Rick Emsiek has a clever way to sidestep the density quagmire. He introduces residential density into commercial areas with flat growth.

“Out here [in Irvine, Calif.], there's not much of an office market right now,” he says. “What's happening is that space is being rezoned for second-or third-generation office space. In certain cases, adding residential can be looked at as a really smart move.”

Indeed, Emsiek's approach makes sense on several levels. It leapfrogs opposition from neighbors (there are no neighbors). It reduces sprawl and transportation needs by putting people closer to services. And it adds value to commercial real estate.

“As a retailer, you want those rooftops,” Emsiek notes. “Another thing is that with a higher-density project we can get a really broad price range. Each unit is priced individually. A top-floor loft might cost a factor of two times that of the entry-level units.”

And that mix of incomes and age groups, he says, lends itself to a more genuine sense of community than age or rent-controlled alternatives.