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.
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.
Galina’s opening keynote presentation positioned Sprawl Repair as a comprehensive and practical method to transform auto-dependent, single-use places into more complete, economically viable communities. It demonstrated how design, regulatory and implementation techniques derived from the “trenches” at all development scales: regional, community, block, building.
Strategies were identified to create economic and social value out of stranded real-estate assets as the demise of the industry that produced sprawl continues: Malls and office parks are dying; golf courses are closing; McMansions are losing their appeal to Millennials. The presentation not only highlighted why we should retrofit sprawl, but also showed a practical How, Who and When step-by-step path of action forward to a better burb.
Editors Notes: Retrofit Magazine held its second-annual one-day conference in October 2018 in Charlotte north Carolina. The conference brought together focused on retrofitting commercial, industrial and institutional buildings.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Robert Steuteville of Build a Better Burb highlights 25 great ideas of the New Urbanism, in honor of the 25th annual Congress for the New Urbanism held this year in Seattle.
Check out Suburban Retrofit as one of the 25 great ideas:
Retrofit is the suburban fountain of youth. It can literally save the suburbs.”
“Conventional suburbs, conceived in the mid-20th Century, are outdated. The oldest suburbs, the mixed-use walkable kind, are the most current—they meet market demand. Companies don’t want to locate in isolated places. Many shopping malls and shopping centers are dying, and suburban retrofit is the answer. We invested trillions of dollars in the suburbs, and some believe this investment has no future. I believe that significant value that can be salvaged with retrofit. This is a sunk cost opportunity, not dilemma. At CNU, we call this Build a Better Burb.”
“More young adults are moving to the land of white picket fences. Is it by choice, or necessity?”
“The fact that millennials weren’t buying homes or cars a few years ago was more the product of economic hard times than an expression of changing tastes.
The supply of walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods in the U.S. is limited, and it’s really hard for political reasons to add density to them or build more of them.
I can’t help but see this suburban resurgence as at least partly a policy failure wrought by not-in-my-backyard activists, messed-up zoning rules, freeway-besotted transportation officials and the like.”
“I definitely think we see some new cities getting in on the “tech city” game… with strong pushes to attract more knowledge-based industries, using their universities as anchors…”
And something interesting about these smaller cities is that it’s not clear whether they’re urban or suburban. We think of “suburbs” as extensions of big metros, but a lot of these smaller, thriving places have a distinctly suburban feel — ranch houses, strip malls, etc., maybe with a few blocks of walkable restaurant/clothing shop areas. But they depend on the clustering of smart people for their productivity, and their populations keep growing. Is that kind of place a city, or a suburb?”
David McNair wrote for The Daily Progress and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging:
While the suburbs evolved as places where people could escape to raise their families in peace and privacy, our communities now may need to reach out to those aging homeowners in suburban locations and provide them with the support and services they will need to age in place.
Peter Thompson, executive director of the Senior Center and chair of the newly created Charlottesville Area Alliance, a collective of regional partners whose objective is to lead the advancement of an age-friendly community, says one of the missions of the alliance is to work with area localities, business and nonprofits to study these needs and develop strategies to address the common and divergent needs our urban, suburban and rural areas — from benches with backs on them to improved pedestrian and public transportation for people who do not or choose not to drive.
Through sprawl repair, it is possible to amenitize the suburbs and support the concept of aging in place. Learn more at Aging in Place on a Cul-de-Sac by Galina Tachieva, which discusses the use of the Supportive Living Module to create opportunities for senior living within a single-family subdivision.
Lee Sobel writes that car-free shopping streets are witnessing a resurgence with the return to traditional neighborhood design.
“Walkable places have become more desirable and people are looking for additional retail options in the places where they already live, work, and play. Car-free shopping streets offer just that.”
Sprawl repair techniques offer flexibility of design, scale and ownership options, allowing a range of stakeholders to partake in the success of car-free shopping streets.
Richard Florida writes:
A recent study by economists Enrico Berkes of Northwestern University and Ruben Gaetani of the University of Toronto Rotman School cracks the proverbial code on the geography of innovation. They find that while there is actually a greater amount of innovation (as measured by patents) in suburbs, cities produce far more “unconventional innovations,” which require a greater diversity of contributors and have a more disruptive economic impact.
Unconventional patents are more likely to come from smaller companies, university labs, or independent inventors than large, publicly-traded companies. And they are often the harbingers of revolutionary new technologies.
In other words, density plays a much bigger and more important role in the type of innovation than in the rate of innovation.
Large cities not only have deep pools of talent and a critical mass of specialists, they also have the density to forge connections between people and firms with diverse bases of knowledge.
Ultimately, the better way to think about the geography of innovation is not city versus suburb but city and suburb. If cities are the centers for more cutting-edge innovation, the suburbs remain home to the big established companies that require large campuses to house their activities and people, and which tend to engage in a lot of patenting.
It will be interesting to track these trends in the coming years, as big companies seek to urbanize their suburban campuses.
According to Anne Jarvis of the Windsor Star in Windsor, Ontario,
“Strip malls like Dorwin and Dougall plazas litter North America. They were built for cars, not people. They’re not inviting, and that’s why they’re dying. One of the biggest challenges for cities is how to fix them. It’s called “sprawl repair,” and it’s about retrofitting half-empty malls, strip malls and office parks.”
“I see opportunity for places like Dorwin,” said Shane Mitchell, a project manager at Glos Associates architectural and engineering consultants in Windsor.
“It’s about converting these monstrosities into neighbourhood hubs with a mix of uses. Monolithic buildings are carved into smaller buildings. Small streets and public squares are added. Parking is reduced. It’s creating a traditional city centre and main street. All of a sudden you … end up with an interesting place,” said Mitchell.
The first thing municipalities, including Windsor, have to do is change regulations that require buildings to be too far from the street and have too much parking. Cities can also stop offering tax rebates for some vacant properties, as Windsor is considering. But they also need to offer incentives for developers to do these types of developments, like Windsor already provides for other types of development.
According to Dorian Moore, a partner in Archive Design Studio in Detroit, “they have to encourage developers to “see the value in doing that kind of development. Show them what can be done,” he said, citing Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts, a 1960s strip mall with a huge parking lot converted into a renowned and award-winning mixed use town centre.
“You have to encourage the type of development you want to see,” said Mitchell.
Learn more about DPZ CoDesign’s Urbanism Code for Mashpee Commons here.
Chris Sikich discusses plans to insert mixed uses, including, residential and retail development similar to Carmel’s downtown, into the state’s second largest commercial hub along US 31.
When Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard looks at the 5-mile stretch of highway, he doesn’t just see multistory corporate headquarters and health care complexes that have been so instrumental in building the city’s financial base. He says there are hundreds of acres of underused land, not just the few tracts of green space on the market, but also the seas of parking lots that serve the buildings.
“It’s such a waste of space, these big suburban parking lots, which don’t look very nice,” Brainard said. “I anticipate some day there will be little villages around those office towers.”
The mayor is proposing to provide millions in taxpayer incentives for property owners and developers to build restaurants, shops, apartments and condos with parking garages along U.S. 31
As Carmel has developed its urban core, several high-profile corporations have fled the U.S. 31 corridor for the more walkable environment being created in the city’s downtown area.
“The market is changing,” Brainard said. “People don’t want to get in their cars to drive to lunch anymore. They want to walk someplace close to their office.”
He thinks the highest quality development comes from public-private partnerships. He wants to guide development as he has in Carmel’s urban core. He hopes to offer incentives to encourage the development of shops, restaurants, homes and public spaces. That most likely means using TIF districts to pay back city bonds for parking garages, which in the past have cost from $10 million to $20 million each.
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.
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.”
“Struggling retailer sees opportunities to improve shopping experience by activating empty parking lots.
As the images of empty parking lots during Black Friday have demonstrated, commercial real estate professionals are slowly warming to the idea that we have far too much parking than is needed- diminishing municipal tax bases and taking away the ability to lease space within struggling shopping centers. Big box retailer Macy’s has announced their intention to create new revenue streams by reimagining acres of unused parking lots- a strategy used by tactical urbanists in places like Nashville, Indianapolis and Miami.”
Shopping-center landlords are rethinking the traditional mall model—and shops aren’t necessarily part of the equation.
As retailers close bricks-and-mortar stores at an accelerating pace, shopping-center landlords like Starwood Capital are facing a vexing question: What to do with all this empty space?
Some landlords plug empty spaces with churches, for-profit schools and random enterprises while they figure out a long-term plan. Others see a future in mixed-use real estate, converting malls into streetscapes with restaurants, offices and housing. And some are razing properties altogether and turning them into entertainment or industrial parks.
‘Many mall owners are trying to liven up the experience, bringing more dining and entertainment tenants and eschewing the traditional mix.’
The Editorial Staff of the Bristol Herald in Bristol, VA is seeking to raise public pressure on local officials to find a solution to the dying Bristol Mall in their midst:
“We’ve previously discussed ideas and the need for action for our “skeletal mall.”
“This might all imply prevention of the mall’s slow death is a civic issue, but it’s not. All of us citizens who share a hope to see the mall, built in 1976, thrive for another 40 years also have an applicable duty. We should collaboratively raise awareness and a sense of urgency to move on this.
Let’s try an experiment: Let’s all call and write the city’s leaders within the next two weeks, asking what’s being done to fill the mall and to explore these kinds of options.
If each reader makes the effort to simply ask questions, the strength-in-numbers concept would make the topic too relevant for our local government to ignore.”
Read more about their investigations into retrofitting their mall, and the success Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., experienced in Richmond during his time as mayor there.
Chris Isidore of CNN Money writes, “Store closings and even dead malls are nothing new, but things might be about to get a whole lot worse.
Between 20% and 25% of American malls will close within five years, according to a new report out this week from Credit Suisse. That kind of plunge would be unprecedented in the nation’s history.
In 1970 there were only 300 enclosed malls in the U.S., and now there are 1,211 of them. In fact, despite the recent turbulence in the retail industry, the number of malls open has actually edged higher every year.
According to Galina Tachieva, “Each store closing, and every mall mall that dies, increases the urgency to return jobs and halt declining real estate values. Sprawl Repair through repurposing of dying malls offers a logical solution to create vibrant live-work communities where infrastructure is already in place.”
Learn more here.
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.
Sprawl Repair – one building, one street, one city at a time.
With more people gravitating toward cities than ever before, new urban morphologies are proliferating throughout the developed and developing worlds. Roger Keil, a professor at Toronto’s York University, has spent his career thinking about the implications of this process. I spoke with him about Suburban Governance: A Global View, a newly released book he co-edited with University of Montreal professor Pierre Hamel.
Dan argues for more supporting data. Yes, such data and research may help win arguments for better connectivity, better urbanism, and even finding investment and financing. However, the current economic condition is so dire, unpredictable, and very different from other times’ that even if we have the research in hand, it may not be relevant. Today’s predicament of our sprawling suburbs requires fast, even risky response, not necessarily rooted in proven data — more of the type of small-scale actions with limited scope that June discusses, since by their very nature these actions often have much quicker and more telling outcomes than do more ambitious approaches and timelines.
Showing how, through history, urbanism has supported economic recovery (or did it?) can be helpful, but many of the techniques and tools we need to employ today to repair and retrofit sprawl will be brave and new, and may have no data to support their use. New Urbanism was built on the basis of past evidence – but evidence clearly available to anyone who looked for it, through their experiences – not through an abstract analysis.
We will be inventing ways to do things and even new markets, similarly to the first steps that New Urbanism took. Our innovations will include: how to deal with failing residential subdivisions with multiple foreclosures and deserted properties; how to implement micro-repairs by introducing small but effective amenity packages; and how to create downtowns of modest proportions without financial backing and big investors.
June asks, can suburban retrofitting be taken seriously, as architecture? I would say that suburban retrofitting will not be about architecture at all; it will be about economic survival. Entering a post-recession decade, obviously without fanfare, we will need not only to repair the physical fabric of sprawl but also to generate a new economic framework.
This will require new types of creativity, discovering niche markets and banking more on uniqueness than on omnipresence. Suburbia is already people-diverse, a collection of “ethno-burbs,” and it can support a new “artisan” economy that already is burgeoning in distressed cities and their inner-ring neighborhoods. This phenomenon of economic uncertainty and transition is similar to Eastern Europe in the early ‘90’s, when scarcity inspired a new informal grassroots economy.
Today’s American suburbs have an overabundance of everything — infrastructure, national chains, big boxes, fast-food drive-throughs — but when overabundance starts to fail, high quantity becomes a liability. Re-using and adapting the existing suburban types to incubate new possibilities will help gradually complete the rest of sprawl’s incomplete fabric and make it more livable and sustainable in the long run.
In today’s difficulty economy, three published new urbanist practitioners look at how to get projects going — in the suburbs or elsewhere.
On June 1, at CNU 19 in Madison, Wisconsin, an in-depth “202” session will feature a discussion of innovative sprawl retrofit solutions by Dan Slone, June Williamson, and Galina Tachieva. The published works of these three include Retrofitting Suburbia, the Sprawl Repair Manual, and A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development.