In attacking the housing shortage, sometimes the fixes are pretty straightforward to conceive of. It ain't rocket science to speed up housing approvals, or to build apartment buildings near train stations. But there's also a lot of land which is available for new development if you start thinking creatively. And I'm not just talking about building apartments in parking lots. I'm talking about wasted land which literally does nothing for anybody. The last 70 years of American suburban development really really IS that inefficient. Follow me, if you will, to Davis, California.
Davis is an affluent college town made up of cookie-cutter postwar suburbs. Its built environment is basically the same as every other cookie-cutter suburb built after World War II. Squint a little and you might think you were on Long Island, the San Fernando Valley, or Cupertino.1
We'll zoom in a little further on West Davis, where I still have family. It is not cheap. Per Redfin, the average home sale price is $706,000 these days. Eye-wateringly expensive, but about average for Davis. We'll make three stops, all of which are within 10 minutes of each other by bicycle.
Our first stop is Crystal Grove Drive, on the way to my friend Karlee's old house. Behind the soundwall on the left is the 113 freeway. Looks like there's nowhere to build new houses here without tearing down the existing homes or bulldozing the park, right?
Wrong. There's space for 30 houses here. Between the shoulder of the freeway and the sound wall there's a 35' x 700' plot of land, and all of that land is totally wasted. It's not being used as parkland, it's not being used for the freeway, it's not being used for homes or businesses. It just sits there, useless, like the human appendix. Build Brooklyn-style rowhouses or LA-style dingbats between the freeway shoulder and the park and this block of Crystal Grove Drive could accommodate 30 new parkside homes without breaking a sweat.2
Our second stop is 3/4 of a mile away as the crow flies, on Russell Boulevard, which was part of the old Lincoln Highway.
This part of West Davis has been built out for half a century, and the most recent development in this part of town was the Village Homes eco-village from the late '70s.3 (Village Homes was such a big deal that the President of France visited it when it was built.) Ironically, Village Homes, with its Tolkien-themed street names and its solar water heaters, is ridiculously inefficient with land. Check it out. The designers, in their desire to create a Tolkien-themed suburban eco-village, left three lots totally unused. There's a little over an acre in Village Homes which has sat empty for half a century, in the middle of a historically bad housing and climate crisis.
We can get even more land, though. Let's say that the City decommissions the last hundred yards of Russell Boulevard, which is lightly used and of marginal transportation value. Add the last hundred yards of Russell Boulevard, you get an acre and a half.
Now, let's do the math again: if you allow Brooklyn-style rowhouses or LA-style dingbats, there's space for 80 homes without touching a single existing building.
Our third and final stop is to go another 3/4 of a mile out Russell to the intersection with Lake Boulevard.
It's another area which has been built out for decades, ever since they finished the Stonegate Country Club there. But check it out. There's a strip of land, fifty-five feet wide and a quarter-mile long, between Russell and Stonegate. All that land is owned by the government, in case Russell Boulevard needs to be expanded. But right now, it's 1.6 acres of land which does nothing for anybody and is maintained at public expense. Add rowhouses or dingbats, and you can plop down another 90 homes. No mess, no fuss.
These three blocks of land alone could handle 200 homes - nearly 10 percent of Davis's housing quota. And this survey is far from comprehensive - this is the product of me playing around on Google Maps for a couple hours. I've used Davis as an example because I know it like the back of my hand. But you can find this kind of wastefulness in nearly every suburb built in the last seventy years. Our laws, and our local bureaucracy, are not set up to think creatively about land like this. But given the depth of the housing crisis, they should be.
Footnote 1: Davis does have a superlative network of bike lanes, which does distinguish it from other postwar suburbs, but that's about it.
Footnote 3: Village Homes, the 1970s eco-village, is a great example of how not to build green. Because Village Homes is really just a really nice suburban subdivision for liberals who don't play golf.
In their rush to create an idyllic environment with twee Tolkien-themed street names, they didn't build Village Homes near anything. There's no jobs, stores, restaurants, churches or even a decent bus route, so you have to burn gas to go anywhere. Great job, guys.