Carefully designed, smaller-scale housing and mixed-use projects are needed in diverse, thriving cities such as Phoenix, where most developers suffer from thinking big.
By Jason Boyer, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Studio Ma
One of the missing links in many U.S. cities is the need for new infill housing and mixed-use developments—smaller, neighborhood-scaled buildings that help fill in the gaps in many urban blocks. In places such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Houston, these small and medium-scale buildings are missing from the cityscape. Instead, we’re left with gap-toothed blocks that lack continuity and grace. Smart, friendly infill projects not only make economic use of those gaps, but they also make our cities more walkable, livable, vibrant, and resilient.
Learn more about infill-type mixed-use projects and the role they can play in urban environments in our interview with Studio Ma’s Jason Boyer.
Consider Phoenix, where Studio Ma is based. The local economic outlook is very strong and, last time we checked, there were 10,500 housing units in development and 23,000 being planned. According to the market research firm Yardi Systems Inc., Scottsdale, AZ, citywide rents rose 5.9% in 2016, beating the U.S. average. Overall occupancy steadied at 95.2%. Also according to Yardi, “home ownership is now less costly than renting in Phoenix.”
The time is ripe for developers to build new condominiums and apartments. Yet many prime lots remain empty since the 2008 recession. While construction financing is expensive and hard to obtain and many cities suffer from flawed speculation on land values and market absorption, there are many reasons to build—and build better—on these small lots.
Here are five factors to consider:
• Watch the scale. Too many developers want big sites and huge pro-formas with hundreds of units. These don’t belong in some residential and mixed-zoned areas. Instead, create welcoming places that connect with the neighborhood surroundings, include variegated facades paired with clean lines, organized around indoor/outdoor connections to courtyards where residents come together as a community.
• Mix up the program. The best developments are walkable, integrating secure onsite parking, live-work options for today’s modern life, and connections to food retail and cultural uses through onsite street level activation and/or neighborhood site selection and community partnerships. The key is to identify sites within emerging neighborhoods where you can connect to the city fabric wherever possible.
• Live artfully. Great architecture should be available to everyone. Good design needn’t be costly. Plus, the living experience should emphasize beauty, natural light, and comfort. (That’s why one of our seminal developments is called artHAUS. Visit artHAUSphx.com to see more.) Not many multifamily projects win AIA awards, but some of these smaller-scale projects such as the George and PRD 845 have won awards while also offering an attainable architectural-quality living experience to area residents.
• Build for efficiency and resiliency. It may add modestly to the budget, but operational costs are often the biggest challenge for property owners and landlords. Plus, the market will often bear better and more durable offerings. An example is Hollyhock, an 11-unit development under construction in the Arcadia area of Phoenix that uses Passive House-level energy efficiency to reduce cooling costs and allow ample natural daylight.
• Balance living areas with openness and community. Today’s housing and mixed-use residential developments need spacious common areas. Buyers and renters expect these amenities. Plus, to create a more elegant and enjoyable living experience, the building should provide a presence on the street and then a balance of enclosed spaces, open areas, and outdoor spaces.
It’s all about balance—an idea embodied by the concept of Ma, a Japanese term acknowledging the dynamic relationship between objects and their surrounding environment.
Jason Boyer, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a leading practitioner in commercial and institutional architecture and campus projects. Founder of real estate development firm artHAUS, Phoenix (arthausphx.com), he is a principal and project leader at the national firm Studio Ma, Phoenix (studioma.com), the current AIA Arizona Firm of the Year.
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