SALT LAKE CITY — A new federal report says putting up houses where buildings once existed — such as former industrial sites, underused retail centers or slums — will not only increase property values but will also help the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Sustainable Communities released an analysis of residential construction trends in the United States, particularly looking at "infill" housing that goes in on already developed land.
Such a practice — examined in 209 metropolitan regions across the country, including three in Utah — is easier on the air we breathe, reducing the need for traveling long distances from outlying developments, and can help preserve natural resources in the form of open space.
The report, released this month, also stressed that because infill housing consumes less undeveloped land, less polluted stormwater is washing off of new roadways and impairing local streams and other waterways.
Called "Residential Construction Trends in America's Metropolitan Regions," the 2012 report looked at new housing in 51 large metropolitan areas of a million or more people — including Salt Lake City — and also surveyed areas of more than 200,000 people — such as the Ogden-Clearfield region and Provo-Orem in Utah County. New housing includes single-family homes, apartments and condominiums.
What the report found is that the Salt Lake metro area ranked 12th among 51 large metro areas with its amount of infill housing as a percentage of new housing.
That ranking puts it ahead of neighboring metro areas such as Denver, and outpaces cities like Washington, D.C., and Boston.
The other two metro areas, while pursuing those types of developments less frequently than Salt Lake, are expected to make strides with new transit options coming online, such as FrontRunner's extension into Utah County.
City planners in Davis and Weber counties, too, are beginning to emphasize planned communities near transit hubs, such as housing that has sprung up near the Farmington stop of the commuter-rail line.
Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said infill housing, in many circumstances, is the new reality of the Salt Lake Valley's geographical boundaries.
"I think part of the story here about our metro area is that it is a few constrained valleys linked together," Knowlton said. "We have mountains and lakes that form real boundaries to growth, and we are just starting to bump up against those limits and fill out the valleys. As that happens, developers, home buyers and employers are looking to find areas to build on — areas that have been built on in the past."
Such rebuilding can be revitalizing.
Take Bingham Junction in Midvale, which occupies a portion of the former Sharon Steel EPA-designated Superfund site. Contamination and slag have been replaced by a thriving shopping district and a mix of sparkling new houses.
That type of development on tired land is exactly what the council's planning vision called "Wasatch Choice For 2040" pushes for — new transit-oriented neighborhoods and businesses that combine into a walkable community.
"That is one of the basic tenets of the vision," said Sam Klemm, Wasatch Front Regional Council spokesman.
The report takes note of a 2011 survey that found six of 10 adults would prefer to live in communities that offer housing, stores and other businesses nearby.
"These types of developments sell themselves," Klemm said. "Developers are starting to see that there is a market for this. That is not to say that we won't have traditional subdivisions built in traditional neighborhoods."
Turning to infill housing as a viable alternative to the sprawl of outlying neighborhoods, however, can provide significant environmental benefits, the report said, with studies showing that people who live in infill developments typically drive less.
"Less driving means fewer emissions from transportation per resident," the study said. "Furthermore, reusing land in areas that are already surrounded by buildings, roads and infrastructure can help reduce pressure to develop open land on the fringes of the metropolitan region — such as farms and other working lands, recreational areas or environmentally sensitive wild lands."
Wilf Sommerkorn, Salt Lake City's planning director, said the metro area has naturally had to turn to building on previously built land.
"Salt Lake City is pretty much all built out. There are little pockets of undeveloped land here and there, but almost all of our development is infill development," he said.
The Gateway, for example, occupies a former railroad yard, and Artspace, west of the city's downtown area, sits in space once taken up by warehouses and industry.
Sommerkorn also pointed to the Granary District on the western side of Salt Lake City, City Creek with its 500 housing units, new grocery store and mall; the planned streetcar line in Sugar House, adding to the impact of TRAX and Frontrunner along the Wasatch Front. The City Creek project was not a part of the calculation that resulted in the report released this month.
The EPA analysis of residential construction trends stretching back to 2000 found that regions with a higher investment in rail transit tended to have higher shares of infill development.
Overall, infill represented one-fifth of all new housing construction in the metropolitan areas that were part of the analysis.
Klemm said as transit continues to reach new areas infill housing will become an even more dominant trend.
"We need to capitalize on that transit. Every time we can do that, we save some open space, we incentivize transit use and get people out of cars," he said. "That delays the day that we have to widen the roads more, and that helps a little with air quality, accommodating people who choose that lifestyle."