Low-Rise, High-Density Housing Is the Solution
By Henry Morgenstein | Aug. 20, 2022
When I heard about the possibility of high-rise buildings in Traverse City, I despaired about what was being contemplated in my beautiful hometown. I wrote a short, emotional letter to the editor about the beautiful, low-rise (nothing more than three stories), high-density (lots of people live along these crowded-with-houses streets) neighborhood I live in six months of the year in Highfield, Southampton, England.
Why? Three times in my life (ages 9-22; 30-33) I lived in nine-story high buildings in New York City: 162nd Street and Riverside Dr., then 99th just off Broadway. Later, in adulthood, 99 Marble Hill in Upper Manhattan.
There was a cadence to every trip. Lock the door. Walk down a narrow dark hall to an elevator. Press the button. Wait for the elevator. Get into a small cubicle that takes you down nine flights. (As a child, I always had nightmares about the cable snapping and the elevator, with me inside it, plummeting down.) The door opens, you walk along another long hall or into a large entrance way. Finally, you emerge into the air outside.
Conversely, in Southampton, I walk out my front door and there is a sidewalk 10 feet away.
Our Southampton house is a terraced house, and both side walls are shared with houses on either side of us. (In America, we call these “row-houses.”) The house is large; there is a basement, a full kitchen and dining room, and just outside the back, a garden. The first floor is over 20 feet wide and very long, with windows at the back overlooking the garden and bow windows at the front facing the street. The second floor has three separate bedrooms and a full bath.
In New York City, I never knew anyone in my building—never saw a familiar face in a supermarket or shop. In Southampton, I see and talk to all the people in our row of houses and often meet tennis or dancing friends in our local supermarket. Because I taught at NMC for 30 years, I cannot help but meet a student everywhere I go in Traverse City. I shop at Oryana, which is literally a town square for my hippy friends.
But even though I’ve seen both sides of the equation and know which one I prefer, I knew emotion would not be enough. I needed research that proved you can get just as many people into compact, three-story houses as you could into nine-story monstrosities.
I took to Google, searching “density high-rise vs. low-rise,” “housing capacity high-rise vs. low-rise,” and “crime high-rise vs. low-rise.” Here are just a few lines garnered in 20 minutes’ worth of research.
“Rebuilding traditional streets of terraced housing could cut crime and raise living standards while still housing more people than high-rise blocks,” The Telegraph reports.
“By the 1960s … architects and planners were beginning to rethink and reintroduce low-rise high-density (LRHD) housing models as more livable alternatives to urban towers and suburban sprawl,” says Greta Hansen in Domus, a monthly magazine of architecture, design, and art.
A report written by Policy Exchange (a leading UK think tank) in conjunction with Create Streets (an organization focused on solving the housing crisis in the UK) finds, “Studies have shown that residents of high-rise blocks or large estates suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties, neurosis and marriage breakdowns. Children living in high rise accommodation suffer from increased hyperactivity, hostility and juvenile delinquency even when you adjust for social economic status.”
Lloyd Alter writes in The Guardian about “Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch.”
I love that last bit: Take the stairs in a pinch. As a kid in New York City, when I was visiting friends who only lived on the third or fourth floor, I jumped down two steps at a time. Several people said: “It sounds like you are falling down the steps.” I loved flying down the stairs. When I lived on the ninth floor? Never. Stairs weren’t an option, except in the case of an emergency.
So now, we circle back to Traverse City. The city currently limits most building heights to 60 feet—roughly five stories—due to the passage of Proposal 3 in 2016, which states that buildings over 60 feet must be approved by voters. This is wonderful, but we must be eternally vigilant. Long ago, citizens voted down plans to build a parking ramp downtown. Since then several parking ramps have been built downtown.
We should not be building nine-story buildings anywhere in Traverse City. There are other ways to achieve density without stacking people on top of each other.
Henry Morgenstein is an emeritus faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College. He wrote as a Record-Eagle columnist from 1985 to 1991 and was a WNMC commentator for 30 years. He also rode a bike (while raising two boys) through a dozen TC winters. He’s a firm believer in no cars inside cities.