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Overlooked Density: Rethinking Transportation Options in Suburbia

The potential exists to create more integrated, sustainable, and multi-modal development in suburbia, by capitalizing on existing suburban multifamily development densities and locations.

Executive Summary

Suburban multifamily housing is an often overlooked housing typology that is the fastest growing housing market in the country and holds strong potential for achieving smart growth goals in suburbia. This housing type is ubiquitous throughout all regions in the nation, is a widespread example of density in suburbia, and is typically located next to commercial uses. The proximity between suburban multifamily housing and commercial uses creates the potential for nodes of concentrated activity, mixed use, and the possibility of substantial non-auto transport in suburbia. While this potential exists, the design of this housing type often follows an enclaved pattern of development, negating any synergy, minimizing the possibility of non-auto transport, and denying any potential for sustainable development.

Through case studies of suburban multifamily development in Oregon, Arizona, Florida, and Massachusetts, this report looks at the specific ways in which regulation, typical development practice, and design culture have shaped the current pattern of suburban multifamily development. Each case study includes graphic analysis of physical development patterns; interviews with planners, architects, property managers and developers who worked on the case study projects; regulatory analysis of case study jurisdictions; and surveys of residents.

Suburban multifamily housing developments are typically inwardly focused with no connection to adjacent properties and limited connection to adjoining arterials or collectors. The reason for the enclaved nature of most suburban multifamily housing stems from a long general culture of enclaved suburban development, but is also guided by additional specific regulatory and planning practices that promote enclaved design in suburban multifamily housing. This includes a general lack of specificity in multifamily codes; code-dictated buffers between dissimilar uses; a general lack of street network regulation for multifamily developments; a perception by planners that multifamily housing should primarily act as a buffer between commercial and single-family uses; a general un-welcoming attitude towards this development type; and a general lack of attention given to this housing typology.

This report focuses on understanding the roots of suburban multifamily site design and development, and proposes ways in which current planning, development, and design practices might shift in order to take advantage of this growing housing trend to create more livable, less congested, and more multimodal suburban communities. Central to achieving these outcomes is breaking the history of enclaved site design and promoting connections between multifamily housing and adjacent properties. Some suggestions for jurisdictions that want to achieve greater multifamily connectivity include creating specific street connectivity standards, promoting parking designs that shift away from large parking lots and towards smaller parking pods, and promoting a robust pedestrian network within multifamily developments that facilitates trips not only from a car to a unit, but also within the development and to adjacent destinations.