Busting 4 Common Myths About the Suburbs

Rachel Quednau busts four common myths about suburban sprawl, and makes the case for hard choices that can lead to sensible sprawl repair. 

Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that’s the way people want to live.

Busted: The suburbs exist because that’s the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation.

Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs.

Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent.

Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle.

Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.

Busted: No. There’s too much suburban development for this to ever happen.

 

With the painfully limited amount of resources we all have right now, we must make the hard choices about where to focus our efforts. We can take small steps to help older neighborhoods with a solid foundation to be more successful, or we can take herculean steps to push a few suburban neighborhoods in a slightly better direction, in spite of aggressive cultural opposition.

The Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva offers numerous techniques to determine the most promising locations where targeted, incremental investment is likely to be successful.

Historic Sprawl: A Future for Post-War Suburbia

Solitary drive-through retail site is retrofitted with liner buildings to incrementally begin the transition to walkable, livable communities.
Image Credit: Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva of DPZ CoDesign
Deficiency: Sprawl-type Solitary drive-through retail. Remedial Techniques: Step 1: liner building retrofit. Step 2: Dense redevelopment where viable. Image Credit: Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva of DPZ CoDesign

Jonathan Hopkins of Urbanismo makes a compelling case that the NPS’s evaluation criteria for nominating properties to the National Register of Historic Places should be revised to address concerns that preservation funding will become increasingly available for use by sprawling Post-War suburban subdivisions like Levittown, New York as they reach their 50 year eligibility mark.

“It becomes necessary to make clear criteria-based distinctions between sprawl and other development patterns like neighborhoods and small towns in order to prevent the preservation of obesity, social dysfunction, and environmental degradation.”

“By taking a proactive approach sooner rather than later, the prevention of preserving sprawl in its current state can be realized. The preservation movement – in coordination with environmentalists, developers, medical physicians, and others – can encourage law-makers to pass legislation to amend the Secretary of the Interior’s standards to include suburban retrofitting guidelines that outline appropriate initiatives to be funded by tax credits and planning grants at both the State and Federal level. In coordination with land-use, zoning, tax, and development policy reforms that discourage new suburban sprawl developments, historic preservation funding sources can encourage the retrofitting of sprawl into a more sustainable, accessible, affordable, and attractive living arrangement.”

 

 

Southern California’s dead malls could be places to live

Carousel Mall Photo by Will Lester-SCNG-Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
The Carousel Mall, built in 1972, has very few tenants as seen Tuesday June 6, 2017 in San Bernardino.

Larry Wilson of the Pasadena Star News suggests converting malls to multifamily housing with commercial uses as a way to provide affordable housing and inject new life into failing malls.

“Merchants and shopping-center developers are wondering what to do with these huge pieces of real estate that seemingly have outlived their usefulness.

For once, there is an unusually easy answer: If you can’t shop in ’em, live in ’em.

“… the factor that most aggravates Southern California’s housing crisis is the lack of supply for the demand. Developers aren’t building nearly enough new multi-family to meet the need because of a combination of lack of open land and zoning codes and NIMBYism that make it hard to expand on existing sites.

Just as ground-floor retail, grocery stores, restaurants and bars still thrive in eastern cities more accustomed to density, there will still be room for some commercial in these repurposed places — especially when more people live right next door.

And, yes, that answer includes providing subsidized former-mall housing for those now living in cardboard-tent cities in our riverbeds and on our sidewalks.”

Regency’s retrofit: A model for Chesterfield?

Regency Square Mall in Richmond, Virginia is undergoing what’s called a suburban retrofit, a term used for taking aging malls, office parks and other suburban properties and transforming them into more sustainable, urban and mixed-use developments.

Both Regency Square and Chesterfield Towne Center opened in 1975 (back then the latter was the Chesterfield Mall), and the rejuvenation of Regency Square may offer a blueprint for Chesterfield Towne Center in the years to come.

Robert Gibbs, president of Gibbs Planning Group and author of the book “Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development,” says Regency Square’s strategy may prove successful.

“I have seen those kinds of conversions work,” Gibbs says. “It’s when they turn the mall inside out and put the internal stores on the street.”

As department stores like Macy’s and Sears continue to struggle, Gibbs says the future is grim for the majority of America’s suburban malls.

“There’s about 2,000 of them, and we estimate that about 1,500 of them will close in the next five years, and that’s because they’re depending on department stores to stay open,” Gibbs says. “Without the department stores, it’s really hard to get people to go inside the mall.”

That said, Gibbs says malls in good locations can “right-size,” reducing their retail square footage and bringing in housing, entertainment and office space to create a walkable development where people can live, work and enjoy themselves.

Add Multi-Housing to Malfunctioning Suburbs

Incorporate multifamily housing into the fabric of malfunctioning suburbs–or the Boomers and Echo Boomers will move out, says Galina Tachieva, partner and director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). Tachieva describes the ways in which the burden rests on multifamily developers to play a leading role this century in reclaiming the sprawl-marred suburbs. “It is no surprise that numerous sprawl developments, particularly those in the far-flung exurbs, have recently suffered some of the highest rates of foreclosure. Many homes, and even entire subdivisions, have been abandoned,” says Tachieva, in an interview with MHN.

“Almost all idiosyncratic sprawl types will benefit radically from introducing multifamily development,” according to Tachieva, and she outlines the ways in which multifamily developers can accomplish the goal of redesigning these communities. An expert on transforming sprawl developments into human-scale, sustainable communities, Tachieva is the author of the just-released Sprawl Repair Manual (Island Press).

The transit-oriented, high-density town center will be used by the surrounding communities.