of which requires the second:

  1. No neighborhood should experience radical change.

  2. No neighborhood should be exempt from change.

That’s why Strong Towns advocates for incremental development: we would allow all neighborhoods, as the market changes, to increase to the next level of intensity. Think single-family house to duplex or triplex.

This approach to development—where we allow neighborhoods to make small investments over a broad area over a long period of time—ensures the resilience, adaptability, and financial success of neighborhoods.

Will Denton accept this mission, allowing core neighborhoods to incrementally develop, boosting its financial resilience while providing much-needed, (comparatively) affordable housing?

Only time will tell.  

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons