These Suburbs Were Made for Walking

Suburbs are no longer the universal land of subdivisions with two cars in every driveway. Density, walkability and community are establishing a foothold.

Consumers long to be able to walk to and from work, and on the way home maybe window shop, perhaps stop into a local sports bar for a drink, and then pick up dinner at a grocery store or restaurant before heading home — but many want this vibrant urban experience without the cost or hassle of living in a major urban center.

Increasingly, Americans can find that lifestyle in a suburb miles from a big city center as developers turn toward high-density, mixed-use development in suburbia, often by transforming an old or worn commercial or industrial property. The focus is on providing spaces in which residents can live, work and play without revving up their car.

It’s possible this trend is simply a fad pushed by developers chasing millennials. But Doug Loescher, the revitalization program manager for the Office of Community Revitalization in Fairfax County, Va., doesn’t believe that.

“Personally, there’s really no way to turn back the clock,” he says. “This is a permanent shift that’s necessitated by economic and environmental drivers. As population grows, the demand for space, efficiency, and lower environmental impacts will only increase. Those point toward this new form of development.”

Slow strides to walkability

Decades ago, the idea of walkable communities was mostly theoretical, but it existed. “People consider walkability a relatively new trend, but that’s false,” reports Richard Murdocco, who holds degrees in urban studies and urban, environmental and transportation planning and blogs about development at www.theFoggiestIdea.org.

“In the early 1960s, plans for Nassau County, N.Y., argued for denser development around train stations,” says Murdocco. “It was an academic concept. But the recent recession fueled renewed interest in multi-family residential development that’s walkable. With the recession, the single-family home market basically crashed. And in older areas in the Northeast, it can be a headache to build single-family subdivisions. A cocktail of factors has led to the rise of walkability.”

Compact, high-density development is the most efficient use of resources.

Urban areas, of course, have a natural leg up on walkability. Suburbs have been slower to adapt to the concept, but Loescher says three factors are changing that:

  • Economic –“As new development happens in other areas, there’s the growing issue of older and functionally obsolete commercial centers in areas that need to be redeveloped to remain vibrant and thriving to contribute to the area’s tax base,” he notes.
  • Environmental –“It’s recognized that compact, highdensity development is the most efficient use of resources and can achieve reductions in environmental impacts through the density and the design,” says Loescher. “The interaction of walkable, bikable, compact urban areas is intended to reduce auto traffic as well as contribute to healthy communities.”
  • Demographics –“There’s been a shift in public opinion and preference over the way we live and interact in our communities,” contends Loescher. “The entire smart growth movement is driven by people’s desire to live in a different way rather than being in their autos and to interact with their community and know whom they’re doing commerce with. It’s also been documented for a while that millennials have a strong desire to experience the urban context.”

These factors have converged to create a “tidal wave” of change in the planning profession during the past 10-15 years, asserts Loescher. It’s only today that the result is becoming apparent. “Early projects, such as the Mosaic District — which has taken more than 10 years to come to fruition — are now visible and serve as models for other locations.”

Loescher is referring to a former multiplex movie theater surrounded by vast surface parking in Fairfax County that was redeveloped by Edens, which opened the first phase of retail space in 2012, according to Katie Bucklew, vice president of development at Edens. Today, there’s about 450,000 square feet of retail, 73,000 square feet of office space that serves as a single corporation’s headquarters, 780 residential units and 137 townhomes, and a 148- room hotel. The final phase is under construction and will bring two additional buildings with 50,000 square feet of retail and 220 additional residential units.

“We saw an area in Northern Virginia that was very dense,” notes Bucklew. “Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country. It has great transportation nodes, and the Dunn Loring Metro stop had just been put in. The county had also identified this area as one that it wanted different development to take place around. The demographics spoke to that Northern Virginia consumer, but they didn’t have a place to come together.”

The entire smart growth movement is driven by people’s desire to live in a different way.

Fewer cars, more transit

Also within the Washington, D.C., metro area is Pike & Rose in North Bethesda, Md., a former strip shopping center transformed into a walkable mixed-use community by Federal Realty Investment Trust.

The development sits on roughly 25 acres, says Mickey Papillon, CSM, the project’s vice president and general manager. “If you think about a triangle with the top cut off, that’s how the project is laid out,” he explains. “In the bottom part, the longest lengthwise, we’ve built four blocks that have been completed and open. We have about 500 residential units, 125,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and then 80,000 square feet of commercial space.”

The residential units are in two buildings and range from $1,500 to the high $3,000s, depending on size. One building, called the PerSei, is more than 95 percent occupied, reports Papillon. The second, the Pallas, is undergoing leaseup but is more than 80 percent leased.

The second phase of construction is underway. It’ll add six more blocks of development, completed in phases, with the final sections opening in the first quarter of 2018. They’ll include another 272 apartments, 99 condos, a 177-room hotel, and an additional 200,000 square feet of retail.

Papillon says the environment for a successful walkable community isn’t created in a vacuum. “One of the biggest things for us was making sure we were providing a better quality of life, and top of mind for us was transit- oriented development,” he says. “The corner of our project is a stone’s throw to a Washington, D.C., metro red-line stop.”

Walkable on a broader scale

What’s also notable about today’s trend toward suburban walkable development is the range of projects underway. They can be compact and high-density, and they can be more expansive with pockets of density. They can also be built from the ground up rather than repurposed from existing, but tired spaces.

A successful walkable community includes transit-oriented development.

In Henderson, Nev., about 15 miles southeast of Las Vegas, The Landwell Co. began developing Cadence, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development in 2014 with a 10-15- year buildout plan, says Cheryl Persinger, vice president of marketing. Currently, 185 families live there. When the development is complete, it’ll have 13,250 residential units ranging from single-family homes to apartments, townhomes and condos.

Complementing the residential will be 1.1 million square feet of commercial and retail space that will include offices, a veterinarian’s clinic slated to open in 2017 and Smith’s Marketplace, a grocery, landscaping, housewares, and more store expected to open in the first quarter of 2018.

To encourage walking and biking, all streets include bike lanes. The developer has also introduced a free bike-sharing program with 20 bikes currently available for pickup at four locations within the community. Denver-based Coventry Development Corp. is also creating expansive but still walkable communities.

It’s currently in the thick of building two large-scale communities on previously undeveloped sites, according to Keith Simon, executive vice president.

RidgeGate, a 3,500-acre mixed-use community in Lone Tree, Colo., began in the early 2000s with the Sky Ridge Medical Center as its centerpiece. Its 20-year development plan is still underway, adding residential neighborhoods, retail and office space.

Also under construction is Springwoods Village, a mixed-use, walkable community about 20 miles north of downtown Houston that broke ground in 2011. ExxonMobil has a 10,000-employee office campus at the property, as does Southwestern Energy, with 1,000-1,500 on-site employees. Those are within walking distance to three residential neighborhoods, two hotels and a hospital.

For Coventry, the idea isn’t to re-imagine underperforming commercial properties. “We typically take large parcels of land, in the 2,000-4,000 acre range, out from core of the cities they surround but along highway corridors that at the time were on the path of growth,” says Simon. “We purchased all these parcels in the 1960s and 1970s when there was nothing out there. Fortunately, our group has great patience and had no debt and waited for the time to be right.”

The property on which Springwoods Village sits was purchased in 1961 and has been managed by Coventry as a pine forest since. “We’re trying to keep the pine forest character along the roadways and in some of the parks,” says Simon. “People like that.”

Coventry’s also betting that people will like living in a high-density district within the larger project. At Springwoods Village, what Simon calls the heart of the community is CityPlace, a 60-acre district with a mix of shopping, dining, office space, residential units and hotels. It’s under construction, with the 250-unit residential rental portion and 8,500 square feet of groundfloor, street-edged retail space to be completed by the end of 2016.

“CityPlace will be the most dense area, and it’s in the middle so everybody can get to it by walking,” says Simon. “We’re trying to make it a complete community within the community.”

Developers are betting that people will like living in a suburban high-density district.

Though it’s early in the process of developing Springwoods Village, Simon estimates that at least half of the people buying homes are ExxonMobil or Southwestern Energy employees. “One reason these companies have decided to embed their companies in these communities is that they think it’s going to give them an advantage in recruiting and retaining employees, particularly with younger employees,” he states. By coming into a community like ours, they give employees that option — but not that everyone is going to do that.

“Companies also typically hire summer interns, and apartments tend to spike up a bit in the summer with those kids,” adds Simon. “They rent and walk to work. So it’s a big factor. That said, we want the community to be diverse and not just a company town.”

Why not everywhere?

Developers admit it’s not easy planning and developing successful walkable suburban communities. “There are challenges in trying to do this in the suburbs,” says Simon. “Some cities are better than others in terms of being open-minded about this. They have to be open to more density to make it work. We’ve got great support of our municipal partners. But I do know there are a lot of suburban cities that cringe at the density you have to create to achieve the critical mass that makes this work.”

Americans want to live where they can walk to most destinations.

Affordability can also take a hit. “What happens is that you create this development, but it starts eking into and hurting you on the affordable housing front,” adds Simon. “The units become pretty darned expensive because it’s a great environment, but you can be a victim of your own success. You have to think about how to incorporate workforce housing to accommodate all your employees.”

The biggest challenge may be that while many Americans say they want to live where they can walk to most destinations, many still covet their car. That’s a challenge developers don’t expect to go away, though they do expect people to eventually end up driving less.

Murdocco says urban planners and developers could achieve bigger reductions in auto use with incentives. “I’ve found that these walkable developments aren’t incentivizing use of transit,” he argues. “They’re not taking measurable steps to reduce auto dependency. There are no rent reductions if you don’t take a parking spot with your unit. Or they don’t offer a discount voucher if you can show you’re using the train or riding the bus.”

At Pike & Rose, Papillon says Montgomery County officials pushed his company to include fewer than typical parking spots. “What we’re finding is that the initial resident is more likely than not to have a vehicle,” he says. “But it’s good news that the ratio of units to cars is still less than a standard apartment building in a suburb off a highway. We do have fewer cars.

“But I do think the parking and auto-use question is very dependent on your community and the area you’re in,” adds Papillon. “Honestly, people just want options. And we’re providing an option to them with something they’ve never had in this area.”

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