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Filling the Missing Middle: Context-Sensitive Design and Development Innovations for Diverse, Sustainable, Walkable Neighborhoods

June 25th, 2021 by

Increasing the housing stock in the most densely populated state in the country may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Panelists Joshua Zinder, managing partner, JZA+D; Keenan Hughes, principal, Phillips, Preiss, Grygiel, Leheny, Hughes LLC; Travis Seal, founder and principal, Select Redevelopment; George Gnad, president and broker of record, Lenders Capital Realty Services; and Michael La Place, planning director, Princeton shared how they resolve the tension between municipalities’ need to grow and residents’ fear of change at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference’s Filling the Missing Middle: Context-Sensitive Design and Development Innovations for Diverse, Sustainable, Walkable Neighborhoods panel.

There has been increasing demand for walkable communities—places where you can live within walking distance of the services and amenities you need, such as Princeton, Montclair, and Summit—and this has only become more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, explained Hughes. But, so much demand coupled with insufficient supply has led to skyrocketing home prices. Part of the issue is that the housing stock in these communities consists overwhelmingly of large single-family homes. This means limited options for empty nesters, people looking to downsize, and those who need just a bit more space than bigger cities can offer. Hughes explained that missing middle housing—affordable, multi-family, entry-level stock supporting a range of lifestyles and family types in walkable, sustainable neighborhoods—can fill these gaps by increasing and diversifying the housing stock, while providing other benefits, such as support for local businesses. 

One of the most important considerations to assuage concerns about increased density is to ensure that missing middle housing fits within neighborhood contexts. Zinder detailed some of the strategies he implements when developing missing middle housing: adaptive reuse, strategic additions, maximizing property utility, and infill housing. The success of these strategies depends on one common element: ensuring that the finished structure fits within the context of its neighborhood in terms of height, setback, and style. Density doesn’t have to look dense, and it can even help blend transitions from one neighborhood to another, such as the often stark divide between a downtown business district and its adjacent single-family residential zone. Seal emphasized that each project should be evaluated to ensure that it will benefit the neighborhood and reflect its context.

In addition to local resistance to density, zoning codes present a hurdle for developing missing middle housing. La Place suggests that municipalities update their municipal master plans in order to better facilitate the types of development that they already know they want. For example, many towns have new affordable housing requirements. Rather than falling back on multi-family housing zones that tend to be situated off on their own, Princeton created a new overlay zone to incentivize higher density and infill development near the downtown area. Another zoning requirement that municipalities should reconsider is RSIS parking standards, which often impede missing middle development by eating up available developable land. It is critical, La Place said, that stakeholders and leadership work together to identify their community’s goals and implement a plan to achieve them.

Securing financing for missing middle development can be tricky, explained Gnad. Because of the scale of this type of development, larger lenders may not see their value. The key is casting a wide net to catch those lenders looking to flesh out their portfolios with smaller projects. Other financial tools, such as New Markets Tax Credits, may be available for adaptive reuse projects, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit is an option if the development meets its requirements. 

With the right team in place to plan an appropriate structure, work with the community and its leadership, and navigate the financing process, missing middle housing can be achieved in any community, providing essential housing

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