You Don’t Always Have To Build Higher

One of my favorite tools is the City of Boston’s Assessing Search. If you want to know who owns a building, how big the lot is, what the living area is and how much the property is assessed in taxes, you just type in the address and get the result. One thing I’ve found is that many properties are owned by LLC’s of the same name. For example, 23 Madeup Lane is owned by Twenty-three Madeup Lane LLC. Sometimes the people behind that will be listed through the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, but more often than not you get a lawyer and not the actual owners.

Recently, debates over size and density at neighborhood meetings and Boston Redevelopment Authority meetings, have led me to compare lots and living areas. Using the information from the Assessor’s Office and the Streetview function of Google Maps, I’ve been able to make some interesting comparisons.

For example, the typical South End rowhouse lot is 1800 sq ft while the zoning code stipulates a minimum lot size of 6000 sq ft in West Roxbury — and the building footprint (living area divided by the number of floors) is around 850 sq ft while in West Roxbury it varies considerably but hovers around 1000 sq ft. Even Boston’s famous triple deckers come off poorly. A triple decker in the 3900 block of Washington St in Roslindale has a lot size of around 4000 sq ft and a footprint of about 1000 sq ft, meaning that it meaning it can take two South End lots or four of the houses with room left over for offstreet parking.

These facts are poorly known or understood and mean that, for example, a property owner could (with the right variances, alas) could replace one triple decker with two slightly smaller ones without erecting some kind of flat brick or pasteboard box or going any higher than they already are.

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2 thoughts on “You Don’t Always Have To Build Higher

  1. In Providence, there is a neighborhood of triple deckers, but one of the triple deckers is unique: it has another, identical triple decker lurking in its backyard. Since all the lots on that street are basically the same, you could easily double the density just by letting all the other owners do this, but the zoning laws declare even the single triple-deckers to be nonconforming.

    • Yeah, zoning rules are frequently designed with making people go through a community process in mind. I’m not sure that there’s anything currently existing in Boston that would, for example, not trigger a FAR violation. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand this and believe that zoning codes are like other laws — set in stone and inviolable.

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