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Finally impressed by new residential construction in the city

April 6, 2010 Planning & Design, Real Estate, South City 39 Comments

“You’ll love these townhouses,” real estate agent & friend Leigh Maibes recently said to me.  “Yeah, right,” I thought. She mentioned the location and at first I got it confused with another new construction development that I don’t like.  After I Googled the address I knew the location but I didn’t realize anything had been built there.   I was skeptical about liking the design, we’ve had lots of new residential construction in neighborhoods throughout the city over the last dozen years or so and the bulk has been boring and highly suburban in it’s relationship with the sidewalk and street.  I agreed to take a look the next time I was in the Hill/Southwest Garden area but my expectations were low.

Here are some suburban new construction in the blocks near the townhouses that have a poor relationship to the sidewalk, the norm if you will:

ABOVE: Corner house has a tall flight of stairs and the bright white garage door jumps out at you.

The original plans called for three units on the site above but it ended up being only two.

ABOVE: View from the street.

The garage door is the most prominent feature on this house.  The front door is so far from the sidewalk and the porch is just a decoration.

ABOVE: Despite having an alley this house placed the garage facing the sidewalk.

Any car parked on the above driveway would block the public sidewalk.

ABOVE: No alley here but a garage below or behind would have been better.

So wrong!  Bright white and you have to walk up the driveway to access the steps to the front porch.

ABOVE: This could be nearly any suburban subdivision, anywhere in the country.

Again, the walk to the front door connects not to the sidewalk but to the driveways. Nobody should be subjected to such houses and certainly not within the urban core of the region.

ABOVE: At least the garage doors are not bright white.

Where to begin? It just hurts to look at the above.  Hey, they could be worse:

ABOVE: My eyes!

The above site doesn’t have an alley but better options exist.  The best for this site would have been a shared garage with a single garage door.  New construction here should have been built closer to the street, roughly in line with the existing building to the right. Again, the bright white paint is what jumps off the picture.

So you can see why I was not optimistic about what I was about to see:

The development, Magnolia Heights, is at the SE corner of Macklind & Reber Place.  When finished four units will face Reber Place and six will face Macklind.  Above you see the first four units facing Macklind. What is great is how they filled in around the 1896 building on the corner.

ABOVE: Townhouses (right) fit well with 19th century corner building (left)

I like the different brick colors with the old buff building in the red on the new construction.  Had the corner building been red I would not have liked the selected color but it works very well here. The black trim and windows on the new construction is classy and works well with the overall color scheme of the facade.

From the sidewalk we immediately see the differences with the other new construction shown earlier. The units are only slightly set back from the line established by the corner building. Steps exist but they are few in number. Hand railings on both sides of the steps would enable me to easily navigate them. This facade enriches the sidewalk experience rather than taking away from it as the other examples do.  Each townhouse has their own two-car garage accessed from a private rear drive off the public alley.

I hope to see more infill like this in the future!

– Steve Patterson

 

Currently there are "39 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    Agree on the exteriors and site planning. How do they compare pricewise, with their suburban-style “competition”? Buyers will pay a premium, but only so much. Hopefully they sell quickly in this tough market. The best way to see more of this is to prove that there's really a market for something other than the same old same old.

    Side issue – in your third photo, you correctly note that “Any car parked on the above driveway would block the public sidewalk.” Assuming that there will be driveway and front-facing garage (a whole separate discussion), is it better to have a “too-short” driveway to maintain the setback / street edge (and enforce existing prohibitions on blocking the sidewalk), or is it better to move the garage door back so there's at least 20' between the sidewalk and the garage door (increasing the amount of concrete and guaranteeing that cars will be parked there)?

     
    • JasonToon says:

      “Assuming that there will be driveway and front-facing garage (a whole separate discussion)”

      That's the answer to your question. Everybody in a city cannot, and should not, have a front-facing garage. It's cramming a square suburban peg into a round urban hole.

       
      • JZ71 says:

        Agree, in theory. But theree will always be conditions where front-facing is the only option, either because of existing conditions or because of perceived buyer demand. We can argue all we want about whether it's righjt or good, but it IS going to happen. The question then becomes of how do we, as a society, deal with it? Minimum 20' driveways? Limited approved materials? No double doors? Yeah, in an ideal urban world, all cars would siappear. We don't live in an ideal world, especially in St. Louis (see Prop. A).

         
        • There is no shortage of housing in the region with front-facing attached garages, including too many in the city. Why ruin the city for the rest of us just so these buyers can have their suburban ideal?

           
          • Eric says:

            Why eliminate everyone freedom to build the house they desire, just so you can have your urban ideal?

             
          • Their housing type fills suburbia and it is one of the reasons I and others don't live there. There is a tipping point where too much suburban housing means an urban area is no longer urban. The city/core should be urban — there is plenty of sprawl for everyone else. I just ask to leave a little bit in the center that is urban.

             
          • JZ71 says:

            You all seem so focused on “no garage doors” that you're avoiding the original premise, that in certain URBAN conditions, front-facing garage doors are inevitable. I agree, alleys and detached garages are great, and preferable if buyers can be convinced to buy them. But I've also “been there, done that”. Denver has been pushing for the same thing for many years, primarily by making it difficult or impossible to get a front curb cut approved IF an alley is available. The problem, as Justin noted, is that the market (most “normal” buyers) really do want attached garages. The law of unintended consequences has kicked in, and Denver now struggles with the “long house” phenomenon, with backyards disappearing and token sideyards remaining as the only private spaces. And as thehappymother points out, “backyard”/private open space is a highly-desired commodity, as well.

            I've seen, and been involved in, many discussions on how to best accomodate front-facing garages. Many “solutions” have been proposed and tried, including limiting garage door width to a percentage of the total building width and/or requiring that the front of the structure have at least two distinct planes, with any garage door located on the recessed, presumably secondary, plane. And if you think these double door examples are “bad”, be prepared for the next “big” thing, three-car garages.

            Finally, much like porn, what defines “suburban” is in the eye of the beholder. Magnolia Heights is definitely a sensitive urban response, but not because of its lack of garage doors. It works well because of great articulation of planes, openings and materials. Its massing and setback echo adjacent, traditional “urban” structures. It's a complex of attached structures, not detached ranch houses. For me, “suburban” means detached single family, vinyl siding, 3:12 roof pitch and “generous” setbacks. Where the garage door becomes a secondary element. Bottom line, it's easy to say that people don't need cars, but it ain't reality. Don't just say no, come up with some workable alternatives . . .

             
          • They are rare situations in the city where a garage door and curb cut cannot be avoided. In those times you work to minimize their visual and physical impact. I know folks that want to buy a newer construction 4-bed house in the city but there are so few without front garages – they have that now in St. Charles but they want to move to get away from that.

             
          • JZ71 says:

            I agree, we're getting this type of construction simply because it works and it's “safe” – developers know that it will sell. Going three stories with the garage on the first floor also minimizes foundation and land costs and allows for higher densities, plus it maximizes backyard area and provides the attached garage most buyers want.

            As I noted, one solution would be for the city to essentially ban new residential curb cuts in areas that have alleys – no curb cut, no driveway and no garage door on the front of the home. The downside is that the only way to have a garage accessed from an alley AND to have it attached is to lose much of any backyard. The challenge is that when infill occurs with this model, it really affects how adjacent, existing backyards work and feel – instead of a connected series of open spaces between similar homes and detached garages, there's now a wall, many times two stories tall, and many times with windows looking directly into the neighboring backyard. Bottom line? The only way to get what we want is convince both the city and buyers that front curb cuts and attached garages with alley access are both bad things and need to be severely limited . . . good luck!

             
        • Bridgett says:

          I'm no urban planner, but my grandparents in Overland had a front-facing garage….in the backyard. A long skinny driveway up the side of the house. I have friends on the Hill with a similar situation, and every so often in Shaw or TGE there will be a house like that. Hide the garage in back. People live here. Not cars.

           
  2. jason says:

    I didn't notice the garage in the first picture until it was mentioned. My eyes focused on the porch and doorway.

    As for taste, I would prefer the homes with front yard spaces. From the pictures, it appears that it would be nearly impossible to sit outside with more than one person, either in the lawn or on the porch, in the Magnolia Heights buildings. The homes with driveways and garages would allow for that – with chairs and tables.

     
    • I couldn't stand driving by these other places, I couldn't imagine sitting in front of them! With the townhouses you can sit on the steps and chat with neighbors as they walk by on the sidewalk.

       
      • JasonToon says:

        Yes, as I said in my comment, they look like the kind of stoops that people hang out on the world over. Sit in a chair on a driveway? No thanks…

         
  3. Ben says:

    Who is the builder of the nice townhouses?

     
  4. arkiben says:

    When I worked downtown I would walk around on baseball game nights, and I used to think I could tell who spends most of their time in the suburbs by watching for extremely uncomfortable interactions with panhandlers. My point is living in an urban situation requires practice interacting with people who you have little in common with, besides geography. Suburban situations give much less practice in this area, and I think part of this is the difference you're showing right in this post. In neighborhoods where houses are close to the street, which tend to be denser, most people sit on a chair or on the stoop to interact with what's happening on the sidewalk and street, exchange pleasantries and neighborhood news. Its hard to just ignore someone within your “social space”, which I think is about a 6' radius (for westerners, much smaller for Asian cultures). In the suburban situations in the middle, people do sit on porches. In terms of interaction, they may wave to an acquaintance or passing car, but as for spontaneous interaction with neighbors they don't know well, its less likely. I think some of this difference is self-sorting by preference and personality, and some is reinforced by the physical environment. If your house is close to the street, you're going to get more practice dealing with people. As for sitting at tables, having picnics, etc that usually happens in the back, unless you're talking about the spontaneous weekend parties on some blocks in the Northside.
    The examples at the top of the post are the worst of all, the big front yard is so disconnected from the house that its useless space.

     
  5. JasonToon says:

    The Magnolia Heights porches are much more like classic rowhouse stoops. I've also been pleasantly surprised by this development, as it shows that you can integrate traditional urban form with more contemporary aesthetics. (I like traditional aesthetics myself, but I don't mind this look.) Best of all: no driveways!

     
  6. leighmaibes says:

    Price wise they are pretty close with the surrounding new construction competition. While they may not have the 4 beds and 3 fulls baths crushed into the same square footage, they are excellently finished. I got excited about taking the project after I was able to view the inside of the display and it's quality of finish and construction. While I do represent the whole development the property that is listed in the MLS is the display and it has lots of extras, which equals a higher price than the others in the development. The 4 on Magnolia have a base price of 325K, and the two lots on the end on Macklind have a base of 350K because you have an option for green space and a detached garage. Here is the website for the display http://www.2708macklind.com

     
  7. thehappymother says:

    When relocating to St. Louis from Florida 4 years ago, we looked for a city location that could accomodate our growing family (I was expecting our 4th child at the time, we now have 5 children) that would also be affordable and not need a ton of work (ruling out wonderful neighborhoods like Compton Heights). We also wanted to be close to the excellent parochial school that our older children would be attending. We opted to build a house in Parc Ridge Estates (pictured above). I make no apologies for our decision. It was what was best for our family. We love the City (in fact, my husband is working on a huge real estate deal that will help greatly in the efforts to revitalize the downtown area). If Parc Ridge Estates didn't exist, what would be in its place? Another depressing, abandoned building?
    BTW- you have a photo of MY house in your montage above. I don't appreciate you using an image of my beautiful house in a negative way.

     
    • I'm all in favor of large new houses. I'm done with old houses as well — been there done that. But new houses don't have to have front facing garages.

       
    • Kevin Barbeau says:

      “…in fact, my husband is working on a huge real estate deal that will help greatly in the efforts to revitalize the downtown area…”

      Do tell. Inquiring minds want to know more details (despite the fact that you/your husband are probably legally prohibited from sharing).

       
      • From thehappympther's email address I know who her husband is and can vouch for the fact he works for a know developer. I met him when he moved to town and expressed my dislike for the subdivision when he said they would be building there. I ended up including their house by accident.

         
        • thehappymother says:

          Steve- I am sorry for jumping on you so quickly! You did NOT capture our house in the photo of the row of homes.
          In defense of our neighborhood- it is largely comprised of young, growing families (we are not the only family with 5 children in the neighborhood!) and I think that the City of St. Louis needs that kind of infusion. I appreciate your desire to maintain the “urban-ness” of the City, but front-facing garages are not the only qualification. We are able to walk to many area businesses (restaurants, grocery stores, schools) and there is a great amount of socializing among the neighbors (on our front porches, driveways and backyards). It is really hard to find the perfect balance between homes that will attract young families but that also offer the space they need to grow. In Parc Ridge Estates in particular, rear garages and driveways were not an option (as I am told by one of the architects).
          At least we haven't installed the gates at the entrance of the neighborhood that so many residents have been begging for!

           
          • Agreed the city needs young middle class families. I know many who prefer new construction. Typical lots in your neighborhood are 49ft wide x 90ft deep. Two lots could have shared a driveway to rear garages. The streets are also way too wide, encouraging higher speeds. Glad to hear gates have been resisted.

             
          • thehappymother says:

            Yes- the streets ARE way too wide- I agree. But I wonder if that is code in the City? Perhaps they required the developer to build them that way?
            I have been considering your post throughout the afternoon and I have another thought to share. Many of the old neighborhoods were built in a time when, instead of kids playing in the backyard, kids walked down a few blocks and played together in public spaces (parks, vacant lots, etc.). Families didn't need such big yards as there were “communal yards” in the area. Times have changed! There are too many wierdos, perverts and sex offenders roaming around. Many parents, including my husband and I, cannot allow their children to play so far from home. Backyards therefore become the safest place for them to play, and bigger backyards are much better than small ones. A city home with a large yard is such a rarity, so I hope you understand the efforts of many families to get them.

             
          • Yes, zoning in city and suburbs often require way too wide of streets – developers have to argue to make them narrower. When many cars park on the street they don't feel so wide and traffic must slow down. Your backyard is tiny! My houses in the city all had bigger backyards. Ironically, New Town at St. Charles is a good model for how to develop in urban areas.

             
          • Kevin Barbeau says:

            Just a couple of comments (the first of which is a little bit snarky, so I do apologize in advance, happymother):

            1) First, thm, thanks for your input and letting us know your reasons and thought-process. But did you think initially that Steve did take a picture of your house and later realize that it was a different one?! That's my BIG problem with subdivisions. A person who has lived there for four years can't even correctly pick out their house from a line-up of four. Now the house itself may be filled with family and love and, eventually, many meaningful memories, but the structure itself is soulless.

            2) And this goes a little bit into the helpful thought-process described below by Justin. Thank you too. These urban subdivisions do make sense from a money standpoint and you're correct — no developer worth his salt would say otherwise. By a large parcel of land and build suburban style housing since, traditionally, the people buying these have families, are well off and are more than likely to (a) keep up the value, (b) stay for a long time, and (c) not balk on their payments/loans.

            It's the right thing to do, but it frustrates the hell out of people who love (and that's with a capital 'L') urban buildings and the uniqueness that comes with them. Unfortunately, cookie-cutters are more easily produced than unique, traditionally urban buildings. The development that always comes to mind for me is the one on Blow Street two blocks south of Loughborough and Carondelet Park. The houses around the park are beautiful and unique (and well maintained). This development on Blow sticks out like a sore, ugly thumb on otherwise quintessential South City neighborhood, but like Justin said, it's money better spent for developers as a means to fill the land they bought (which, incidentally, used to be a wide urban garden and nursery).

            I am loving this open discussion. Maybe a look at the Blow Street subdivision is in order too, Steve?

             
          • Yes, I've been planning a post on that development. I'll say this, it is substantially better than earlier proposals.

             
          • thehappymother says:

            Kevin- You make a fair point. It is a bit pathetic that I couldn't recognize my own house. If it makes it any better- I was using my laptop outside and the images were a bit off? At any rate- the houses ARE all the same. In PRE, there was only one developer and only two houseplan choices (which look SUPER similar). A few residents opted to buy land from the developer and design and build their own homes, but even then, they had to look like they “fit” in the neighborhood. A good thing about the Carondolet developement is there were two builders (Rolwes and another one) and Rolwes at least offered 3 or 4 different houseplan choices. Instead of two different home choices in PRE, in the Carondolet development there may have been as many as 6 or 7.
            I really would like to hear what other people's ideas and solutions would be- what DO you do with a large piece of land that needs to be developed as single-family homes?

             
  8. Justin says:

    Personally, as an architecture graduate & current Real Estate Developer, I find all types of the above mentioned to have their flaws & benefits, which I will address in a bit.

    A few rules that I live by as a professional are these:

    1st & foremost, will my product be marketable & have value in the current market state of the desired location as we speak? If it doesn't, then it won't happen.

    2nd, will the lots, setbacks, & construction allow me to utilize the square footage of property that will make my project profitable (yes, everyone does it for $$$$)? If they don't, it won't happen.

    3rd, What will current public reaction in the area be to my development? Will they be in support? Do they have suggestions? Do they seem to think the development is out of place? If the development company does their homework like they should (most ALWAYS do, if they don't, they must be very lucky to be in business to assure they are selling their properties), they will have local suggestions & concerns to think about in the planning stage before construction.

    4th, there is NO making everyone happy. If you have the correct answers to above, then the project is obviously ready to be thoroughly thought about & planned accordingly.

    ———–

    Now, my thoughts on the above mentioned developments.

    Top 2 pics:

    – As much as people HATE front/street facing garage doors in urban areas, they do have their appeal to MOST buyers. Security for their car. Not only do urban areas have higher crime rates, but car theives thrive in those areas as they can hit numerous cars in one street swipe & be gone. If I were to critic the property, I would mention the garage door could be dressed up with some accents for a few extra $$$. Also, the all hip roof is out of place with the surrounding homes. Put a few gables with a 6 or 7 pitch on it to give it some construction connectivity. Also, the ALL brick seems out of place, but the seller is putting out there that this is PRIME corner real estate with ALL brick & a 2 car ATTACHED garage, which adds more selling appeal. There is no walking from garage to the house.

    Next 2 Pics of homes (brick & white house with porch)

    – My first question, are these presold? Did the buyer want these features this way? Why wasn't the alley utilized on the first? Why didn't the planning & zoning address this situation before issuing permit for construction?

    – Looks like the white house simply just built an efficient (cheap) home when most would have liked to see something with character? What can really be done about this? “Subdivision Restrictions & Codes”? I know there isn't a sidewalk, but as a builder (if not pre-sold) or home owner who doesn't want more concrete to put in or pay for, why do it? There is a 24' wide driveway that offers plenty of room? Why break up the green space in the front yard if not possible?

    Next 3 photos (all condo/plex style construction)

    – The first 2 do have “suburban style” design & materials. But, are they marketable & selling? Are the developers fulfilling the desires & needs of the market that are interested? I would think so as they offer “city” living, but also are up to date with current construction methods & also have a nice design & flow through out the development. Not every person wanting to live in the city wants row housing where your home is 18' wide, & 40' deep. As a developer, you have to address things knowing change is an option, & it could be highly profitable.

    – 3rd pic. The developers look like they tried fitting in with the neighboring buildings. But, they added front entrance garages. Why? No alley. Do the back yards offer a nice green area for pets, children, & gathering? Probably. What would a single garage do for the site design? help? hurt? Do people want to park where everyone else parks? Do they want to park & get out & be in their own unit? Great questions that I am sure the deisgners thought about before construction. The solution I would have done myself = Drop the garages 4' down & have a sloped driveway. That drops your front steps 4' which appeals a little bit more. But, what were site conditions?…..

    Final 3 pics.

    – Obviously, this site had great accesibility, which always helps. Another issue is setbacks. This looks to not have to deal with any. Is this because utility location is in the rear or right up front 5' off the curb? Overall, its a great looking urban development. Obviously it fits well in an urban enviroment.

    – Final Thoughts –

    When developing, there are a TON of factors that play into every project. Here are a few that could have to do why the above developments are very different.

    – Is there public grant monies being put forth on the development towards upgraded utilities? I'm currently going through 2 of these from HUD & it has helped our current project tremendously, & also is allowing us to put more $$$ into LEED certification & going green on a whole neighborhood development.

    – How much was the real estate cost? This is HUGE! If the location is great, & the public doesn't mind a little suburban feel on the new development, then it may be worth doing it & making a decent profit $$$. At the end of the day, any developer is looking at the $$$$$.

    – Where are utilities & how is the site before construction? Utilities play a large part when designing a site. Any developer wants to cut cost & make sure they are building for the least $ spent. It will ALWAYS be that way.

    – Is the development going to help the neighborhood? From the looks of it, the above all seem to be helping the neighborhood. Yes, they might not be desgned or constructed to everyones liking, but a developer does not have the power to just walk up & do what they want. The local politicians & city officials will help determine if its a good plan or not, & if their not. Vote em out.

    Like I've said, I can point out the flaws & benefits of each, but I need to get back to more work.

     
    • I love garages and have no desire to have everyone leave their car on the street. Buyers buy what is on the market and so many are now so used to the front garage they don't realize other options exist, such as the detached rear garage. The community needs to set standards to preserve the urban character of this 19th century neighborhood. If not, the urbanists may leave.

       
  9. G-Man says:

    Well, at least I like the 19th century corner building.

     
  10. stl_stadtroller says:

    utterly disgusting.
    And yet another drawback to the front-facing garage in the city is that it drastically reduces the available on-street parking area. Not to mention the complications of curb maintenance and street drainage that all the curb cuts generate.
    What's going to happen when all the spawn from those quiver-full parents start driving? You can't fit all your cars into a 1 or 2-car garage, and then it spills into the streets. Or when you inevitably start using the garage for storage instead of parking a car in it? You're gonna be HOSED, and you'll have no one to blame but your own short-sighted selves.
    When I lived at Wyoming @ Grand the on-street parking was terrible there, and that was with 100% street frontage available, AND many homes with alley-facing garages.

     
    • JZ71 says:

      Agree, halfway, on curb cuts, street parking and storage. The (un?)fortunate reality, however, is that when many of these parents start to “spawn”, they move to the burbs. Fewer kids means fewer vehicles. The only real “solution” for a family with several teen drivers wanting to actually provide “enough” parking, is either doing it on site (3- or 4-car garage and/or a long and/or a wide driveway) or on street (bigger lots/more frontage). Neither answer respects the urban paradigm Steve espouses, since it assumes everyone drives.

      The fundamental challenge is density. Typical suburban lots are at least 50' wide. Urban ones can be as narrow as 25', with 35' being pretty “normal”. Putting a two-car garage, on the front or back, is a lot more difficult on a narrow lot, and when it's done multiple times, the problem compounds itself. The only real true “urban” solution is to move beyond individual garages – build individual living units on top of a shared parking podium. The challenge is that it costs more, especially if you're building 2 or 8 or even 14 units, as many infill developers currently are doing. The other challenge is simple market aceptance – most buyers strongly prefer their own private garage over shared parking of any type. So, stl_stadtroller, I share your pain, but the only two solutions I can see are limiting curb cuts and limiting vehicles, and I see no political will to tell anyone they can't buy a car, and our culture appears to be that curb cuts can happen pretty much anywhere in the city . . .

       
      • The couple I'm thinking of have two young kids (18mo & 3) and plan more. They want to locate near transit so they don't need one car per driver. Between walking, biking and transit the increasing demand for space to store cars is reduced.

        Placing a 2-car garage at the rear of even a 25ft wide lot is easy unless the grade presents challenges. Our market hasn't seen much good urban construction yet so it is impossible to judge the market acceptance. Buyers in other cities accept them because they are in desirable areas.

         
  11. W Kruse says:

    While I personally prefer a more urban design; suburbanites can built a boring box wrapped in siding with a front facing garage if it infills vacant lots and brings population numbers back to the city. At least that's my opinion.

     
    • The more suburban housing that is added the less appeal the city would have to me.

       
    • Mike says:

      Agreed. The less than desirable infill is superior to vacant lots, boarded up buildings and the violent crime that comes along with it. Quite frankly, attracting white middle class folks back into the city is the key to bringing the city back financially. If the infill can accomplish that than let's build more.

       
  12. Zundo says:

    We really need to get some architectural review boards up and running around St. Louis. If we are gonna be overly pro development we need to have some procedures in place that can keep things in check.

    Steps with no landing thats nearly a story high? Front facing garages? Do these people even have architectural degrees or are they developers that obtained their license? These are appalling!

     

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