AirBnB to try Modular Construction

Fast Company published an exclusive about AirBnB at the end of November. The home sharing company proposed a new initiative called Backyard, which came from their division focused on the future. It is very ambitious, as it aims to rethink the entire process of designing, building, and updating homes.

While the company’s move into the physical world of construction is the main headline, I’m more interested in one of the other details – that the homes will be modular.

Modular structures are not a new idea, but they have not gained much traction in the residential world. The vast majority of homes that people live in today were built on site from lumber.

Modular construction, where larger sections of a structure are built off-site, is more common in commercial development. For example, the large parking garage that the State built on the corner of Buckingham and Washington near the Capitol building relied heavily on modules that were trucked in and assembled by crane.

State Garage at Buckingham and Washington

I like the idea of modular homes. That might seem like a surprising position for an “old house” person to take, but if I ever built a new home then I would definitely look at modular options in order to increase the build quality and reduce the construction time. I would expect modular construction to save me money too.

What is exciting about AirBnB getting into modular construction is that they have the potential to try the idea at a large scale. The Fast Company article noted that the company was valued at about $38 billion. As a point of comparison public homebuilder D.R. Horton, one of the largest in the country, had a market cap of about $13 billion at that time.

A large scale trial of modular homebuilding by AirBnB is unlikely to happen in Connecticut. We don’t have a large unmet demand for housing, and the available land is relatively far from the existing job centers. We’ll have to watch their experiment from a distance.

Hopefully the combination of AirBnB’s drive to expand their business, their ability to finance the effort, and their fresh perspective on homebuilding will result in many home innovations and progress towards making modular construction the standard for new residential properties.

Remembering the Shopping Mall

Westfarms Mall on a December Weekend Afternoon

Once upon a time, the shopping mall was at the top of the retail food chain. The mall was home to the best stores, and the most excitement.

Amy and I grew up in the mall era. Our small town (population ~25,000) had its own little mall that kids hung out in, but it was not comparable to the shopping destinations that are available in Greater Hartford. Both of our families made the hours-long drive to larger towns with bigger malls for back to school shopping.

Back in the day we went to the mall to buy clothes, electronics, and even tools at the anchor stores. There was always a toy store in the mall, but we usually weren’t allowed to go in there. And, of course, there were the delicious specialty food shops … Orange Julius anyone?

Malls haven’t dominated the retail environment for a long time, as big box stores sprouted up in mall-adjacent locations decades ago. The crowds that turn up during the Christmas shopping season are a nice reminder of olden times when it seemed like everyone was at the mall.

Transit Oriented Development Fail

Directly across the street from the Flatbush Avenue Fastrak station is the first new development along the rapid bus transit corridor.

The site was assembled by combining three adjacent parcels. It appears that the developer paid over $1 million for the properties in two separate deals in September of 2015. The map below comes from the West Hartford GIS site, with the new development outlined in red and the Fastrak station outlined in green.

2016-03-24 Flatbush Development

A plywood construction barrier was installed around the entire perimeter, and the various buildings on the site were torn down. I was excited about the prospect of a new development right across the street from the transit station. It was the first of what will hopefully be many new projects along the bus line.

Next to Flatbush Station

The project has been public for quite some time, so you may already know what they’re building. But for those that don’t. What do you think that steel rising above the plywood construction barrier will eventually be? What is the big investment being made across the street from public transportation?

Gas Station

It’s a gas station! Cue the sad trombone.

I’m no Transit Oriented Development expert, but my understanding is that a gas station is an auto-centric land use, which is generally discouraged for TOD sites. Worst of all, this will be the second gas station on the intersection.

There is no doubt that this will be a beautiful gas station. It will be spacious, and brand new, but putting a gas station next to the transit station is a failure – a lost opportunity. That lot could have been used for something far more complementary to the busway.

It is interesting to read Ronni Newton’s account of the Annual Economic Development Update given by West Hartford Director of Community Services Mark McGovern on March 24, 2016. Ms. Newton captured scores of specific projects and businesses mentioned during the talk, and included paragraphs about Transit Oriented Development and the New Park Avenue Corridor. However, there was apparently no mention of this gas station.

Perhaps further development, real transit oriented development, could save the Flatbush Station. The Town is optimistic that a station for the New Haven – Hartford commuter rail will be located at that site. Maybe the connection to both the busway (access to Hartford and New Britain and all the spurs), plus the train access (New Haven and even New York City) will encourage a most substantial development.

Imagine a building that straddles the transit corridor. The ground level would be the transit stations. Above the stations would be a couple levels of parking. Above that would be multiple residential towers. By bridging the busway and railroad tracks, the building could also provide a much better pedestian connection between New Park Avenue and the WalMart plaza on the other side.

Now that would be transit oriented development.

Proposal: Arcadia Crossing in West Hartford

John Scobie, of Center Development Corporation, spoke to the Park Road Business Association this morning about his firm’s plans for the Sisters of Saint Joseph property on the southwest corner of Park Road and Prospect Avenue in West Hartford.

Center Development hopes to build a 320 unit apartment community that will be called Arcadia Crossing. The existing 185,000 sqft structure would receive a 308,000 sqft addition to connect the southern end of the existing wings, and wrap around the eastern end of the chapel.

2015-02-20 Arcadia Crossing

Scobie said that the $90 million project is designed to include 60 studios, 120 one bedrooms, and 160 two bedrooms. It is a market rate project, and rents are expected to range from $1,400/month to $2,800/month.

One of the unique features of the development is that the Sisters of Saint Joseph will remain on the site. The property will be legally structured as a condominium community, but with only two units. One unit will be the residences for the Sister in the west wing of the building. The other unit will be the 320 apartments and associated common spaces that will be managed by Center Development.

Scobie highlighted two other constraints that were a point of emphasis in the design phase. Center Development wanted to maximize the amount of open space on the property, and has 14 acres of it in the current proposal. They also wanted to minimize the visual impact of the addition. The southern wing will not be visible from Park Road, and they have broken up the exterior design so that the façade is architecturally varied when viewed from Prospect Avenue.

The current proposal calls for 549 parking spaces for the apartment residents (plus more for the Sisters). A two level parking garage will form the base of the southern addition, and will accommodate 295 cars. The remaining 254 spots will be surface parking.

Community amenities will include a swimming pool, tennis courts, barbecue/picnic area, community “living room,” fitness center, yoga/pilates studio, and catering kitchen.

Scobie said that Center Development plans to pursue the necessary zoning permits soon. They hope to begin construction in the fall of 2015 and be ready for occupancy in the spring of 2017.

Transit Oriented Development in West Hartford

Last week, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka gave the 2015 State of the Town address at a West Hartford Chamber of Commerce event. The speech was an upbeat analysis of the Town’s priorities and current status; a thorough recap can be read here.

One recurring theme was West Hartford’s forward looking focus on transit oriented development.

Slifka said at one point that neither he, nor anyone else on the Town Council, were big fans of the Fastrak project that is passing through Town. The project is approaching completion, with service scheduled to start on March 28, 2015. There are two stations in the southeastern corner of West Hartford – one at the intersection of New Park Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, and another at the intersection of New Park Avenue and New Britain Avenue.

2015-01-21 Flatbush Busway Station

Despite a lukewarm opinion of the massive busway project, the Town has proactively taken steps to try to make it as successful as possible. Slifka said that zoning regulations along New Park Avenue have been modified to allow residential property uses.

More important to Slifka was that train service continue along the busway corridor, and that West Hartford get a future train station.

Slifka identified Brunswick, Maine, a coastal town north of Portland, as a place of interest. What resonated with Slifka was that some of Brunswick’s residents commute by train to jobs in Boston, which is about 130 miles away.

He said employees that only need to be in the office one or two days a week are able to choose both the lifestyle of Brunswick, and the job in Boston. Rail service between the two makes that lifestyle possible.

Brunswick Station is one end of the Amtrak Downeaster route, connecting through Portland to Boston’s North Station twice per day. The trip is advertised as 3 hours and 25 minutes, and there is currently one morning train and one evening train per day. There are five each day between Boston and Portland.

Slifka felt that West Hartford, with regular train service in town, could provide a similar experience. He noted that both New York City and Boston would be within commuting distance of West Hartford, making the Town even more attractive to those types of workers.

West Hartford sees an opportunity to capitalize on Transit Oriented Development, and is setting the bar high. The next step will be improving train service through the state, which is already under discussion.