P&Z’s ‘Soft Growth’ isn’t soft, it’s more of the same

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One couldn’t help but notice a recent headline in NoN’s counterpart news outlet: “P&Z staff outlines upzoning to provide ‘soft growth’ in Norwalk

I’ve long since resigned myself to being NoN’s Cassandra on all things development, so let’s just dive back through the wringer, once again. But this time, I’m going to try simple math.

Imagine a small town with an 11-by-11 street grid. That makes for 10 blocks by 10, with each block having four frontages on which single-family homes can be built. In total, that’s 400 frontages.

Let’s assume that this town has roughly 10 homes per frontage, so that’s 4,000 houses total (ignoring corners for simplicity). Let’s also assume that this town is currently fully housed, so at the American average of 2.51 people per household, that’s 10,040 residents.

The story starts when those residents give their local government a clear, near-unanimous mandate (despite whatever other political differences): “We want more jobs!” Jobs mean growth, and no one opposes that, right?

The government duly responds, and through various public-private, state-local, and local-federal initiatives, manages to grow the city’s jobs base by 400 in a year. Since pretty much everyone in town already has a job, those 400 new jobs bring in 400 new transplants.

It just so happens that this town also is going through a zoning revision. But this is actually a good thing, because the town needs to figure out how to accommodate these 400 new transplants and the average 160 new homes that will need to be constructed in order to house their 2.51 people per household.

The zoning commission initially figures that most of the town’s land area isn’t suitable for building duplexes on, let alone anything larger, so they propose to upzone only 40% of the city’s frontages.

This gets met by an outcry. “They want to increase our population by 40%!”, alarmed citizens protest. These citizens propose a different plan to limit growth to a mere 4% of the city’s frontages. “The city’s population only grew by 4%, so we should only upzone 4% of the city,” they say.

However well-intentioned they are, though, these citizens are in truth misguided. Under the zoning commission’s plan, 1600 houses would have been eligible for duplexes. A mere tenth of them would have ever actually had to be converted to handle the 160 new households; thus the plan would have been able to accommodate 10 straight years of this impressive 4% job growth before needing another zoning update.

The citizens’ plan, meanwhile, would have left only 160 frontages eligible, just barely enough for one year’s jobs and population growth. And it means that 4 whole city blocks would have to be radically altered – every single house converted to duplexes.

Citizen Cassandra, wise and clairvoyant as she is, proposes a seemingly radical plan in the other direction: upzone the whole city. Her opponents loudly wonder if she’s mad: “Her plan is even worse than the zoning commission’s! Does she truly want to double our population? Someone send the police to do a mental health check on Cassandra.”

But under Cassandra’s plan, the 160 new duplexes could be spread among all 400 of the city’s frontages. A mere two in five frontages would even see a single duplex built. The change would barely be noticeable. Three in five frontages of the city would remain exactly the same.

Cassandra’s neighbors agree that they want change and growth, but they want it, as The Hour might describe, to be “soft”. But only Cassandra’s plan truly delivers “soft” growth. Will they heed her warning? Or will they plow ahead in their hubris, ostracizing her even when her prophecies come true?

David Muccigrosso


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