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Saturday, February 16, 2013
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Ellsworth Commons in Malta, a mixed commercial and residential development.
Ellsworth Commons in Malta, a mixed commercial and residential development.

If you believe what regional planners are predicting, there will be an additional 60,000 people living in the Capital Region’s cities, towns and villages 30 years from now.

The population of Saratoga, Schenectady, Albany and Rensselaer counties, which today is in the 840,000 range, could be pushing 900,000 — and two-thirds of that growth, predictably enough, will be occurring in Saratoga County. The county will hit the 250,000 population threshold by 2040, if not sooner.

On average, those future residents are going to be older than today’s population, as the Baby Boomers enter their retirement years, and maybe rethink their lives.

So where will they live?

There are bound to be more of the classic suburban single-family subdivisions built in the future, but the current trend in some of the places most-identified with suburban sprawl is to encourage something that looks more like an old-fashioned downtown.

The term land use planners now use for zoning that encourages mixed-use development is a “form-based code” — and the idea is that a building’s exterior appearance, or “form,” is important to the surrounding community, more than the uses inside the building.

“The purpose of a form-based code is to have a mixed-use, higher-density, pedestrian-friendly environment,” said Rocco Ferraro, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

Traditional American zoning laws have sought to place single-family, apartment and commercial land uses in different parts of a town. That keeps residential areas quiet, but can force people to rely on automobiles to reach business services in other parts of town — a situation social critics have argued can promote isolation and loneliness, and contributes to petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Under a form-based code, commercial and residential uses can co-exist in the same building, or at least close together — and restaurants and other service-oriented businesses can be within walking distance of where people live.

Ferraro said it’s something he expects the Baby Boom generation — whose members are now roughly ages 47 to 67 — to be interested in as they age, and wish to drive less.

Like everything else about the Baby Boom, its sheer population size — 78 million born in the United States — will change the way society deals with retirement, including where and how they chose to live.

“Study after study has shown sidewalks create a healthy environment. It’s good for a healthy lifestyle,” Ferraro said.

There’s also a lot of speculation that younger generations will have a new interest in living in densely settled areas.

“In many cases they grew up in the suburbs and are interested in a more vibrant environment,” Ferraro said.

In Saratoga County — which has tripled in population since 1950, with many of those people buying the classic single-family lot in a suburb — several Northway corridor communities are adopting new zoning laws designed to encourage more mixed-use development, and less reliance on automobiles.

It’s different from how municipal planners have traditionally thought about communities.

“You’re not so interested in how many units you have per acre as how it looks,” explained Michael Valentine, Saratoga County’s senior planner.

Saratoga Springs has employed a version of a “form-based code” in parts of the city for years. Malta adopted a similar code and now the town of Clifton Park is looking at adopting one.

For Malta, the new zone is being established in the developing “downtown” along Route 9, close to Northway Exit 12 and near the large Luther Forest housing development and the Luther Forest Technology Campus.

Malta’s zoning has allowed for dense downtown development for years — and with the arrival of GlobalFoundries, it has actually started to happen. Critics say projects like the 310-unit Ellsworth Commons apartment-commercial development on Route 9 are too dense, but the apartments have filled up.

The latest zoning changes will implement a form-based code that actually scales back the building sizes to something much smaller than Ellsworth Commons, but still encourages the mixed-use concept.

In Clifton Park, meanwhile, form-based code zoning is being eyed for the commercial corridor off Exit 9, which is now filled with shopping centers — but very few places where people actually live.

The town is hoping to encourage more people to live there at some point, said Town Supervisor Phil Barrett.

The town last year completed the first phase of a study for how the area could be changed.

The commercial properties will probably redevelop at some point, as the Clifton Park Center mall already has, Barrett said. When that happens, the town would like to be able to encourage residential settlement.

“The vision talks about how that area could be developed as a high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly corridor,” said Ferraro, who lives in Clifton Park and is chairman of the town Planning Board.

He said form-based codes have grown from a line of thinking among municipal planners that Baby Boomers, as they age, will be interested in giving up their large lawns and auto-dependence, and will wish to live in apartments or condominiums that are within walking distance of restaurants and stores.

“The thing about Baby Boomers is they’re unpredictable,” Ferraro said. “But that said, their sheer numbers will create opportunities.”

Apartment construction is also booming, at least in part because single-family homes remain financially out of reach for many people — though that can’t be the only reason. Young professionals are among those filling new apartment complexes.

Developers identify apartment buildings as a construction trend. New apartment complexes in Saratoga County communities like Wilton and Milton fill up at soon as they’re ready for lease.

The Greater Capital Association of Realtors, however, reported that 2012 was the best in several years in both total sales and sales prices of single-family homes. That follows several disappointing years for real estate sales after the recession.

In Capital Region counties, median prices last year ranged from $97,000 in Montgomery County to $258,000 in Saratoga County, but were higher in every county except Schoharie, according to GCAR’s annual summary of 2012 activity.

“Prices are appreciating and interest rates are at historic lows,” said Miguel Berger, GCAR’s 2013 president.

To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.

 
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