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High-density housing on the horizon

The future could hold higher-density multi-family residential construction in currently unincorporated areas of North County.

During the Friday event, Conversations 2010, presented by North San Diego County Association of Realtors and California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) Extended Learning, expert panelists discussed what the future could bring.

“With respect to future developments and how the region will, I think, accommodate future development, we’re already seeing this, and that is development will occur on a much smaller footprint,” said Ivan Holler, urban planner for Rancho Santa Fe Association. “By that I mean large-lot subdivisions … are pretty much a thing of the past.”

According to a recent San Diego Association of Governments study, referenced by panelists, about 70 percent of units currently in some phase of the entitlement process are multi-family, Holler pointed out. The same report, he said, indicates that unincorporated areas in North County account for most unit locations.

Even single-family developments will increase in density.

In the short term at least, construction of master-plan developments will continue, Holler said. Some already are in the entitlement process and others will be proposed.

“I think you will continue to see that type of thing,” he said. “But in that type of community, you’ll see very small lot sizes.”

Jason Han, vice president for New Urban West Inc., said his company’s Harmony Grove Village is a prime example of Holler’s prediction. The community is based on smaller units on smaller lots with significant walkability and village core.

The project received entitlement in 2007 during a different market.

“But more than ever now I think it speaks to the type of environment we’re in,” Han said.

Land is a finite source, but studies like the one from SANDAG predict a growing San Diego population. To accommodate their housing needs, more homes must be created on the existing land.

Robert Brown, economics professor at CSUSM and creator of HomeDex, said he often hears there is a disconnect between consumer preference and what developers have to offer. A shift toward higher density must be in response to a demand, he said, but he questioned if preference still leaned away from high-density options.

Han suggested there is a convergence of reaction to available space and consumer preferences.

“This seems like a long time ago, and we all tend to have short-term memories, but post-9/11, people, from a living environment standpoint, really thought about how they wanted to live and realized community was important to them,” he said. “Security, safety … all those things come to (the forefront) in terms of purchases you’ll make in life.”

Building high-density communities in the unincorporated areas, however, could prove problematic. To build 15 units per acre would require about three or four stories, Holler said. And in most unincorporated areas, there is a 35-foot height limit.

What’s more, he said, firefighters in those areas do not typically have equipment necessary to extinguish fourth-story fires.

Cost also can be prohibitive.

Han said construction costs for eight units per acre -- the standard for a community like Harmony Grove -- are about $60 per square foot. To build 20 units per acre -- a typical row home -- would cost $85 per square foot. Costs jump to $150-220 per square foot for 35 to 50 units per acre in a stacked flat development.

Those high-density developments probably started when the economy indicated they might sell for $450,000 per unit, he said.

“It’s going to be a while before we get up to these numbers,” Han said. “The notion higher density is cheaper to build is (wrong.)”

But high density likely will remain the way ahead if population predictions are correct.

And Holler said he hopes the focus will shift away from the negative connotations of density in favor of discussion about aesthetics of the development.

He said there is an opportunity to build communities with distinct character that are visually appealing and true to a community’s identity.

“Density is really a nasty word when you go (into the) communities,” Holler said. “I think what we need to change focus on is aesthetic of what’s being built and how it responds to community concerns.”

Related videos:

* Conversations '10: Interview with John Tuccillo

* Conversations '10: Interview with Robert Brown


Send your comments to Erin.Bridges@sddt.com

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1 UserComments
Larry fitch 5:49pm March 10, 2010

The notion that high density is more expensive is not true. We built over 10,000 apartments in Florida several years ago and the average cost of the complete concrete frame was $23.00 per square foot. These buildings were 24 to 34 stories high. If these building were to be buiit in San Diego today, the cost would be around $30.00 psf. for the additional earthquake loads. Finished bldg, costs should be $100.00 to $125.00 psf.