Chapel Hill: Opinion

Will Wilson: Perils of pocket neighborhoods

Will Wilson
Will Wilson

A couple of months ago Durham lost an incredible community activist, Bill Anderson. I only knew him for half a dozen years or so, but I admired his love for Durham. We shared a fondness for exploring old houses, and while we were out and about, he filled me in on his most recent Durham concerns. I’ll miss him.

One of his last projects arose from Durham’s InterNeighborhood Council, a group of neighborhood delegates who meet monthly to discuss issues confronting Durham, including development, historical preservation and environmental concerns. Its listserv dispatches messages via the neighborhood representatives across the entire city. If your neighborhood isn’t involved, it should be.

Early last year Bill became interested in a parcel that was too narrow for a house under the current development rules. He organized a mini-lots committee on decreasing lot widths in Durham, and I had concerns that narrowing those requirements might mean losing precious urban open space.

It was an interesting group of people concerned with affordable housing, preservation, environment, and development, and included Tom Miller, John Martin, Kevin Davis, Fred Stoppelkamp, Bob Chapman, Peter Katz, Madeleine Roberts, Philip Azar, Bo Glenn, Dick Hails, Stacey Poston. (Apologetically, I’ve surely missed folks.)

We met at a restaurant and immediately upon hearing that the parcel once had a house under earlier less-stringent rules, we learned it could have a house under the more stringent rules. Job done.

More beer

Since we still had food to eat and beer to drink, we got to talking about compact neighborhoods, small lots, infills, cookie-cutter apartments, and the need for increased density as Durham keeps on growing. The conversation hit “pocket neighborhoods” (do an internet image search), which our current development rules prohibit.

Bill pushed and organized us to meet again and again over beer and dinner. At this point in time, we have a draft text amendment for Durham’s unified development ordinance (UDO) called the “Bill Anderson Pocket Neighborhood Text Amendment.” Sadly, Bill missed our February meeting because of a nasty cold, and passed away before we could meet again to finalize the details, which remains an ongoing process.

With such a diverse group, the text amendment’s details don’t reflect all participants’ views, and my comments here are mine alone. First, reading UDO text amendments leads to a slight amount of bleeding in my eyes, and only planning professionals can really navigate the ins and outs of the many parts of the UDO, so my understanding may be a bit off.

But some details worry me, and it’s at a stage where the community should have input. If you’ve done an internet search, a seemingly guiding feature of pocket neighborhoods is that all of the units abut tree-filled green areas. The text amendment doesn’t reflect that vision, and parts suggest to me that a developer could design a pocket neighborhood for 20 units on one-half to 2 acres with just a 45 by 45 foot open space area that also serves stormwater purposes and has up to 15 percent hard surfaces. Each single-family, townhouse, duplex, or apartment unit can be up to 1,700 sq ft on a parcel as small as 810 sq ft with 90 percent imperviousness.

Further, only half of the units need to look out on the open space. To me, that’s a big flaw in this amendment.

Lacking pictures, suppose the “0” in “101” is the green area and each “1” denotes a dense row of small houses. A pocket neighborhood has houses opening out onto a common green area. If only half the units need abut the green area, then the proposed text amendment allows “11011” where only half of the units have a side that looks onto the green area. When pocket neighborhoods are placed adjacent to one another we see “1101111011” where the interior units won’t see much green.

Allowing apartments as the building type for pocket neighborhoods also means we could end up with a single, 20-unit apartment with limited setbacks sitting beside stormwater control measures with only passive recreational use. As Durham developments tend to play out, one can be confident that on lots as small as possible, open space will be minimal and units large and plentiful.

So I urge the community to think about the broader concerns. I want to limit sprawl with Durham’s growing population, and the proposed amendment is one such possibility; it just has an inappropriate warm and fuzzy title for what really amounts to an infill proposition. Other infill approaches could simply reduce the minimum lot size: Someone could tear down one old dilapidated home, divide the lot in half, and put up two narrower houses. My hope for the above pocket neighborhoods amendment was an option for affordable home ownership: Imagine 400 square-foot tiny houses in a real pocket neighborhood that sells for $50,000. Take out two dilapidated houses and put in a dozen of these tiny homes.

It’s a topic Durham needs to consider, but I fear a text amendment that replaces the old homes in established neighborhoods with apartments and a stormwater infiltration trench.

Will Wilson teaches biology at Duke University. You can reach him at