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I Have a Beautiful Dream

I have a beautiful dream. My dream is that Flagstaff, my hometown, could become more beautiful as it grows. This is likely to seem a little strange to most Americans, who associate population growth with traffic congestion and sprawl. It probably also seems strange to my fellow citizens of Flagstaff, who have complained and protested about much of the recent growth, especially the large student housing projects that have accompanied the growth in enrollment at the local university.

A few years ago, I used to see bumper stickers sporting the slogan: Don’t PHX FLG. Most residents of Flagstaff prefer the smaller, quieter feel of our college town to the unending sprawl of the Phoenix area. I do too. However, growth is coming, has come, whether we want it to or not. I see this not as a crisis, but an opportunity, and I think we can do something different from what we are doing now.

We could choose to do something different than the kind of development that we see now, and preserve what is distinctive about Flagstaff, what draws people here despite a relatively high cost of living, and ease the pains of growing a bit.

Background of Flagstaff’s growth

My family moved to Flagstaff in 1984. In the years since, the population of Flagstaff has approximately doubled, from around 35,000 in the early 1980s, to more than 70,000 now. The Flagstaff Metropolitan Statistical Area, the surrounding unincorporated communities whose residents often work and shop here, also approximately doubled over that same time period, going from 75,000 to 148,000.

This rate of growth has been slower than the rate of growth for Arizona as a whole for the same time period. I could hazard a guess that this is because of how much it costs to live here, compared to the Phoenix area. Population growth has been accompanied by a surge in housing prices as well. During the housing crash of 2008, prices did not fall as far, and recovered far more quickly here than elsewhere. The median house price here is $350,000, compared to $230,000 for Phoenix, the most populous city in the state.

The cost of rental housing tells a similar tale. Rents are often more than a mortgage payment on a property, so investment properties abound, both long-term and short-term rentals. One hears stories of buyers offering cash for single family homes the moment they go on the market.

So why do people want to come here so badly? The economy is OK, but Flagstaff doesn’t have a reputation as a hot jobs market. What Flagstaff does have is natural beauty and a pleasant climate. Outdoor sports enthusiasts find a lot to like here. Both mountain and road biking are excellent, as well as hiking and rock climbing. The high altitude attracts athletes in training for major sports events. In addition, this is a college town with a highly educated populace. The USGS Astrogeology Science Center is located here, along with three observatories. There are six microbreweries in town, many of them located in a high-density historic downtown district.

Downtown Flagstaff is one of my favorite places. Lots of restaurants and shops. Parks. Historic buildings, people watching, summer festivals. The pink gothic chapel I married my wife in. This is the place to be in Flagstaff.

I have pondered how we could have more of the good things that Flagstaff’s downtown district has. I think we could both expand what we have, and perhaps even grow similar urban centers in other parts of town.

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The example that follows was inspired by Andrew Price’s article, “Let’s Infill a Traditional Neighborhood”.

The core of downtown Flagstaff is very close to what Andrew describes as a quality urban neighborhood

  • Mostly fine-grained blocks and lots
  • Mostly narrow streets for people
  • A mixture of land uses

The city block just west of the pink chapel is where I am going to conduct my thought experiment in development. The property used to house the Catholic K-8 school, which just moved to a brand-new building. There is also a historic house on the property, which I’ll entertain moving because it is a grand old home.

There is a large open park a block away. A grocery store is half a mile, a bit on the far side, but pretty close. In the summer, the farmer’s market is only two blocks, so that is plus. Of course, lots of restaurants and bars are within easy walking distance. The hospital, one of the biggest employers in town, is also half a mile away. Northern Arizona University, the next biggest employer, is further, but this is an easy bike or bus ride.

In reality, this lot isn’t available any longer, but we are going to proceed as if it were. The location is perfect for what we want. It is just outside the densest part of downtown, and we can use the whole block for our purposes. The block is 300 feet square, giving us 90,000 square feet, or just over two acres to work with.

Just like with a neighborhood of single family homes, we are going to purchase land in bulk and subdivide it into lots for sale. There are a variety of ways we could do so. I picked a simple crossing pattern that gives some smaller streets intended for people on the inside of the block. It is possible to get a vehicle into the streets if you need to, but that isn’t what they are intended to be for. Since this is a relatively small block, that should work fine.

I Have a Beautiful Dream

The wider east-west street is 20 feet wide, and the two narrower north-south streets are 15 feet. That is about the scale we are looking for, and it divides up our space into eighty-four 20 x 45 foot lots, or 900 square feet each. This is very small for Flagstaff, except for the core of downtown. 25 foot shop fronts are common, and this is exactly the scale we are going for.

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So what can we do with 900 square feet? That is the size of the apartment I lived in when I was first married, two bedrooms, two bathrooms. Except we can go up, two or three stories seems reasonable for this location. Looking outside of Flagstaff, there are high density urban centers that have multistory townhouses on lots this small, or even smaller. Like this one in Jersey City, a place I have been recently.

We could easily fill out this space with townhouses averaging 3 bedrooms, and even have some room left for courtyards. I’ll copy Andrew’s methodology for estimating costs, except I’ll substitute in what I know of Flagstaff costs instead of Hoboken costs.

$ per square footSquare feetTotal cost in $
LandN/AN/A$1,200,000
Construction$120226,800$27,216,000
Paving$1514,400$216,000
Legal, engineering, planningN/AN/A$5,443,200
TotalN/AN/A$32,875,200

 

Here are the assumptions I am making:

  • The three roads fill up 14400 square feet.
  • The houses average three stories
  • The cost of construction is around $120 per square foot. This is the most significant element in the total cost, and consequently the final profit. If you go with $150 per square foot, the profit goes down to $7 million. Not nothing, but a lot less.
  • Assume a sale price of each home of $215 per square foot, which seems reasonable in Flagstaff for a condo/townhouse right now

 

$ per square footSquare feetTotal revenue in $
Sales$215226,800$48,762,000
ProfitN/AN/A$15,886,800

 

That is a lot of money! Except, this is a thought experiment, and we should remember this is not my speciality. In particular, this proposal does not meet the current zoning for this parcel in many ways. For example, the lot coverage is too high, 84%, with a maximum allowed of 80%. Also, I didn’t include any parking at all. This was on purpose, because I wanted to look at what the value of a parking spot really is.

Let’s look at some of these requirements in detail [keeping in mind that I am just an interested amateur and this is not what I do for a living].

For T5-O, transect 5 open as defined by the Flagstaff Zoning Code, we need 1 parking space per 1,500 square feet of residential uses, and a number for business uses that varies depending on the square footage. I had been considering reserving a couple of parcels for a small green grocer, and perhaps a coffee shop, and rooftop bar, so why don’t we go with that and see what it gets us?

If we lose 4,500 square feet to retail uses, that leaves us needing about 150 parking spaces. If we assume 350 square feet are needed to for each space, including access and whatnot we end up with about 52,000 square feet required. Oof. Even if we go with three or four stories in a parking structure, that will be about a third of the total block. That seems like too much to me.

I suspect this is why we don’t actually see much walkable urban construction in Flagstaff. The parking requirements make it functionally impossible. I do know that a plan was submitted for luxury apartments on the same block I am considering. They were later withdrawn, and the reason I heard was that the geological survey wouldn’t allow for underground parking, which was needed for the 328[!] planned parking spaces.

I am going to suggest a compromise, with ground level tandem garages in each townhome built. We could either lose living space to the garage, or add one story to the overall height. Four stories is allowable in this zone, but three might be easier to get built. We could also add a small parking structure on the north side for visitors and shoppers. We could give up about half of the north center block, 5,400 square feet on the first floor, which would be fifteen spots, a little less with ADA accessible spaces. We could still put some apartments over top though, so we would lose less. Let’s see what that would cost us:

 

$ per square footSquare feetTotal cost in $
LandN/AN/A$1,200,000
Construction$120219,600$27,216,000
Parking$6558,500$3,802,500
Paving$1514,400$216,000
Legal, engineering, planningN/AN/A$5,270,400
TotalN/AN/A$35,640,900

 

I ignored the retail space in calculating sales. If we assume $150 per square foot construction costs, the profit drops to $2.7 million. Now we are getting very sensitive to construction prices.

 

$ per square footSquare feetTotal revenue in $
Sales$215215,100$46,246,500
ProfitN/AN/A$10,605,600

 

I think this is still doable, but it illustrates that this kind of thing is super sensitive to the number of parking spaces required, and the cost of construction. Anything that helps keep those two things down will result in more profit, and consequently an easier sell to the people who put up the money to build things like this.

There are some things I didn’t get into here, like the requirement for at least two different plat sizes, or the need for some kind of HOA to take care of snow clearance, trash, and whatever kind of landscaping we put in. However, I think these things don’t change the essential character of what we are looking at. In principle, the Flagstaff zoning code allows for things like this, but in practice it isn’t getting built. Instead, we get stuff like this:

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It meets the code, but it is widely disliked. I think we can do better.

It is clearly pretty hard to get right, and at the moment, most of the energy of people who care about this kind of thing is focused on opposing zoning changes, asking for bigger setbacks, insisting on more parking and bigger streets. I think this is counterproductive, it actually produces more of what we don’t want, as developers try to meet market demand by building higher within the spaces we have allowed them.

Instead, I think we ought to be trying to make it easier [and more profitable!] to build the kind of things we really want, instead of trying to put even more restrictions on the builders of the (very necessary) extra housing. Density isn’t really the problem, but it potentially is the solution. The 3 or 4 story townhomes I have suggested could have a density of of around 210 bedrooms in just over two acres. This could be even higher with apartments instead of townhomes. If we built them close to where people wanted to be, we could make more of our valuable space into homes, business, and parks, instead of parking lots.

I have a beautiful dream, but it doesn’t have to just be a dream.


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Ben is a medical devices engineer who has lived in Arizona almost his whole life. He has a website and can be found on Twitter.

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42 thoughts on “I Have a Beautiful Dream

  1. I lived in Flagstaff for a couple of years in the early 1990s. I loved it. It is the only place in Arizona I would live in not merely willingly, but eagerly.

    My impression at the time was that growth potential was limited by geography. Partly this was being surrounded by national forest, but mostly it was limited water. Not for nothing did the Spanish call the area the Sinagua. Has that been resolved? I recall the year you could walk across Lower Lake Mary with little danger of getting your feet wet.

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    • was asking last night on twitter about places in the US to live and the only reason I left off the Flagstaff/Sedona area off my list was his airport requirement. So that would be in line with the geographical argument. We visited it several times while living in Vegas as a weekend get away and found it to be amazing, and part of that is because of the location, so it’s a two-edged sword.

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      • Flagstaff has, or at least had in the early 1990s, a small commercial airport. The passenger service was of the sort where you fly at great expense a puddle jumper to Phoenix, where you transfer to a larger plane. I think there were also flights to Gallup, or perhaps Farmington. Most people drove the two hours to Phoenix, but if your employer was paying, flying out of Flagstaff was fine.

        Yes, Flagstaff was amazing. My take at the time was that it combined a desirable physical and cultural environment, limited growth potential due to the aforementioned physical environment, and easy access because it actually isn’t all that far from larger, less desirable locations. Even in the early 90s this inevitably translated to high real estate prices. The only factor holding it back was the limited local economy. It was a great place to live, but you had to luck into a profession that let you live there.

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    • The geographic restrictions are mostly theoretical at this point. There is enough undeveloped land within the current city limits to have two or three times as many people at current densities.

      The water problem is real, but not yet acute. We have Lake Mary, the Lake Mary and Woody Mountain wellfields, and the perched aquifer in the San Francisco Peaks at present. Most options on the table for getting more water involve drilling more fossil water. I suspect usage in the city could be cut considerably if we really wanted to.

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  2. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Yes, this is all entirely doable. Small scale, mixed use, walkable developments are the preferred model for urban planners and architects. Groups like the Urban Land Institute have spent a lot of time studying how the balance of density and use and transportation can help cities grow beautifully.

    One of the takeaways from this essay should be the realization of how much physical space automobiles consume, and how much of our resources in terms of land and capital are devoted just to housing cars.

    Another takeaway is just how interdependent development is to all the external factors. The development of land both is influenced and influences everything around it, from traffic to utilities to crime to employment.

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  3. The zoning and parking requirements are exactly why we don’t get this kind of development in my city, for all that city council keeps trying to let it happen.

    From a developer’s perspective, the zoning variances can be hugely expensive – they have to buy the lot, and then sit on it for many months, paying mortgage, insurance, tax, etc., while every punter living in the neighbourhood complains about how terrible it would be to have high density walkable development – complaints the city is obligated to consider. The city may or may not grant the variance, and any representation from one planning department employee that this variance will be granted as long as that change to the proposal is made may or may not be honoured by the next employee to touch the file. It’s uncertain, messy, and banks charge accordingly high interest rates on all associated loans, if you can get the loan at all.

    All this comes through in the price you have to charge for the finished houses.

    Compared to which, buying multiple acres of prime farmland on the edge of town, with no neighbours to complain, and building dozens of near-identical 2 1/2 storey houses with large lawns and the prescribed 2 car garage with parking space for a further 2 cars on the driveway, is a smooth and simple process, approval is a rubber stamp away, the houses sell at a predictable rate, and the bank acknowledges this low-risk plan with low-interest loans.

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    • And, of course, if we didn’t have that byzantine system, everyone would be complaining about developers just slapping any old thing up wherever they can get land in a downtown and damaging the character of the area.

      One would think there would be a way to split the difference, but between politicians and city officials working to secure their own fiefdoms, and every noisy minority who demands that they need to be listened to and taken into account…

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    • That is all completely true, but there is another side to it.
      All those external stakeholders you mention, the neighbors, the vest interests, traffic advocates and the like, are part of the very same factors that make an urban lot so attractive to begin with.

      Saying that it is cheaper to build out in the hinterlands is like saying it is cheaper to buy Marvin’s Gardens compared to Park Place. True, but not really relevant.

      The density of people, jobs, shopping, services and infrastructure adds tremendous value to real estate, even though it also adds the number of variables to the equation.

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  4. The long debate in urban development is whether the automobile centric, strictly zoned suburb filled with nothing but single family homes is what Americans by and large want or was it forced on the American and other people. What is really amusing about this debate is that you have a bunch of free market oriented libertarians, or market urbanists, and a punch of left-leaning urban theorists arguing that the suburb as we know what would be impossible without top down government intervention.

    I think that the automobile centric, strictly zoned suburb is what most Americans want even if they protest otherwise. Americans fell in love with the car as soon as it appeared and forgot about other forms of transportation. Likewise, Americans long preferred the singe-family home above all other forms of housing. Many cities during the late 19th and early 20th century, advertised themselves as a city of homes because of the dominance of the single-family home. Likewise, cities started implementing strict zoning as soon as it became viable. Its just that since consumers are also voters, they elected politicians to make their preferences law.

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    • I’m kind of a both/and kind of guy on this question. I think people really do want single family homes. I own one myself. At least here, the problem is that for much of the local population, this has become too expensive a dream to realize. I think it might be possible to allow for more owner-occupied single family homes in Flagstaff, specifically, which has a lot of college students and a lot of childless professionals who might actually go for high density urban living. Young families, probably not so much, but they would benefit from less competition for the single family homes.

      On the other hand, the development of the suburban dream really did get a push from up high, in the form of the Interstate Highway system, and federally backed mortgages, both of which were partly done for Cold War civil defense reasons. And partly not, of course.

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  5. You discuss how near/far certain things are and it reminded me how specific notions of walking distance are to a particular area.

    In Texas, walking from the far end of a parking lot to the store door is often deemed “too far”; in NYC, half a mile (10 blocks) can simultaneously be so close or obscenely long, depending on what the two points are.

    Driving is similar. Californians I know speak of weekend 8-hour-each-way drives between SF and LA. East Coasters grumble about 4-hour drives between NYC and DC.

    Our sense of near and far is fun to think about in these ways.

    As a “NY-er” and avid walker, I’d considerr everything you described as “so close”! But I’ve never done Arizona in the summer…

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    • I have a lot of family in Phoenix and Los Angeles, so I know from experience how living in a car-centered environment changes your perceptions. In Phoenix, driving 45 minutes to get somewhere interesting isn’t exceptional. You probably do that much driving just to do routine shopping.

      And then I come home, where the whole town is only 15 minutes drive end to end, and I feel like I can’t go somewhere because it is “all the way on the other side of town”.

      As for the weather, it snowed yesterday. Nothing serious, it is all gone now, but it is still cold. The climate here is very different from Phoenix. I don’t even have an air-conditioner in my house.

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      • An aspect of car-centric construction that contributes a lot to that effect is what you have to walk through is different. How far we’re willing to walk through different environments makes a huge difference to how far “walking distance” is.

        Walking from the far end of the parking lot in Texas, you’re walking though a big parking lot. There’s nothing interesting around you, no shelter from the elements, nowhere to walk where people aren’t also driving their cars. It’s very obviously an environment that only barely tolerates your presence.

        Walking half a mile in NY, there are sidewalks and parked cars separating you from traffic, there are people around, houses, apartments, shops to look at, trees and buildings sheltering you from sun and wind, kitty cats to pet, etc. It’s an environment that wants you there.

        “Walking distance” from my house, for example, extends much farther east and west than it does north and south. North of us is a highway, crossing of which entails either a 600 m or 1 km walk along bleak noisy “desert” environment, depending where you cross. South of us is a busy road, which can be crossed every block but it’s still an obstacle – crossing that road is enough cognitive load that it contracts the “walking distance” area on the south side by a few blocks. East and West of us are no roads that major for some distance.

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  6. As a “NY-er” and avid walker, I’d considerr everything you described as “so close”! But I’ve never done Arizona in the summer…

    Don’t forget to allow for the elevation. Flagstaff is higher than Denver, and averages somewhat cooler than Denver in the summer as a result.

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      • My favorite map of the 48 contiguous states.

        One July 4 when my sister and her kids were visiting, we drove up to the top of Mt. Evans in the morning (elevation 14,200 ft, temp in the low 40s, played with the snow disk sleds in the remnants of the snow pack), stopped for lunch and a short hike in the Pike National Forest (8,000 ft or so, temp about 70), went swimming in the west Denver suburbs in the afternoon (5,400 ft, temp about 90). Straight line distance between the end points of that trip is about 30 miles.

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        • That’s a very cool image! It really is amazing how many things are so relative.

          While making a cross country flight during daylight hours, I remember looking out the window as we crossed Western PA and thought, “Damn… this is really the middle of no where.”

          Then we crossed the midwest/Great Plains region. “No… THIS is the middle of no where!”

          Then we crossed the southwest. “No no no… this REALLY is the middle of nowhere. Is that Mars?!”

          The highest point in NJ is, amazingly, High Point, NJ. Elevation: 1804. If you get to the top, it feels pretty cool.

          Then I went to Boulder. We climbed the Flatirons. No… THAT was cool! Then I looked off in the distance and saw what I could only guess were billion feet tall mountains and felt completely deficient. Earth is cool!

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            • I’ve heard it said smoother than a billiards ball if shrunk down to the same size. Can that be true?!?!

              I mean, I guess we are talking about heights of 5+ miles on something that is about 24000 miles around. If my math serves, that means a diameter of approximately 8000 miles. 5/8000 = 1/1600.

              That’s… pretty frickin’ smooth methinks!

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          • Another of my favorite maps.

            The classical Eastern US settlement pattern — small town every several miles in any direction, small cities at fairly regular intervals — disappears across the Great Plains and western mountains. Different reasons for that on the Plains than in the mountains, though.

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            • The town I currently live in and the one I grew up in both had populations of about 40K, which it sounds like is where Flagstaff was a decade ago. Traffic lights, multi-lane roads in a few sections, multiple business districts, mass transit… these are all standard and would lead most people to look at our areas and call them cities or, at the very least, urban. But we call them suburbs because we are a stone’s throw from NYC. Yonkers… population 200,000, 4th most in the state… isn’t even recognized as a real city because it borders NYC. A city next to a city? WTF?!

              Then I look at where I lived previously in Orange County, NY and I call that the sticks and we consider that rural but it really, really, really isn’t by any standard other than NY/LA/Chicago.

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              • A city next to a city? WTF?!

                Welcome to Colorado. Consider the north end of the Front Range urban corridor running 85 miles from Fort Collins on the north to Parker on the south, and 15 miles east or west of I-25. No cities of a million people, or likely to make it in the 2020 census. How many over 500K? One. How many between 150K and 500K? Two. How many between 100K and 150K? Six (amusing meaningless statistical fact: Colorado has as many cities >100K as New York and Massachusetts combined). How many between 50K and 100K? Six. Side-by-side? I can drive you from Parker to Fort Collins and never be out of sight of a housing development.

                Actually pretty standard in the West. Count the number of cities >100K in the LA basin, or in the counties surrounding San Francisco Bay, or in Maricopa County in Arizona.

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