The Great American Single-Family Home Problem

Even with a flurry of legislation, economists are skeptical that California can dent home prices anytime soon. Housing takes years to build. And five of the new housing bills included a union-backed measure that requires developers to pay prevailing wages on certain projects, something that critics say will increase the cost of construction.

But the bigger, thornier question is where all these new residences will go, and how hard neighbors will try to prevent them. The Haskell Street fight shows why passing laws is one thing and building is another, but also gives a glimpse of what the denser neighborhoods of the future might look like — and why lots of little buildings are more important than a few skyscrapers.

Kurt’s Tomatoes

The 1300 block of Haskell Street sits in a kind of transition zone between the taller buildings in downtown Berkeley and the low-rise homes scattered through the eastern hills. The neighborhood has a number of single-family homes, and the street is quiet and quasi-suburban, but there are also apartment buildings and backyard cottages that nod to the city’s denser core.

A little under three years ago, a contractor named Christian Szilagy bought the property and presented the city with a proposal to demolish the house and replace it with three skinny and rectangular homes that would extend through the lot. Each would have one parking spot, a garden and about 1,500 square feet of living space.

The neighbors hated it. The public discussion began when Matthew Baran, the project architect, convened a meeting with 20 or so neighbors in the home’s backyard. A mediator joined him and later filed a three-sentence report to the city: “The applicant described the project. Not a single neighbor had anything positive to say about it. No further meetings were scheduled.”

Not in My Backyard

In Berkeley, a proposal to demolish a single-family residence and replace it with three smaller units has met with disapproval from neighborhood residents. How the proposed three-unit project would sit on the 50-by-150-foot Haskell Street lot, compared with the existing house and garage:










On paper, at least, there was nothing wrong with the proposal. The city’s zoning code designates the area as…

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