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Building for the “Missing Middle”

Posted on Mar 01, 2016 in Urban Design , Mark Schnell , March-April 2016

It’s a difficult time to be a developer: community opposition to new development is high, financing is difficult to secure and the risks of developing in a fragile economy are very real.

What’s that you say? You have no sympathy for developers? “Cry me a river,” you say?

It’s a sentiment that has been earned over the years. One can point to plenty of terrible developments created by the stereotypical “greedy developer.” They waltz into a community located far from their own home and build whatever is profitable, regardless of the impacts on the community. At this point, it seems like developers are somewhere between criminals and politicians (or is that redundant?) on the scale of public esteem.

Of course, that’s all a massive simplification. There are many great developers who have shaped our communities for the better. And I’m guessing that you, my dear reader, probably live in a residence or community built by a developer. Unless you live in a cave, you can most likely thank a developer. We all live in the human habitat, and developers play a big role in shaping it.

If you are reading this column in The Seaside Times, you are probably familiar with Seaside, and you might even be enjoying a coffee while reading the paper near Central Square. We can thank the visionary developers Robert and Daryl Davis for this wonderful community. So let’s begin with the premise that developers can — and often do — create great places.

It may seem like a fool’s errand to defend developers, but I’m doing this for good reason: we need more great developers, or at least ones who make positive contributions to our communities.

According to an article on Planners Web by Patrick Fox of The Saint Consulting Group, 79 percent of Americans want no new development projects in their communities. I have bad news for that incredibly high percentage of Americans: most privately owned land can be legally developed in some way, shape, or form. And if you live in a place that’s growing, there’s a decent chance that empty parcel near you will eventually be developed.

So development is going to happen, whether we like it or not. And therefore, it’s in our best interest to encourage those “good” developers instead of encouraging the “bad” ones.

I recently attended a workshop in Seaside conducted by the Incremental Development Alliance, and hosted by the Seaside Institute. It was a boot camp for those who would like to become small-scale developers.

They are trying to fill a hole in both the housing market and our communities. They call it the Missing Middle. This is a term coined by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design. It refers to the housing types between detached single-family houses on one extreme, and mid-rise and high-rise multi-family buildings on the other. The Missing Middle consists of housing types including duplexes, small (three or four unit) apartments, townhouses, and live/work units, among others. Refer to for a nice illustration of this. These housing types were built with some frequency long ago in America, and they are a hallmark of many great old neighborhoods, but they are not built very often today.

In walkable urbanism — a development pattern that is in high demand today — these buildings are essential pieces. They are the right scale to blend with a wide range of existing development (particularly the single family houses), avoiding the giant scale changes that have a negative effect on a neighborhood (such as a giant condo tower next to a single family house). And the Missing Middle housing types would help to shrink the current deficit of affordable units (especially rental units), a phenomenon that is straining communities across the country. These buildings can also be mixed-use, providing

some neighborhood-scale commercial development along with the residential units. And most small-scale developers are working in their own communities, so there is an incentive for them to build compatible places. In short, small-scale developers of the Missing Middle can make a positive contribution to our communities.

By starting small, the group might be training the next generation of large-scale developers, too. One needs to start somewhere, and some of those who do well on the small scale might try something larger. Before you know it, we’ll have a few more of those “good” developers.

This is a group and an effort that emerged from the larger New Urbanist movement that was born in Seaside. In order to be successful, we need to change some of our zoning laws to allow these building types. Many in the New Urbanism world are working on this, but it remains a challenge.

There will always be some “bad apples” in the development world, of course, but clearly not all developers are bad. So, next time you sharpen up your pitchfork and light your torch to protest a new development, please consider what the developer is trying to do. That developer might be part of this new generation of small-scale developers that’s trying, despite all the challenges, to build the kind of places that will make a positive contribution to your corner of the human habitat.

Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. Learn more about his firm Schnell Urban Design at