High occupancy housing vs high density

Stand Up for Flagstaff welcomes the public meetings being held by the city planning department on the subject of high occupancy housing, or HOH. The HUB is the first HOH proposed within the original, historic downtown core. The Standard has been permitted adjacent to La Plaza Vieja neighborhood. The Grove is in the Aspen Place redevelopment. If the Hub is permitted in that location, it is likely more HOH projects will be proposed throughout the Southside historic neighborhood.

It is important to distinguish between high density and high occupancy. 

High density refers to the number of people living in a particular area, say 1 acre. The Flagstaff Regional Plan: Place Matters encourages high density in Flagstaff as a way of accommodating anticipated increased population while protecting natural areas and preventing sprawl. The transect zoning option in the Flagstaff Zoning Code encourages high density in the urban transect zones (T4, T5 and T6) in order to accommodate people who would like to live in the walkable downtown areas of Flagstaff in smaller, more efficient residences. This includes students. High density living has always been a part of the historic downtown core. Single family homes, duplexes, triplexes and apartments woven into the fabric of the Southside, La Plaza Vieja and Townsite neighborhoods have accommodated students for decades.

High occupancy implies a particular building type: many people, living close together, in a large building—like the Grove: specifically, private, off-campus dormitories. Let’s call them PODs. PODs are a very profitable economic model right now. That’s because universities, experiencing budget cuts, are foregoing the cost of building of dormitories in favor of other programs, services and facilities that will attract enrollment. Private developers are stepping in to provide the university housing needs. This economic model can’t be controlled by government. PODs are in the sights of developers right now and Flagstaff is a prime target.

When the city’s planning department holds public meetings about HOH, they are really talking about PODs. While we might also need conversations about how to live with small, high density units in our neighborhoods, the compelling issue is really large, high-density projects: POD.

The planning department should start by noting the regulations that already limit PODs in Flagstaff, especially our historic, downtown core. For example, in the urban transect zones, regulations that limit the size and scale of buildings, if properly interpreted, would prohibit PODs. PODs designed with traditional zoning rather than transect zoning would be limited by density, open space, civic space and parking regulations. Other new regulations that have been proposed include more restrictive lot combining, automatic P&Z appearances for large projects, among others. It is only after acknowledging current regulations can we notice where the deficits are, and then address them.

To start, the conversation about housing needs in Flagstaff needs to differentiate between high occupancy housing, high density housing and workforce housing.