Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Many People Should Live On One Acre?

Tomorrow night, Thursday, August 29th, is the 2nd Zoning Workshop. It takes place at Municipal Hall from 6 to 8 pm. Since Councilman Millner was apparently unaware of that fact (as usual regarding matters he'll have to vote on), he scheduled a welcome reception for the new municipal administrator at the same time. That probably means none of council will show up at the zoning workshop.

At the last workshop, we were given the impression that this Thursday, the discussion would involve the districts of Norristown that aren't R1 or R2. Since the proposed development at 1202 Dekalb is in an area zoned OCR (Office/Commercial/Retail), my main question will be "Is anything NOT zoned residential going to be fair game for out-of-control residential development that can be more accurately described as people closets?"

It sure seems that way. Arbor Heights at Dekalb and Elm crammed twelve housing units into the space of four homes. This is in the same OCR district as the 1202 project. I'm not really sure why that area has the "Commercial Retail" label at all. Both sides of Dekalb are mostly doctor's offices and residences, as is the north side of Willow and south side of Green. Unless it's labeled that way mainly so Planning and Council have a free zone to put in any kind of development they want.

Norristown's average population density is 9,754 people per square mile. Sounds high, but it's really an average of only 15 people per acre. You can check your own neighborhood's density if you know the size of the lots. For instance, my house is on an 1/8 acre. If I count the number of people living in 8 houses like mine on my block, I get 14. Pretty close to average for Norristown.

The 1202 units will be built on 2/3 of an acre. The average for N-town on that size lot is 10 residents. If you used the average rowhouse density for 2/3 acre, you'd get maybe 16 residents. But the development proposes 24 units. Even if each unit only housed 1 person apiece--24 per 2/3 acre, the average population density comes to 23,000 people per square mile.

There are only 8 incorporated communities in the U.S. where people live closer together: 1 is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, 8 are in the NYC Metro area, including New York City itself. Philadelphia's average is much lower, at about 12,000, about 13 people per 2/3 acre.

If 1202 Dekalb has 2 residents per unit, it's population density will be greater than every place in the US but Manhattan. Three or more residents? Higher than everywhere in the nation.

I've gone up to Manhattan and stayed in friends' apartments when doing book tours. One was even a luxury apartment in Midtown. No matter where you live in Manhattan, rich or poor, you share your space with cockroaches. You also have a high percentage chance of bed bug infestation. The higher the population density, the more likely infestations such as these are to occur.

An article on Scientific American's website explains the link between a rise in urban population densities and higher rates of infectious diseases.

I'll let you ponder the hygiene of the increased strain on the sewage system, and all the extra trash cans. The latter are supposed to be kept in garages, but people are people--if the garbage smells, they'll be put outside.

People simply shouldn't live that close together, anywhere. It's not healthy. Norristown's only precedence for that kind of overcrowding are old houses with too many apartments (which are now supposed to be illegal). If you live near any of them, you already know the ongoing trash problems, and how hard it is to get Code Enforcement to do anything about it.

Moreover, we shouldn't have a block in the middle of town that looks like it belongs in Manhattan.

Taxpayers have asked me why Norristown is trying so hard to increase our population? The obvious explanation is, the more homeowners, the more real estate taxes. That, and our Council and Planners seem afraid to say NO to developers' greed--they think word will get out that N-town isn't friendly to development. And frankly, new development seems to be Council's one focus, rather than giving people incentives for fixing up abandoned houses, which would also increase homeownership. But old homes saved one at a time doesn't give you the big-man-on-campus feel of a new development ribbon cutting. What's involved are egos and money, plain and simple.

What we need is a zoning rule that no new housing, regardless of district, should have more units than a comparable area on any block it touches. I think that's fair, plus it maintains the character of the neighborhood, and the health of the whole community. Time to nip this trend toward people closets in the bud.

So I'll be at tomorrow's zoning workshop, even if Council is off partying somewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is spot on! I'll be at the meeting with bells on.
    Part of the problem, is zoning giving variances to every Tom, Dick and Harry providing the project will bring in tax dollars. With little to no concideration of how it will impact the community.