High Rises and the Transect

It’s probably safe to say that high-rises rank at the top of the list of things most residents don’t want to see in their neighborhoods. Fears of traffic, crime, depressed property values, and changing neighborhood (or even citywide) character for the worse will no doubt be cited in opposition. Even most pro-urban folks will agree that development should respect the scale of neighboring properties and have a design that mitigates impacts, which makes anything greater than five to six stories pretty difficult in most neighborhoods in a given region.

LoringParkHiRise

“Say no to moon elevators.” (Source: UrbanMSP.com)

I’m here to defend high rises, even ones that are way out of scale with their surroundings. I’m aware this isn’t a popular opinion, so please hear me out before rushing to the upper right corner of your browser. Before I get started, I’ll define a “high-rise” as anything six (6) stories or higher. The definition of mid-rise and high-rise is often blurry, with the cutoff somewhere between four and six stories. But most of the recent development, much of which we’d call mid-rise, has been 5-6 stories, and fire departments usually say anything above 75 feet is high-rise. So sticking with a conservative definition for when things are “high,” let’s call it six stories.

What are the impacts?

External impacts typically represent the largest complaints against new development in established neighborhoods. The most common include:

  • Loss of property value from shadowing, and loss of privacy
  • Added traffic (congestion)
  • Parking concerns
  • New buildings are out of scale (or, sometimes, “character” if the architecture or proposed tenant, like a chain restaurant, don’t meld with the area)

Let me come out and say that I do believe these issues are real (at least, most of the time). In fact, I’d even agree with you that I wouldn’t be thrilled with a 30-story tower going in ten feet from my single family home’s property line in CARAG.

However, I also believe the impacts are far less than most people claim. We fear traffic, but the impacts in walkable areas aren’t as bad as the experts tell us, and the typical responses are wrongheaded. We fear parking issues but won’t accept smart reforms that would mitigate the issues (and let’s be honest, 98% of streets in the Twin Cities have no parking problems). We can’t come to grips with the fact that, even in zoning-crazy America, we don’t actually have the right to block new development to preserve existing light and air (even if zoning codes try to encourage design elements that do just that). And, with respect to everyone who fears these changes, my personal moral code says we should put a whole lot more effort, including personal advocacy and public resources, into other issues (is the AM sunlight flooding my back porch more valuable than allowing places for real, breathing humans to live?).

But let’s say we accept preservation of light and air for as many city residents as possible is a goal we share. Our culture doesn’t say “no towers anywhere,” but rather “towers where they fit in with the built environment.”

An overview of the transect as it relates to form-based codes.

An overview of the transect as it relates to form-based codes; elements of which pepper our core cities’ zoning codes and comprehensive plans.

If limiting impact of shade or traffic is the goal, we should encourage towers (or even six story apartments) to locate in areas with the lowest surrounding density possible, right?

A conceptual example of shade and privacy impacts.

A conceptual example of shade and privacy impacts.

Put it another way: why should residents of single family homes – people with four exterior windowed walls, setbacks, yard space, etc – have more right to privacy or light than people in a six story apartment or another high rise? Is it because we just assume that people living in denser housing already make some tradeoffs, and they should be willing to accept the (socially agreed upon) downsides of new, dense development? That doesn’t seem right to me. But it’s exactly what we do! In fact, a local neighborhood organization recently preferred a design with worse aggregate sightlines just to avoid a tower. Check out the rendered comparisons if you don’t believe me:

[image-comparator left=”https://streetsmn.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/3118WLake_Proposal1.png” right=”https://streetsmn.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/3118WLake_Proposal2.png” width=”100%” classes=”hover”][/image-comparator]

Moving past external impacts, we sometimes throw around concerns for future residents as well. What little research exists shows only slight impacts to residents of high-rises and their mental & physical health, childhood development, social behavior, and overall housing satisfaction. As the meta-analysis notes, the research is scarce, old, and uses methods that are difficult to replicate. Even then, the impacts in those areas are fairly small. My takeaway: we should stop concern-trolling people who might make an informed decision with known tradeoffs who live in high-rises.

We Ignore Precedent

A while back, Charles Marohn posted this video at Strongtowns.org:

This video shows a Vancouver street with a wide range of housing, with detached single family homes (now small scale multi-family) right next to multi-story apartments, both across the street 14+ story towers. All on a non-commercial street in a neighborhood interior about a mile from the central business district. In his own words, “this neighborhood works.” This from a person (who I respect very much yet sometimes disagree with) who struggles with infill that doesn’t meet the scale of its neighbors.

I’ve never been to Vancouver, but you can absolutely tell from the video that he’s spot on. In fact, there are places all..

Monza_TransectViolation_2

Monza, Italy (Google Maps)

over..

Annecy_TransectViolation

Annecy, France (Google Maps)

the world..

Tokyo_TransectViolation

Tokyo, Japan (Google Maps)

..where this type of transect violation happens, and life moves on magically.

Heck, we don’t even need to hop in a plane to see examples like this. It’s amazing to me that we walk, bike, or drive around our region and manage to ignore all the examples in the Twin Cities where towers sit right next to single family homes (or attached townhomes) without much of a fuss. I can tell you that my one and a half year old son wasn’t phased one bit while enjoying the Loring Greenway playground, next to townhomes in the shadow of a residential tower:

LoringGreenway_TransectViolation

Let’s Violate the Transect More

What I’m getting at is that we should focus less on building height, density, even a structure’s design elements and instead bring our attention to the public realm. As Chuck noted in his video above, the excellent tree canopy, calmed street, and ample sidewalk made for a very pleasant place to be. Contrast that to this recent experience at a local restaurant:

I can tell you the tower in the background paled in comparison to the noise, safety issues, and localized pollution wrought by a street designed almost solely for cars. As far as outcomes go, that Vancouver neighborhood I referenced earlier has the lowest car ownership rates in the city and a walk+bike+transit commute mode share (67%!) that would make The Wedge blush.

I’m not arguing we should go drop a bunch of high-rise towers in Blaine to prove a point. But we need to be more willing to accept development that feels out of context. Everyone has a different definition for “too dense” or “stack and pack.” This single-family neighborhood in Japan might seem too dense for folks living in Southwest Minneapolis given the lacking setbacks and scale. Yet someone living in Bloomington might find even Minneapolis or St Paul houses to be “right on top of each other” (watch enough HGTV and you’ll hear that phrase A LOT). Ask your average Lakeville resident if they’d enjoy the prying eyes of my alley neighbors:

RearWindowViewMinneapolis

And the thought of a Bloomington lot size might give exurban Twin Cities residents mental fits. We’re all on the spectrum somewhere, and it’s not hard to imagine someone who might want a smaller condo in an urban neighborhood interior (or an apartment away from dangerous suburban arterials), but the only way a developer can make it work financially is with a building out of scale with its neighbors. There’s a middle ground of well-designed towers we need to grapple with, but ultimately we need to let scale mismatches happen more often.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.