Is This the Worst Development in the North East?

Through the course of any given week, I receive countless flyers and Offering Memorandums (OMs) proclaiming double digit returns for prospective investment opportunities. Brokers blast out properties for sale, extolling their respective virtues, that are just too good to pass up. When one reaches out to talk them, an excitable “Hurry, don’t wait on this rare opportunity!” or “I have 4 other interested parties, 2 with all cash that can close tomorrow. What can you do?” greets the caller. Well, good morning to you as well. What’s the address of this site again, Mr/Mrs. Broker?

Grievances with the brokerage industry mostly aside (a topic for another time, and one that I have no small degree of passion on, I can assure you), you’ll be surprised to learn that many of these opportunities are not that good. In fact, they’re often not worth spending more than a minute looking at. When commercial properties hit the open market, it’s usually because they’ve failed to attract insiders or local investors. These groups get the first pass to acquire the really good deals beforehand. If these people are not persuaded by their networks that the deal is a good one, it is opened to the public. Many of the best opportunities are never seen by the broader investment community. Rarely do good deals slip through the several passes by savvy investors and developers. Sometimes they do, but it often feels miraculous.

A few days ago, a deal came across my desk that was far from a miracle, and VERY open to the public. I was shocked. See my real time reaction on Twitter:

I’m not using shock in some gratuitous way to lure readers in. I was genuinely in a state of disbelief. How did this happen? I knew the answer of course. So maybe the better question is: Why was this allowed to happen? Well, that’s a long story. A story that doesn’t require a step-by-step explanation of the process of underwriting a real estate investment. It actually comes down to the dirtiest word in real estate: zoning.

The cause of my shock. A portfolio of newly developed “townhouses” for sale in East Haven, Connecticut.

For the sake of brevity, here’s a primer: Zoning is the process of regulating land into zones in which certain land uses are permitted or prohibited. Zoning also regulates the height, massing, position and lot coverage of a building, among many other restrictions. If you’ve ever wondered why all of the restaurants in a place are along one street, why office parks are pushed to one corner of the town, or why every house is precisely 32.5 feet away from the curb, you can thank zoning.

How does zoning factor into this development? This site is located in East Haven, Connecticut, outside of the town’s commercial core. The zoning designation applied to the land beneath these townhomes is DRA-1. According to the Town of East Haven’s zoning regulations, Design Residence Districts “are designed to accommodate single, two and three story, multi-family dwellings at moderate densities on limited sites at locations other than in the East Haven center.” One assumes the name of the district was the town’s attempt to persuade single family homeowners that apartments built next to them aren’t the scary sort one may find downtown. They’re designer homes. Now, these designer townhomes are only designer in the way someone at Hanes designed an olive t-shirt, and only townhomes in the way that they are homes within a town. Despite the broker’s messaging that these units are boutique and luxury, they’re just solidly built homes with newer finishes. Nothing fancy, nothing designer, but perhaps palatable to its neighbors. Indeed, the second sentence in DRA-1’s zoning designation states “Multi-family uses will be treated as special exception uses; subject to special standards to provide limitations on density and assure a character of development that is consistent with the intensity and development of adjacent areas.” The character of development in adjacent areas? Single family homes.

The objective of achieving special character is not possible given the impositions of DRA-1 zoning on the site. Let’s run through a few reasons why.

  1. Minimum Lot Size: 20,000 square feet. Half an acre is large, especially for only two units. This site could easily be subdivided 4 times, for 5,000 square foot lots, and 36 more units of housing. The townhouses in the top right corner of the image below have much smaller lot sizes than this. If character were of paramount concern, which it is not given the density of the townhouses in the top right corner, quarter acre lots (10,000 sf) would still provide a generous amount of outdoor space per unit without overly burdening the neighbors.
Large Minimum Lot Sizes leave needed housing on the table.

2. Maximum Lot Coverage Area: 20%. For 20,000 sf lots, only 4,000 square feet is available to build on. These townhomes take up about a tenth of the lot area, half of their allocated amount. This creates wide swathes of open space. The oversized, un-landscaped yards offer little functional green space, serving as empty fields that the owners don’t feel ownership over to improve. Instead, they lay sadly vacant. With a higher lot coverage area (or better yet, none at all), more units could be sited on the lot in creative ways. Imagine if 80% of the site could be covered — would we get courtyards, pedestrian paths, several buildings charmingly jutting out from one another or a diversity in housing types? One can hope. Right now, though, the lot coverage inhibits creativity.

Small Maximum Coverage Areas lead to empty, sad sites. They also leave housing on the table.

3. Minimum Setback From Street Line: 25 feet. When homes are setback from streets, they subconsciously signal to passersby that the neighborhood is less friendly. The front lawn separates pedestrians (though there are no sidewalks here) from those in the buildings, creating a barrier neither party is keen on breaching. The further the setback, the more dangerous streets become from a vehicular perspective. If there are few to no street trees, drivers have less that they must be worried about hitting when driving, and thus go faster. On residential streets of a “special character”, this is unfortunately bound to cause accidents between cars, and what people may be out and about. The closer a building is to the street, the more comfortable and sociable the built environment becomes. There must be a few feet of elevation separation so that passersby can’t look directly into one’s home, but true townhouses are rarely more than 10 feet back from the street, and usually right up against it.

Setbacks have dangerous social & vehicular consequences.

4. Minimum Lot Frontage: 100 feet. This wide frontage spreads the entire development out. Where lots can only be placed every 100 feet, the ramifications for sprawl are obvious. With every site being pushed 100 feet further out, it is not long before one has to commute several miles just to get back to the town center to shop, work, or take in entertainment, as all of these uses are prohibited in residential zoning tracts. The further we sprawl, the more we drive, the more strained municipal resources get.

100 foot lot frontages in the context of the entire development. That’s a lot of wasted, sprawling space.

Putting these four (of many) conditions together, the developer’s hands were tied from the beginning. They were given very little to work with. However, the developer shouldn’t be absolved of all guilt in not creating a place of special character. There are some truly confounding decisions that were made that go far beyond the menace of zoning. Why does the property look so sad? Why aren’t there side fences or trees in between the lots? Why do the garages take up the entire width of the back of the house? Why are the front doors located in the back? Why does the backyard face the street. For those who think I’m messing up my front and back yards, take a closer look at the pictures below. The formal entry doors are in the back, and there is a clear dividing line demarcating the backyard patios... in the front yard. The unease that this development exudes is palpable.

Formal entry doors & house-width garages in the backyard,
Front yard with backyard doors, backyard windows and patio space. Why are there no windows on the side of the house?

It’s a shame. The zoning regulations and questionable exterior development choices significantly detract from what appears to be a nice place to live. The homes are far from designer residences, and preclude any amount of walking, biking or transit a part from private cars. This development could be so much more. Instead, it is what it is.

Let’s revisit the question posed in the fourth paragraph. Why was this development allowed to happen? The simple answer is there were no feasible alternatives given the zoning regulations. The longer answer involves a bit of design criticism, and a lot of land use criticism.

Is this the worst development in the North East? Despite my tongue-in-cheek title, it’s tough to really say. There are sprawling subdivisions of hundreds of single family homes that are anathema to my very being. I’ve driven through them, and I’ve shuddered the whole way through. I don’t like them very much. This one, though, perhaps tops all others I’ve seen because it’s only 12 apartments. It is truly difficult for such a small project to go so disastrously wrong on so many fronts. This development serves a broader lesson than mere criticism, though. It is emblematic of just how far we as a nation have strayed from a common sense built environment. In no world should this project make sense. We have to work to relegate developments like this one, and many others, to the past.

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