A better way to build in the suburbs
Here are 10 reasons why a new, small, apartment complex in Chico, California, creates a "place" in the suburbs.
A 22-unit apartment complex of four small buildings was finished in May of 2014 in Chico, California, completing the traditional neighborhood development Doe Mill, begun in 2000.
The complex, designed by Anderson|Kim Architecture + Urban Design and developed by Tovey Geizentanner of Green line Partners, does certain things well in 10 specific ways despite its location on a car-oriented thoroughfare.
This area is a bit isolated. It is sited several miles from the walkable neighborhoods of Chico. Architect David Kim and John Anderson report that the developer is looking at parcels closer in town for his next project.
Typically, when multifamily is built in a drivable location, it is built on a fairly large scale — usually 200 units or more. It has large parking areas in front and the project is isolated from other housing types, walkable streets, and parks.
Development is still occuring in drivable locations all across America. In some ways, these locations are easier than infill sites. This project offers some lessons on how to build better in the suburbs:
1) It is small scale. These buildings appear to be not much bigger than single-family houses. The scale allows the buildings to be integrated with townhouses, single-family houses, and courtyard buildings that make up the rest of Doe Mill.
2) Due to their small size, these buildings are easier to finance and simpler to build than many larger multifamily buildings. There's no expensive construction required or elevators.
3) Parking is provided on two surface lots — not expensive or resource intensive — but hidden behind the buildings on an alley. The lots are planted with shade trees that cut heat retention, absorb rainwater, and reduce runoff.
4) These cost savings are balanced by very targeted spending that makes these buildings "pop." Each window has trim that can be painted. "The units are built with stained concrete floors on the ground floor and vinyl plank on the upper floors," Anderson notes. "The exterior is finished with three-coat portland cement stucco. The bay windows are sided with Hardie panels. The cabinets were fabricated locally."
5) This small project connects to a small neighborhood with parks. Doe Mill is an isolated traditional neighborhood development with no mixed-use, but it still includes about 8 to 10 blocks of very walkable streets with public spaces that add value and livability.
6) While fitting into a small neighborhood with construction costs similar to single-family, this project taps into the growing market for multifamily rental.
7) The buildings add to a "sense of place" at Doe Mill. The three-story towers at the corners complete the main entrance to the subdivision and enclose a neighborhood park called Hutchinson Green. This effort is not altruistic — rather it is connected to creating more value.
8) Rather than backing off of the higher-speed road in front, the units make an architectural statement. If this road is converted to a complete street in the future — as it should — these buildings will contribute to a feeling of enclosure and an "outdoor room." The street is also planted with trees that will grow and create a canopy over the sidewalk and part of the street.
9) Rather than contributing to the sprawling character of this area, these buildings help to set a new pattern. The retrofit of our suburbs will be an important land use and planning task in the coming years, and the completion of Doe Mill gives Chico an example of how to do better.
10) The project made money. "All 22 units have been leased at rents about 15 percent above the pro forma. Most units were leased to single person households, which the market identified as significantly underserved when we looked at existing and recently constructed local apartments,” Anderson notes.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns.