If a neighbor adds a backyard cottage for grandma, it will not turn Colorado Springs into Union City, N.J. Not even close.
The city’s consideration of allowing “additional dwelling units” — or ADUs in bureaucratese — has opponents blowing up the downsides of density. We could, they warn, end up with crowded neighborhoods with too many cars for the streets, too few parking spaces and crowds bustling about on otherwise peaceful residential sidewalks.
That would not be the scenario if every single-family home in Colorado Springs added an ADU, which is never going to happen.
We mention Union City because of that community’s distinction for the most population density of any city in the United States: 54,138 persons per square mile. We don’t want that in Colorado Springs. We don’t want the density of New York, with 28,211 persons per square mile. Or Washington, D.C., with 9,800 per square mile.
With a density of 2,391 individuals per square mile, Colorado Springs could be a small Midwestern farm town. We are about as dense as Eagan, Minn., Eau Claire, Wis., or DeSoto, Texas.
We would nearly have to double our density to surpass Boulder’s 4,383 persons per square mile or Denver’s 4,530. We are less dense than Fort Collins, Lakewood and an assortment of other Front Range cities.
Our low density comes with advantages. Most residents enjoy a surplus of space. Although everyone complains about a lack of on-street parking, we have more in Colorado Springs than residents of most other large cities enjoy.
The downsides of low-density are mostly economic and cultural. Low-density neighborhoods cannot support small community grocers every few blocks. They don’t support an endless array of neighborhood restaurants and independent shops found in cities with higher densities. Low-density cities struggle to support mass transit. Fewer customers per mile mean less efficient use and funding of roads, pipelines and other linear infrastructure assets.
We can debate the merits and pitfalls of density, but we should not exaggerate the densification brought about by ADUs.
A Gazette article by Conrad Swanson explains how other cities that allow ADUs have seen only slow, small-scale construction of additional living spaces. Denver has allowed ADUs for about 10 years and gets only dozens of permit requests each year. The deregulation of ADUs generates housing for about 50 residents each year in a city of 620,000 people.
Durango began allowing ADUs in 2014. Homeowners have added 25 units in five years to a city of nearly 20,000 residents.
ADUs don’t magically proliferate the moment the building code allows them. They require planning, permitting, labor, significant investment and a desire by homeowners to build them.
All that bodes well for the prospect of ADUs, but the city must proceed with caution and respect for reasonable concerns raised by opponents.
We don’t want ADUs built on spec by investors trying to create temporary housing for mini-vacations and other temporary uses. The city should craft ADU regulations that restrict residency to relatively “permanent” occupants committed to leases of six months or more. The owner of an ADU must live in one structure on the property.
By allowing ADUs with proper restrictions, the city would benefit homeowners needing auxiliary housing for aging parents, college students and others with semi-permanent non-traditional housing needs. Get the details right, so everyone will win.