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July 18, 2006 > Concentration On Density - A Planning Conundrum

Concentration On Density - A Planning Conundrum

What is an elementary school, an occupational center and a housing development? The answer is the new SummerHill Homes project on Laiolo Road in Fremont. Of course, the property is not and will not accommodate all three uses simultaneously, but the progression from neighborhood school nestled in a single family, low density residential area to medium density housing of 106 units on 9.8 acres raises a question of neighborhood character and traffic patterns for the community.

The Fremont Unified School District sees designation of a "surplus" school site as a source of additional funds. Similar to conversion of commercial space however, once changed to residential use, the land is lost for anything else. This may not be a problem if vacant chairs are available in local classrooms, but what happens when families with school age children move in, especially in large numbers, and seats are unavailable? This can result in a serious game of musical chairs. Succeeding school boards may wonder why valuable land was traded for short-term gains and a bigger future headache.

While it is difficult to project future demographics for the area, it is certain that at least some families with school-age children will move into the SummerHill complex. Combine these students with those who will move into nearby Irvington Village now under construction and there may be significant effects on local public schools.

A brief discussion of the Fremont City Council summed up the density quandary as Councilmember Dutra noted that a development of this size and density would alter the character of the neighborhood, concluding that "sometimes we have to say 'no'." It was mildly surprising to see the developer on the council in opposition while resident planner, councilmember Anu Natarajan, voted in favor. Natarajan did note however that projects such as this need to multidimensional and blend with the community, not simply an insertion of a bland, "monochromatic development." Neighborhood character is apparently in the eye of the beholder and when a nice chunk of expensive real estate is at stake, increased density rules economically. The feasibility of small lots and more concentrated building mass within an established low density residential neighborhood will ultimately be proven in final design proposals.

SummerHill has, to its credit, held neighborhood meetings to discuss concerns and make site adjustments - decreasing proposed units from 110 to 106, widening Laiolo Road in front of the project and "feathering" densities from the perimeter of the development toward the interior. The impact of two-story homes will be mitigated by positioning within the development. SummerHill proposes four "distinct variations in dwelling types with a wide range of sizes." A combination of open space "buffer" and low density on Laiolo Road is designed to integrate the project with the existing neighborhood.

Will it work? The proof will be as this project is completed and 106 families move in to replace a school setting. There is no doubt that the current trend toward high density development is accelerating. The question is where to insert this type of housing and how well it will assimilate with existing neighborhoods.

When land previously used for commercial purposes is converted to residential, it carries its own perils including the loss of potential retail services for the community. Land around transportation nodes may be extremely attractive for high density, even high-rise developments. But neighborhood schools and lots have their own distinctive character and traffic patterns that can be radically eclipsed by residential development and altered density. Will increased density of residential infill help solve local housing needs, subtly altering the residential landscape? Or will the constant push for high density development tip the scales toward undesirable effects of crowding to a neighborhood near you?

As low density development gives way to high density projects in all cities, it is imperative that citizens watch and learn from building techniques being used. Although some people may have a lackadaisical attitude, believing these trends will have no impact on their personal situation, odds are high that at some point they will. Knowledge of what works and why is essential to protecting the landscape of your environment. SummerHill's residential community on Laiolo Road will be a good test of creeping density change.

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