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PAUL MCMORROW

Seed urban neighborhoods with micro-apartments

Most conversations about micro-apartments start and end with their size. That’s only natural, since, with measurements dropping as low as 300 square feet, the tiny apartments now sweeping across the Seaport District are far smaller than anything Bostonians have seen before. As these micro-apartment units roll into the market, jokes about living in a shoebox are being met by something else — shock at how much it costs to live in a shoebox.

This is partly the fault of officials in City Hall, who initially sold small living as one answer to Boston’s crushingly high rents. The problem’s bigger than that, though. City officials have been pushing for the development of micro-apartments, but they’ve never been able to articulate why 300-square-foot micro-units might be preferable to conventional 700-square foot apartments. The micro-apartments actually are a perfect fit for a place like the Seaport, but the reason has nothing to do with price.

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The real impact of micro-apartments isn’t felt in any one resident’s monthly rent check, but in the concentration of bodies and disposable income in neighborhoods that need street life. The tiny units can double the number of residents a typical apartment building would accommodate, enabling neighborhoods to achieve density without towering height. They’re a means to an end, a way of flooding dead zones with vitality. And they only work when they’re placed with this end in mind.

The boom in tiny apartments comes from a fundamental question that followed Mayor Tom Menino’s 2010 rebranding of the Seaport — the stretch of underdeveloped warehouses and parking lots running between the Fort Point Channel and Boston Harbor — as the city’s Innovation District. The designation was less a policy than a challenge. A thorny question followed soon after Menino’s challenge: What does innovative, unique housing actually look like? Architects and developers pitched the city on a couple of models from Europe, semi-finished loft spaces and dorm-like co-housing complexes. Boston officials never told Innovation District developers exactly what they wanted to see built; they just demanded innovation without regard for the city’s zoning code, and pushed harder when they didn’t like the proposals they received.

Micro-apartment units have emerged from this fundamentally subjective enterprise as the city’s preferred means of bringing innovation to Seaport District housing. The units are tiny, and rely on shared living (communal living rooms and outdoor spaces) and working (conference rooms and desk space) amenities. The apartments are targeted toward young entrepreneurs who work long hours and value amenities in their building and in their neighborhood over extra square footage inside their own units. And, in theory, the apartments’ small size means they come at a discount to the high prices that bedevil Boston housing.

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However, if anything, micro-apartments are more expensive to build than conventional apartments. A developer constructing two 300-foot micro-apartments instead of one 600-foot studio has to build more walls, run more wiring, and double up on plumbing, bathroom fixtures, and kitchen counters and cabinets. All these things cost money. So when micro-apartments cost relatively more to build, they don’t get the kind of discounts their tight confines might suggest. Rent in a new innovation unit on Melcher Street in Fort Point starts at $1,700 per month.

The fact that innovation housing is expensive doesn’t mean that micro-apartments are worthless. In a country that has privatized public space and withdrawn behind closed gates for decades, micro-apartments alter the balance between private, shared, and public space in intriguing ways.

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What’s most important, though, is the potential micro-apartments have for the way urban neighborhoods are constructed or revived. When micro-apartments squeeze more bodies into a set square-footage allotment, they form deeper pools of income, and more robust markets for local businesses. They amplify the benefits of new development.

Successful urban neighborhoods start with sidewalk traffic and active ground floors; when deployed right, micro-apartments could deliver dense concentrations of new residents needed to speed neighborhood turnaround efforts. Fort Point is a good place to build micro-apartments, not because it’s home to numerous tech companies, but because office workers still badly outnumber residents in the neighborhood. An even better fit would be a place like Dudley Square. City officials are trying to seed a neighborhood comeback by building a new municipal office building in the square, but the area also needs a big residential push. And unlike the Seaport, Dudley doesn’t have the high land costs that make even tiny apartments expensive.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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