Re-Inventing the Suburbs

With new retrofits and redevelopment efforts, suburbs are preparing to handle population growth.


Suburb bashing is a popular pastime. Soccer moms. Mini-vans. Lawn gnomes. Who can resist?

But suburbia is more than fodder for sit-coms. As the real estate market moves toward a new normal, many suburbs — especially those nearest the urban core — are in the sweet spot. Not as unaffordable as the city and or as distant as the exurbs, they’re well situated to attract the next round of growth and development.

“The great advantage [suburbs] have is they have a good location. They’re half way from everywhere,” says William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis and author of “Half Way to Everywhere: A Portrait of America’s First Tier Suburbs.”

Hudnut’s book came out before the recession, but his observations are even more relevant today as the mortgage meltdown exposed the hazards of continuing to build more and more subdivisions farther and farther afield. “It’s clear that the disconnect between housing and jobs, long daily commutes and time wasted in traffic is causing more and more people to rethink how and where they’re living,” says Patrick Phillips, CEO of the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Bulldozing suburbia and herding everyone into the city isn’t the solution. The solution is to make the successive rings of cul de sacs and strip malls built after World War II — when rampant highway construction sowed the seeds for sprawl — more livable, more sustainable and more capable of accommodating future growth.

“The consequences of the recession are magnifying the problems of sprawl [and] there is an energy in the air about dealing with it,” says Galina Tachieva, director of town planning with Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. (DPZ).

Tachieva is the author of “The Sprawl Repair Manual.” While she’s quick to point out that suburbs and sprawl aren’t automatically synonymous, more often than not, the shoe fits. Tachieva’s book provides a toolbox of design, regulatory and implementation techniques for both inner and outer suburbs to retrofit themselves at the block scale (example: adding accessory dwelling units to individual lots), the community scale (example: transforming malls into main streets) and the regional scale (example: stitching regional nodes together with transit).

This isn’t pie in the sky. Although the recession put many projects on hold, retrofitting is moving full steam ahead in places like Mableton, Ga. This unincorporated Atlanta suburb is blazing the trail for Cobb County to create a series of “lifelong communities” that will enable people to “grow up and grow old in the same place,” says Dana Johnson, county planning division manager.

With assistance from DPZ, the county adopted a form-based code and illustrative master plan to guide redevelopment of Mableton’s core from a hodge-podge of strip retail into a true town center with a more concentrated mix of housing, services and amenities. Voters then approved a local option sales tax to pay for infrastructure improvements such as redesigning streets and building a town square.

While the goal is to create a community suitable for all ages, doing so requires paying special attention to the needs of older adults, says Johnson. For example, the code requires every building to have at least one entry without steps and calls for shorter blocks with pocket parks to make walking easier.

The retrofitting story is the smart growth story told at a time when more and more people are ready to listen. They’ve seen property values fall hardest and foreclosures spread fastest in areas where sprawl is most pervasive. They’ve watched rising gas prices turn the “drive until you qualify” model of home-buying upside down. They’ve become more conscious of their carbon footprint and how sprawl hurts the environment. And — especially among baby boomers and Generation Y — they’ve indicated a desire for urban living.

Big cities will absorb some of the demand. And so will many first-generation suburbs that were built before sprawl— with its fragmented street grid, separated land uses and dependence on the automobile — became the dominant pattern of development. But neither cities nor their first-generation suburbs can handle all the growth that’s coming. Not with the country’s population expected to increase by 2.5 million to 2.8 million a year.

The suburbs, according to one joke, are where people cut down the trees and name the streets after them. But if continuing to turn fields, farms and forests into new subdivisions was ever the answer to future housing demand, the recession delivered a sobering slap in the face. The only place left for growth to go? Existing suburban communities, “There is no other choice,” says Tachieva.

That’s why more and more suburbs are undergoing various degrees of retrofitting emphasizing compact, walkable, mixed-use development with a variety of housing and transportation choices— all core principles of smart growth. “Suburban development in the 21st century cannot mean sprawling development,” says Phillips. “That is simply not a sustainable growth model. In the suburbs, less and less land will have to be used to accommodate more people.”

Architecture professors Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson are co-authors of “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.” Their recently updated book takes readers on a tour of retrofitting projects from coast to coast. “We talk about retrofitting as having three distinct styles — redevelopment, re-inhabitation and re-greening,” says Dunham-Jones.

The thrust isn’t to remake suburbia’s single-family neighborhoods. The multiplicity of individual property owners — and their likely objection— prohibits that. The thrust is to insert choices— especially more urban choices — into the suburban landscape.

“We are oversupplied” with sprawling suburban development, Williamson says. “It’s almost like the industry that sustained the suburbs was building the suburbs. We really need to diversify. There are some real imbalances around the country, which speaks to opportunity.”

Failing malls, office parks, big box stores — and their vast parking lots — represent “under-performing asphalt” that begs to be turned into a more dense and diverse mix of housing, services and amenities that complement existing residential neighborhoods, says Williamson. “The idea is starting to resonate,” she says.

Redevelopment is probably the best known form of retrofitting and converting enclosed shopping malls into town centers and is probably the most frequently discussed example. The Denver area is ground zero for this trend with eight out of 13regional malls at various stages of retrofitting, says Dunham-Jones.

Topping that list is Belmar. Formerly the Villa Italia Mall, this vibrant urban district serves as the city of Lakewood’s new downtown, filling 23blocks with shopping, dining, entertainment and residential development, including lofts, urban row homes and condominiums built to accommodate 1,500 residents.

Another example of retrofitting via redevelopment is the Columbia Pike Corridor in suburban Virginia, where Arlington and Fairfax counties up-zoned four sites along a five-mile stretch of busy road to create mixed-use urban nodes that they plan to link with a streetcar. “We know that transit can trigger redevelopment,” says Dunham-Jones, “but this is one of the few cases where we’ve seen redevelopment used to trigger the transit.”

Re-inhabiting is a less intense form of retrofitting that involves converting empty buildings into new uses such as turning a big box store into a school or library. Although technically not in suburbia, One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville is a notable example of this strategy, says Dunham-Jones. After an extensive renovation, this mall remains open for retail on the ground floor but now houses Vanderbilt University Medical Center clinics and offices on its second floor.

Re-inhabiting is akin to what Hudnut calls “urban acupuncture” because it can be done incrementally and is therefore easier to implement than sweeping redevelopment. Re-inhabiting also is sound environmental policy. “There’s a saying that the greenest building is the one that is already built,” Hudnut says.

Re-greening is the most radical form of retrofitting because it means demolishing buildings and replacing them with ... nothing.

At least not anything with asphalt. Parks and open space, yes. Buildings and parking lots, no.

Wasteful as it may sound, re-greening makes a lot of sense for empty or outdated buildings constructed insensitive locations where “they never should have been built in the first place,” Dunham-Jones says. It can be good for both the environment and for surrounding development. “There’s a lot of recognition that [green space] increases surrounding property values where a dead building decreases property values,” Dunham- Jones says.

That’s exactly what happened in St. Paul, Minn., when a failing culvert compromised the parking lot of an aging strip mall built on a former wetland, says Dunham-Jones. Tearing down the strip mall and restoring the wetland led a developer to build the Village at Phelan, a townhome community overlooking the wetland.

Thornton Place on the edge of Seattle rolls redevelopment and re-greening into one. This community of apartments, senior housing, shops, restaurants and a movie theater was built on a five-acre patch of Northgate Mall’s parking lot adjacent to an existing bus hub and a future light rail station. As part of the project, developers restored a stretch of Thornton Creek that was buried in a culvert under the parking lot.

The inner rings of suburbia are low-hanging fruit for retrofitting, but what about the far fringes where rows of forsaken McMansions sit in half-finished subdivisions?

One possibility says Tachieva, is to convert them to multi-family housing or build rows of townhomes in the back yards to meet the needs of changing demographics. “It may not become prevalent right away, but it should be considered,” she said.

Louisville Metro is taking a proactive approach by striving to retrofit its suburban fringe to interrupt the progression of sprawl. It sought help from the EPA and its Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program to complete a study for the Fern Creek area that could be used as a model for the rest of Jefferson County’s outer reaches.

A public-private partnership is creating a huge network of parks and open spaces that will attract a new wave of growth and development to the area once the economy improves, says Kendal Baker, planning supervisor with Louisville Metro. The study, expected to be completed this summer, will focus on how to create a compact mixed-use, suburban center at the crossroads of a major arterial and Interstate 265 — and later at other locations.

In the long run, says Baker, that’s a more responsible way to grow “rather than sprawl marching from the urban core all the way to the county line.”

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