Home-field advantage

A city pilot program would make urban infill projects less daunting

Red tape makes it tough to build on blighted lots like this one in North Sacramento.

Red tape makes it tough to build on blighted lots like this one in North Sacramento.

Courtesy Of City of Sacramento

If you’ve got the money, building a new home in the suburbs can be fairly simple. Find the subdivision you want to buy in, pick one of the three or four floor plans available, choose your favorite preapproved shade of tan, and you’re in business.

It doesn’t work that way in the city. Trying to build a house on an empty lot in neighborhoods like Del Paso Heights, Oak Park or North Sacramento can be beyond the means, and the patience, of many would-be homeowners.

First, you’ve got to come up with the plans. You can draw them yourself on a piece of graph paper, or the back of a bar napkin, and see how they fare down at the city’s building department. Chances are the city plan checker won’t be overly impressed with your first cut, and you’ll need to make several modifications.

You could hire an architect, which might set you back as much as $10,000 and six months. Even with professional help, your plans still need to go through the city’s design-review department, be approved by a structural engineer as well as somebody called a Title 24 energy consultant, and potentially go through still more bureaucratic hoops.

“I’ve been down to the building department, and I’ve seen a lot of people who own land but don’t know how to navigate the process,” said architect Cynthia Easton.

Easton is one of two architects chosen by the city to come up with a set of preapproved plans that will help streamline the process for building single-family homes in some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods.

The model-house pilot program is one piece of the city’s overall infill-development strategy, aimed at diverting at least some of Sacramento’s booming population growth away from the suburbs and into existing neighborhoods.

The city has some 5,000 vacant lots inside its boundaries, a high number compared with that of cities of similar size around the country. About a third of those vacant lots are concentrated in a handful of distressed neighborhoods like North Sacramento and Oak Park.

The lots are an ongoing headache for city officials and for neighbors. The blighted patches bring down property values and become magnets for illegal dumping and other forms of crime. They also present a tremendous opportunity for redeveloping and revitalizing parts of the city that have fallen into disrepair. But infill can be far more complicated than building in new-growth areas.

“Some of the biggest obstacles to infill development are time and predictability,” explained Lucinda Wilcox, who serves as infill coordinator for the city’s Development Services Department.

Consider the development process for a planned community in Natomas or Elk Grove. There, the same building plan, the same set of approvals, gets used over and over again for hundreds of houses.

City officials hope that preapproved house plans, like this cottage designed by architect Dave Piches, will speed up the process.

Courtesy Of City of Sacramento

To build the same number of units in existing neighborhoods is much more difficult. “We have 1,600 vacant lots in these target areas,” Wilcox noted. “Each one of those has to go through a custom design process. We just wouldn’t do that in a new area, because it’s so inefficient.”

If implemented later this year, the pilot program would bring some of the economies of scale enjoyed by suburban development to infill projects.

The program allows home builders—whether they are developers building a house for sale, or an individual trying to build a home to live in for themselves—to pick from one of four preapproved house plans. Because the plans already would have the blessing of the building, design-review and planning departments, they could dramatically cut the usual red tape facing a builder.

The city has set prices for these “off-the-shelf” plans at $1,500, a fraction of what custom plans would cost. And the approval process—which now can take up to two months—would be trimmed down to a single day, Wilcox explained.

The streamlined plan process is intended to make urban infill more attractive to developers who want to build and sell homes in the urban core and for the individual builder-owners trying to build themselves a starter home.

All four of the plans are for modestly sized homes (from 1,500 to 1,800 square feet) that retain the historic character of the neighborhoods where they would be built. Although small in comparison to most new homes, the infill models all come with at least three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a garage.

“We were going for something quaint and attractive that looked like it might have been built in the 1940s but which had all the amenities of a new home,” said architect David Piches of his plans—which are called the Bungalow and the Cottage with Porte-Cochere (that’s French for carport).

And each of the plans adheres to “new urbanism” design principles required by the city. Front porches are a prominent part of each plan, and the garages are de-emphasized, placed at the end of long driveways toward the rear of the house.

The city’s Development Services Department hopes to offer more designs if the pilot program is popular.

The pilot program is just one piece of the city’s overall infill strategy, which also includes reducing utility-hookup and building fees for infill projects and encouraging more housing in aging commercial corridors like Stockton Boulevard.

“I think this is a great statement that this is an area we value and that needs to be developed,” Easton said. “We don’t want to see the city just keep spreading ever outward and becoming empty on the inside.”

The Development Services Department will be soliciting input on the four house plans at a series of community meetings over the next month. The Sacramento City Council will consider the plans later this summer.

For more information, call (916) 808-7931 or visit www.cityofsacramento.org/dsd.