As builders trend toward smaller lots, parks and walking trails supplant big yards as a way to increase outdoor areas for residents
Drought aside, what has happened to all the yards?
In the Albuquerque metro area, the size of property lots for new homes is shrinking – and water scarcity is only one of the culprits.
“Generally speaking, the size of single-family lots has been steadily getting smaller as the cost of development has increased and the resources of buyers has decreased,” says Jim Folkman, the outgoing executive vice president of HBA, the area homebuilders association. “That’s a 30-year trend.”
The varying sizes of home lots can be best seen in larger planned communities such as Mesa del Sol, a 12,000-acre master-planned community of “Build Green” homes on Albuquerque’s southeast mesa. This mix of residential and commercial development is slated for 37,000 residences during the next three or four decades. Even with fewer than 100 of the first homes built and occupied at Mesa del Sol, it’s interesting to take a look at the lot sizes depicted on future plat maps.
“What yards?” ask some homeowners who have chosen homes with little more outdoor space than will accommodate a barbecue grill and table. Some newcomers have more conventional lots — a plot where kids can shoot baskets or spin in cartwheels across the grass. Still others have little more than house filling the entire property lot footprint, yet have great views out windows that overlook small parks shared by neighbors.
While the trend toward smaller lots can be driven by water concerns or weariness with never-ending yard maintenance; the No. 1 reason for smaller lots boils down to affordability, agree both Folkman and Mesa del Sol’s residential development director David Newell.
Four homebuilders — Pulte, Rachel Mathew, Twilight, and Raylee — currently offer plans and build homes at Mesa del Sol. The lot sizes correspond to the home sizes, which correlate to the prices. No surprises there. The greater the number of homes with property which physically connects to the street, the greater is the sharing of infrastructure costs. That’s why wide property lots of the past have given way today to narrow, deeper lots, said Newell. The wide lots of Albuquerque communities such as Four Hills or Ridgecrest likely would be unaffordable today for those early buyers.
So, how are today’s builders creating pleasing palettes for new homes despite the reduction in yard space? Newell calls the concept “place-making.”
“We create places for residents to gather,” he said.
Examples include pocket parks, larger parks with swimming pools, cluster housing with shared green spaces, a restaurant on site, activities such as movie night at the park, front porches to encourage visitation, and soon to come — a trail system, an amenity that seems to be overtaking golf courses in popularity.
Individual owners are finding unique ways to increase outdoor space, as well. A common example, of course, is the construction of a two-story rather a single-story home. In the narrow canyons of Los Angeles, Calif., it’s not uncommon to find narrow lines of housing rising to three stories.
Mesa del Sol residents Eric and Jill Bernard are creating a rooftop garden on the topmost level of their two-story home. Eric Bernard, director and associate professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of New Mexico, has designed his rooftop deck with places to sit, places to grow flowers, small fruit trees and vegetables. Currently, pavers are being installed to create walking paths next to the enriched-soil garden plots. With slightly higher sidewalls for safety and a leak-proof membrane to keep water from dripping into the house, the family intends to do most of its outdoor entertaining 20 feet above ground with grand views of five different mountain peaks.
Granted, the reduction of yard space and subsequent increase in density is easier to accomplish in new developments in which entire subdivisions are approved, says Russell Brito, planning manager for the Urban Design and Development Division for Albuquerque.
“We are seeing more requests for zone changes that allow for more density,” he added.
Current Albuquerque zoning regulations allow an average of about eight homes per acre after more than 15 percent of the property is dedicated to infrastructure such as sidewalks and driveways.
Many requests for higher density fail, victims of opposition from neighbors who fear increased density will negatively impact property values.
Densities are increasing, Brito concedes, but it’s often accomplished by building under the zoning guidelines that affect townhomes rather than single-family homes.