Articles, Events, Thoughts and Resources on Sprawl Repair
Cataloged by Galina Tachieva
The 20th Century family for whom suburban subdivisions were envisioned is no longer the statistical norm. In addition, young people are looking for an urban lifestyle, and so are many of the parents left behind. To build the cities and towns of the future, National Geographic explores the need to fix the recent mistakes and misconceptions of automobile focused suburbia.
Offering an alternative to wasteful suburban sprawl, the Greenbelt-Towns Program was a Government-led urban planning approach that began in the late 30’s. Although short-lived, lessons can be drawn from the goals, scope and reaction to the suburban demonstration towns that embodied a mix of housing, walkability, and a traditional downtown.
With restaurants and bars now occupying upwards of 25 percent of space, mall owners are struggling to identify new opportunities to stem their decline. There is growing recognition that to compete with vibrant downtowns and online shopping, malls will also need to add hotels, apartments, and entertainment to create attractive mixed-use neighborhoods.
Developers have identified a desire by suburbanites for ‘experiences’ that provide them with activities and places to interact. Hence the rise of cooking demonstrations, outdoor yoga classes, smaller concert venues, farmers markets, and splashable fountains, among others. The more time spent together, the more likely people will also shop, dine, and hold a positive view of their community.
As the scale of testing increases, the potential of driverless cars to transform our lives is becoming clearer. Fewer parking spaces, reduced road space, deliveries on demand, demise of strip malls, longer commuting distances, and a need for flexible parking structures, among others, have major implications for our urban and suburban development patterns – not all are necessarily positive.
Much of suburban sprawl is vehicle-oriented, served by inadequate sidewalks, and inaccessible without a car. Highlighting Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkability City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Place, the article discusses how investing in walkability can enhance the appeal of places to a range of ages, increase home values and jobs numbers, and promote local expenditure on goods and services.
More than 60 percent of all development took place on farmland between 1992 and 2012 (American Farmland Trust). Of this, 11 million acres was land most suitable for intensive food and crop production. Sprawl is a recognized contributor and some Counties are responding with programs to conserve these strategic assets.
Alongside unsustainable sprawl, unsightly strip malls are too often a feature of our suburban landscape. This article draws ideas from DeSoto Marketplace in DeSoto, Texas. The approach here was incremental and adaptive, introducing small cost-effective changes that, over time, transformed the underutilized shopping center into a pocket of walkability and a vibrant local business.
Further case studies can be found in a paper prepared by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism, Reclaiming the Strip Mall: A Common Suburban Form, Transformed, by Christopher Kuschel.
“Providence, which won a 2018 CNU Charter Award, is an example of how traditional neighborhood development can add to quality of life in a car-oriented suburban landscape.” explains Rob Steuteville, Public Square. The 305 acre Village of Providence intentionally rebalances the previously fragmented, single-use sprawl at the northwest city limits of Huntsville with infill, housing diversity, shared amenities, and useful commercial. By providing the region’s missing ingredients in a walkable environment, it has become a preferred place to live and a popular evening hang-out.
A new study confirms cross-sectional associations between urban sprawl and life expectancy. Sprawling counties have higher traffic speeds and longer emergency response times, lower quality and less accessible health care facilities, and/or less availability of healthy foods. Compactness affects mortality through less vehicle miles traveled, which is a contributor to traffic fatalities, and through improved body mass index, which is a contributor to many chronic diseases. Dr. Hamidi, who led the research, concludes “We found that the impact of sprawl amounts to about a 2.7‑year difference on average. Change won’t happen quickly, [but] we can make our cities more dense, walkable and accessible, and less car‑dependent, and ultimately improve our overall health.”
Link to the study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29701644?mod=article_inline
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, wants to spur construction of mixed-income, multifamily housing. With more built, the Department believes that housing will become affordable, and there would be more options of where to live. The approach is not without its challenges. The kind of housing described is often impractical, doesn’t accord with regulations, or simply too costly to build in suburbs and big cities alike. While many see rolling back regulations as a way to open up opportunities, nimbyism continues to provide reason for tightly regulated development. Further, its homeowners of both political parties that support restricting development around them and they do so often in spite of their own ideologies. The fear that such development threatens property values motivates homeowners as voters to protect them. The instinct may simply be too deeply ingrained and politically sensitive in America to change.
Millennials seek the live-work-play lifestyle, but evidence suggests they are no longer solely focused on compact, diverse urban centers. In an attempt to attract this valuable demographic “suburban villages” are being created in larger developments. Lakewood Ranch is sighted as an example, with its Main Street cluster of condos, shops, restaurants, theaters and employers nearby. The investment appears to be working as millennials are buying homes in large numbers, and their preference shifting towards mature and emerging suburbs.
A new technique called a pattern zone can be used by cities and towns to make good urbanism a natural outcome of their local real estate market. The concept itself isn’t necessarily new as Matthew Petty, a planner and developer in Fayetteville, AR, discusses.
Before zoning codes and land use lawyers, cities were built from pattern books containing construction plans for the building types in common use. However, a municipal pattern book with pre-approved plans is at the center of the latest pattern zone concept. It changes the market activity because it lowers those barriers in ways that are valuable to developers: time and money. Matthew explains “For a missing-middle project, the savings can equal thousands of dollars per unit, once again making middle-scaled buildings as economical as single-family subdivisions and large-scale developments.”
These fascinating maps challenge our perception of sprawling America – the urbanized area seems compact in comparison to all other uses, 3.6 percent of the total. However, the urban area is growing at an average rate of about 1 million acres a year and sprawl is still winning the numbers game.
Significant changes in urban real estate markets over the last two decades has invigorated downtowns and urban neighborhoods. People who have choices are forgoing private subdivisions and gated communities in favor of places with more authentic neighborhoods and a sense of community. They are finding these characteristics in historic cities and towns. This article discusses how Sprawl has constrained the expansion of urbanism, inflating the economic pressures in high-demand urban neighborhoods.
“The last time Americans fled the cities for the suburbs, from the 1950s to the 1980s, they were driven primarily by fear of crime. This time the migration is the consequence of the cities’ success, not their failure. Housing
and rental prices in many of the country’s largest metro areas have soared, inspiring residents to pack up and move out.
As more young people decamp from the cities to the suburbs, … a hybrid might develop, where people who leave cities—especially the most vibrant and expensive ones—will gravitate to places with similar amenities. Or transform them—as is happening in San Marcos. Though it has its fair share of cookie-cutter homes and strip malls, its well-preserved old downtown boasts a brewery and beer garden, a yoga studio and, now, a bootcamp boutique.”
In honor of the annual Congress to be held in Savannah May 15-19, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) developed a “Legacy Project” intended to leave an enduring mark on the host city and region. Retrofits of a suburban college campus and failing mall are key to creating a safer and more lively community.
“Consultants proposed a new town center for Southside Savannah that connects to the Georgia Southern University Armstrong (GSU-Armstrong) campus and transforms a busy, automobile-oriented thoroughfare into a boulevard. A failing mall could also be redeveloped into mixed-use urban blocks on the scale of Savannah’s historic district. Many tenants have left the mall, and broken escalators are signs of poor maintenance.
If the mall fails, the site could begin to redevelop incrementally. The mall site is rectangular, and so the design team applied the scale of blocks and a square that are similar to Savannah’s Oglethorpe grid plan. The redeveloped mall site would connect to the new town center and allow more urban residential development of townhouses and other “missing middle” housing types. If mixed-use development is to take place here, residential and university-related uses will likely prevail, with civic uses and limited retail and restaurants, Swartz says. The university expansion makes that vision feasible.
A large-scale suburban retrofit requires many moving parts—transformation of thoroughfares, new blocks and streets, mixed-use development, re-imagined green spaces, and revised development regulations. The plan covers all those elements, and city officials reacted positively.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach said, “Their approach to the area was dynamic and provides the City new ideas to spur redevelopment opportunities in a traditional suburban setting which would complement our National Landmark Historic District and pristine waterways.”
Authors of the new book Suburban Remix, by Jason Beske and David Dixon, describe the challenges we face as a result of sprawl growth patterns in effect since WWII. The book details examples of unique and successful sprawl repair in several communities through common themes and techniques.
“North America is in the midst of “suburban remix.” A perfect storm of challenges has broken apart a 70-year-old suburban growth model shaped around car-focused, relatively affluent, and dispersed development. But as this model falls apart, another far more resilient model is taking shape: walkable, dense, diverse, compact—and urban.
In a dramatic reversal, more people living in poverty now call suburbs home, while affluent households are relocating to cities. This has slowed tax-base growth, battering local budgets. Demographic and economic trends suggest that these dynamics will grow more disruptive over the next two decades.
[Several suburban case studies offer unique lessons, while utilizing common] process, policies, and placemaking. Each started with civic leadership—a local official, advocate, or organization that stepped forward and made the case for change. Each community launched a transformative planning process built around inclusive engagement that used education to build strong local support in places where terms like “dense” and “urban” had long been anathema. All market-driven, these initiatives also rely on innovative public/private partnerships to fund an “urban” infrastructure of streets, parks, and structured parking. They grow upward, not outward, creating a compact critical mass that supports the people (and disposable income) essential to bringing life to their new streets—without touching a single blade of grass on nearby residential lawns.”
At the cutting edge of sprawl retrofit, Portland is working to making biking desirable in a neighborhood originally built for cars, where the 1920s-style commercial lots to the north face unbroken sidewalks, and the 1950s-style lots to the south face a two-row parking lot.
“Portland’s leaders [are] thinking these two blocks are the perfect place to begin what many of them see as the great work of the 21st century: undoing the errors of car-dependent design that began in the 1940s.
If this row of buildings successfully leads Gateway’s transition to a more walkable, bikeable neighborhood, it’d put the street at the forefront of a national movement to redevelop close-in suburban neighborhoods.
The city’s plan is to preserve parking on both sides of the street, but flip the parking and bike lanes so a combination of curbs and parked cars would separate bike and auto traffic.
That’s why Halsey and its couplet street, Weidler, are slated for $20 million in public investmentin 2018, including a major new city plaza, shorter crosswalks and parking-protected bike lanes at the hub of a new 39-mile low-stress biking network through the area.”
More developers are finding new opportunities in underutilized malls and empty storefronts with mall retrofits.
“Tearing down these properties often makes less sense than finding new uses appropriate for an era when consumers shop so much online.
“A lot of these projects are at Main and Main streets,” says Najla Kayyem of Pacific Retail Capital Partners, “and great locations don’t go out of style.” Pacific Retail Capital Partners recently decided to step in as the operator of Independence Center, an iconic lifestyle shopping center in Independence, MO, just outside of Kansas City.
“We want people in the area to be proud of their center,” Kayyem says. She echoes the thoughts of many people currently developing or renovating retail centers in that these spaces need to provide experiences “that really create a community environment.”
Kaid Benfield reviews a new book on Bethesda Row in Maryland, where office space, retail, and multifamily housing in an architecturally varied and human-scaled setting has considerable appeal as a place to work, shop, dine out, and live.
“The premise of Suburban Remix is that we need more places like Bethesda Row, to respond to growth pressures and rapidly changing market forces now favoring walkable urban places. And that we especially need them in suburbs, where many people prefer to live and where, as outmoded forms of automobile-dominated commercial development go out of service, there lie many opportunities to build them on “grayfield” redevelopment sites. The case studies in the book provide examples of how forward-thinking communities and developers are doing just that.”
Amazon could turn a vast swath of suburbia into a walkable, transit-connected, mixed-use, and architecturally interesting satellite city. Such a project would prove transformational for whatever region it’s in. But it would also become a template—and an impetus—for many more such projects around the country. As the mother of all suburban retrofits, HQ2 could help rewrite land-use patterns that are environmentally wasteful and experientially banal. It could model a new kind of suburbia—one that younger Americans will actively want to live in, rather than just settle for.
Instead of exacerbating an affordable-housing crisis in a pricey urban center, Amazon could help build a model of an inclusive urban suburb.
One argument against a suburban HQ2 site is that it would fuel sprawl. But infill isn’t sprawl, and a locality could prevent the creep of subdivisions around HQ2 if it abided by smart land-use rules.
The urban renaissance is making only a small dent in it. So polycentric urbanism ought to be the goal in the 21st century.
The Policy Watch section of the National Association of Home Builders’ quarterly magazine featured our new article on Sprawl Repair – The next frontier in residential innovation.
Changing demographics, retail trends and lifestyle choices are establishing a new frontier for Home builders interested in helping to transform our suburbs, with actions targeted toward establishing urban centers.
Home builders play a key role in delivering desirable, livable products and can remain competitive by leveraging existing infrastructure, location, and market needs to create value out of stranded real estate assets. By including housing within auto-centric commercial development, sprawl repair promotes economic diversity and vitality.
Form-based zoning is a necessary tool that the home building industry should know well and take advantage of. It enables options and flexibility to transform single-use parcels into more diverse and resilient urban nodes that accommodate different people, incomes, and ages, and serves the suburban population at large.
“As downtowns and urban neighborhoods thrive across America, leaders and citizens outside city centers have begun to ask, “How do we reinvent the suburbs?” Moreover, how can this be done in an incremental way that doesn’t require a large transformative project? Major projects are hard to come by and are risky propositions.
Parsons Alley, the public-private redevelopment of a 3-acre infill site, offers answers in a small suburban city 10 miles northeast of Atlanta.
“Parsons Alley is serving as a true a catalyst for redevelopment and has already has sparked over a hundred million dollars of private residential projects within the downtown core,” notes James Riker, economic development director for the City.”
Developer Ralph Zucker, of Somerset Development, is turning an iconic single-purpose masterwork by Eero Saarinen into a new kind of Downtown – a “metroburb” – in suburban Holmdel, NJ, one of the country’s wealthiest McMansion enclaves. The abandoned, historic Bell Labs created a huge problem for the town, but also huge opportunities. The project is a prime example of what can be accomplished through suburban sprawl retrofit, though the community is still resistant to full integration of diversified housing options.
“The town of Holmdel searched for buyers, but tenants in need of 2 million square feet of space were now rare; across New Jersey and the rest of America, sprawling suburban corporate complexes were being abandoned at an alarming rate for remote work or more urban headquarters.
When he first brought the plan for the metroburb to a Holmdel town hall, the response Zucker heard was, “Hell no.” People told him this was antithetical to the reason they moved to Holmdel, a sheltered, quiet place to raise their families. They didn’t want anything urban. What changed their minds, Zucker says, was an event he hosted at Bell Labs soon after touring the building in 2009: an open house wherein he projected shops and offices onto the walls of the old laboratory spaces, and hosted a pop-up gelato stand and a bar. The simulation of the space’s potential was so compelling, he says, that one woman smacked her head on a wall, thinking a projected hotel lobby was, in fact, the real thing. Still, though, it took until 2013 for Zucker to receive final approval from Holmdel for the purchase and to have the building rezoned as mixed-use; construction began not long after, and in the intervening years, Holmdel has largely embraced the development.”
“CEO Eddie Lampert said that its lenders and vendors must have a better outlook about the company’s future… and that negative outlook is putting Sears at a competitive disadvantage.
Lampert again insisted that the company is on course to turn a profit in 2018. But he also ominously warned that the company’s board will “consider all other options to maximize the value of Sears Holdings’ assets” if the company can’t refinance its debt.
Sears (SHLD) closed hundreds of stores last year, leaving it with just over 1,100. Last week it announced plans to close another 103 Kmart and Sears stores by April.”
Consider retrofitting the stores and malls through Sprawl Repair to save jobs, create livable communities and boost the investment returns.
“General merchandise stores, the segment that includes department stores, were hit the hardest, losing 90,300 jobs.
These job losses tend to hit the young, elderly, women and minorities the hardest. About 60% of department store employees are female, compared to 47% of workers overall. Minorities, the elderly and teenagers are also far more likely to find jobs in department and discount stores than they are elsewhere. Teenagers hold 8% of department store jobs, compared to 3% of jobs overall.
In 2017, 7,000 store closings were announced, a record that was more than triple 2016’s number. And the trend will undoubtedly continue in 2018. Sears Holdings (SHLD), owner of both Sears and Kmart, said Thursday it plans to close more than 100 additional stores.”
It is more important than ever to diversify our economy and opportunities through sprawl retrofits and mall repair that supports all of our citizens.
It appears that the mall as we know it may be dead. Long live the retrofitted mall! New uses, new infill, new life for the king of the American consumerism. Read more about retrofit options that can boost an entire community from Leanna Garfield of the Business insider:
“More than 6,400 store locations have announced closures this year. In a recent report, analysts from Credit Suisse predicted that 20% to 25% of malls — about 220 to 275 shopping centers — would shutter over the next five years, largely because of store closures.
Malls of the future have an opportunity to fulfill other community needs besides commerce, June Williamson, an architecture professor at the City College of New
“The development climate of malls were driven less by demand and more by opportunity,” Williamson said. “As new centers get built, anchor stores are lured away, and a cannibalization process begins. … Only so many consumers are going to malls, and they will flock to newer ones. If developers build a new mall, they are inevitably undercutting another property. So older properties have to get repositioned every decade, or they will die.”
Closed department stores will most likely become other businesses that could benefit from the large square footage, such as fitness centers, churches, offices, public libraries, and even medical clinics, Williamson says.
Since most food courts have a lot of natural light, they could be used as gathering spaces for community groups or daycare centers if they closed down, Williamson says. Some food courts, however, are redeveloping into clusters of higher-priced restaurants.
Mall atriums are wide open spaces that can allow for events like concerts or fashion shows, or serve as car showrooms — all of which generate revenue, Williamson says.
Many dead retail spaces, Williamson says, will most likely morph into businesses that have community functions, such as apartments, public libraries, indoor farms, and refrigerated spaces for processing food for local restaurants or grocery stores.
Malls may increasingly turn their surface parking lots into space that emphasizes walking rather than driving.
Williamson describes ethnic malls as shopping centers that target a specific ethnic demographic in a community. She says this type of customized mall can thrive more than a traditional mall because it better meets local shoppers’ needs.
To subsidize regular retail shops, destination malls, also called super regional malls or lifestyle centers, use experiential attractions like movie theaters, bars, casinos, restaurants, rock climbing walls, laser tag, and even roller coasters.”
Learn more about Mall Retrofits in the Sprawl Repair Manual.