Not so fast: turning suburbs into cities

One way to revive America’s cities may be to adapt to increasing densities in Americans suburbs:

But this analysis also misses something important. These trends don’t just represent people’s moving decisions — they also represent changes in the places themselves. If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

This is an intriguing concept: some suburbs, because of their popularity, willingness to build taller structures, and population size, might become like cities. This has already happened to some degree in a number of suburbs across the country.

Yet, just because a location has a certain number of people or reaches certain population densities does not necessarily mean that it feels or operates like a city. We also already have some denser urban areas – see the Los Angeles suburbs which are pretty dense compared to many metropolitan areas – but that does not automatically make them cities or urban. What is required? Most American cities have: a core or multiple cores that are multi-use and include a good number of businesses or offices; a walkability that extends for a good distance (beyond just a suburban downtown or large shopping center) and mass transit options to extend beyond the core(s) – in other words, good options beyond operating a car; a vibrancy and diversity that could range from thriving economic activity to restaurants and bars to filled public spaces; and an identity among residents and others that the area is a city.

Imagine Naperville, Illinois really wanted to become a city. It starts approving dense residential and commercial projects throughout the community. (Just to note: the local government has rejected these in the past.) The population ticks upward past 200,000 or even 300,000. There are still some pockets of single-family homes and vestiges of small-town life. How long would it take for the conditions of a city as discussed above arise? How would the community adapt to having so many businesses along I-88 rather than downtown? Would this limit the number of people who ride into Chicago on the Metra each day? (Naperville right now has the busiest stops in the whole system.) How would a city atmosphere develop? This all would take significant time and effort and perhaps decades before Naperville would be considered from both the inside and outside a city.

Chicago suburbs fight over new downtown development

New developments in suburban downtowns can bring praise and dissent as leaders and residents pursue different goals:

From northwest suburban Barrington to Clarendon Hills in DuPage County, a recent mini-boom in post-recession construction projects has sparked bitter battles over historic preservation and building heights and, in one case, a lawsuit by residents who claim a condominium project was illegally approved and would destroy their hometown’s quiet charms.

The stakes can be so high for community leaders that, in north suburban Highwood, officials have offered a local bocce club the chance to move into a new, $4 million facility in order to make way for a proposed five-story development. Yet where local leaders sometimes see a chance to revitalize aging commercial districts and bring in more tax revenue, existing residents and businesses often worry about what such changes will bring.

“It’s all a balancing act. How do you maintain the vibrancy of a downtown business district for the segment of the community that is clamoring for that, without destroying its history and everything that makes it a quaint village,” said Jason Lohmeyer, a recently elected Barrington village trustee…

Rachel Weber, an urban planning and policy associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the conflicts that frequently erupt between pro- and anti-development factions pit residents fearful of any dramatic changes to their hometown against those who view new development as essential to a healthy local economy.

I have found similar stories in my own research on suburbs. Community leaders often want a vibrant downtown: it can bring in more tax revenue (increased sales taxes, more money through property taxes if the land is improved) and avoid a languishing or sleepy downtown (a black mark) while replacing it with a lively place that draws in visitors and boosts the community’s image. Improving the downtown might become particularly important as a suburb grows in size or if it runs out of open space. Residents may want some of these things as well (lower taxes are good, lively shopping entertainment and cultural options nearby might be desirable) but can often resist development that is out of scale or challenges the quaint look of the downtown. Some of this is hyperbole – one resident in this story claims a three-story condo building is a “skyscraper” – yet residents worry that the suburb that moved into won’t be the same suburb later.

There are several ways to summarize this process and I’ll conclude with my own take as a sociologist studying suburbs:

  1. This is just NIMBY behavior from suburban residents. Some residents act as if they would like to freeze a community in time right when they move in. (There is some truth to this.)
  2. Suburban leaders are determined to grow, even if the residents don’t desire it and their community can’t handle much growth. This would lean toward a growth machines explanation where leaders want to benefit from local deals and make their mark. (There is some truth to this.)
  3. A more comprehensive view: situations like this demonstrate the negotiated aspect of a community’s character. Although large or consequential discussions between residents and leaders are relatively infrequent, some of these discussions over important areas – like downtowns where many people feel they have a stake – can have long-term effects. Because suburbs privilege local control and residents often have some measure of social status (income, education, homeownership), these discussions are bound to happen at some point. Some suburbs will veer toward a quainter character, some will aggressively court new growth and transform their downtown, and others will try to pursue a middle path of growth that matches the community’s character. Yet, these discussions are important to track and analyze if we want to understand how suburban development happens and how it matters for later outcomes.

Play explores idea of a proposed mosque for downtown Naperville

Inspired by reactions to a proposed mosque in Naperville several years ago (and another proposed mosque received opposition), a playwright has put together a script that involves a proposed mosque in downtown Naperville:

Khoury said he’s seen the same response elsewhere, including in unincorporated land near Naperville. The Irshad Learning Center in 2010 took to court its attempt to win DuPage County’s approval of the needed conditional use permit for a worship center on property it owns on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard, just across the city border.

Neighbors of the 3-acre parcel had ardently opposed the center, voicing concerns about traffic, lighting and noise, with support from the Naperville Tea Patriots and the anti-Islamic organization Act! for America. After a divided County Board in January 2010 denied the request, the matter wound up in federal court, with Irshad claiming its Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection had been denied. Northern Illinois District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in March 2013 that the county improperly withheld the permit, in part citing the outside groups’ role in the process. The Irshad board is preparing to open the center later this year…

The play centers on a proposal from a ficticious group called Al Ulama, which has prayer space in a Naperville neighborhood but wants to move to headquarters on the actual site of the downtown Naperville Nichols Library, property owned in the play by Truth Lutheran Church. The plan calls for razing the church annex and building a new 100,000-square-foot structure on the same footprint, an Islamic worship site that’s taller than the previous building. In the play a town hall meeting has been scheduled to present the plans…

“The fear really is of Muslims: What’s this going to do to our downtown? Is it going to scare people away?” he said.

While fictional, this does present an intriguing hypothetical. Would any religious group be allowed to utilize valuable downtown land for a religious building? Downtown Naperville is a business and civic center but communities can sometimes protect properties in order to keep them on the tax rolls. There are churches within several blocks of downtown Naperville but I can’t think of any immediately within the business and civic district.

The end of the article says there will be public readings of the play in Naperville in the next month or so. It will be interesting to hear about reactions…

How the final approval for Naperville’s Water Street project could change the downtown

Naperville’s downtown is expanding. Last week, the city council approved a new development on Water Street:

Following months of debate, councilmen tied up loose ends in a brief discussion before voting 6-2 in favor of the project.

The development proposed by Marquette Companies is targeted for 2.4-acres bounded by Aurora Avenue on the south, the DuPage River on the north, Main Street on the east and Webster Street on the west. The plan calls for a 166-room boutique hotel, 524-space parking garage, restaurants, shops, offices and a plaza.

Proponents say the project will add a much-needed hotel to the downtown and add to the vibrancy of the area. But others have expressed concerns about issues such as building heights, traffic, parking and impact on the Riverwalk. Councilmen gave preliminary approval to a scaled-down version of the plan last month and reaffirmed their vote Tuesday…

In addition to upcoming discussions about a possible financial incentive, the city also must negotiate with Marquette Companies over what public improvements will be funded by tax increment financing money because the project sits in a TIF district.

This could be a big change for Naperville. Here’s why:

1. It moves the downtown across the DuPage River in a big way. This could lead to more changes down the road, perhaps eventually connecting the downtown to Edwards Hospital.

2. It brings in a significant hotel presence into the downtown. Naperville has a number of hotels along the I-88 corridor which helps provides space for nearby office complexes but these could help downtown businesses, festivals, and other functions.

3. The addition of a big parking garage will help relieve parking pressure in the downtown. In recent years, there had been a lot of discussion about a new garage on the site of the Nichols Library parking lot but that may be shelved for a while now.

4. It puts a mixed-use development right on the Riverwalk, something that has been lacking to this point. While the Riverwalk is popular and opens up the space along the DuPage River, most of the businesses near the Riverwalk back up to it rather than face it and incorporate it into their space.

I’m looking forward to seeing what this development looks like and how it contributes to the downtown.

A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Not what you want to advertise: Naperville to add more police downtown

Naperville is a big suburb that has been known in the past for being wealthy and safe. However, some recent events are leading to a change: more police presence in its lively downtown.

Police Chief Bob Marshall told the City Council Tuesday he has seen “a trend of relatively serious crimes,” in the past few months since officers who were helping patrol the downtown over the summer returned to their regular duties in area schools. Incidents have included two violent fights and an armed robbery in addition to last February’s fatal stabbing of 24-year-old Naperville teacher Shaun Wild at a downtown bar.

Marshall said he is taking a more proactive approach to weekend patrols by adding police officers to the beat as well as both uniformed and plain-clothes investigators…

Councilman Bob Fieseler said he does not believe most Naperville residents are partaking in the late-night activity they are paying police to monitor, and the city may want to consider closing bars an hour earlier, which would mean midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends…

Councilman Joe McElroy called shortening hours “the nuclear option,” but agreed the city may eventually have to look at doing so as a last resort. He also would like to see more activities like theater and live music offered in the downtown as an alternative to getting drunk.

This highlights two suburban conundrums. First, lots of suburbs would like to have downtowns like Naperville that include national retail stores, local businesses, and plenty of restaurants and bars. These businesses bring in visitors and, more importantly, money to the city’s coffers. Yet, bars can also bring about a different kind of atmosphere that is less family-friendly. Second, Naperville says it has small-town charm and yet its size, which could be related to perceptions about crime and the presence of multiple bars, suggests the city has some qualities of bigger cities. What is Naperville really: an idyllic single-family home community or a thriving jobs and suburban cultural center?

My guess is that Naperville would prefer to keep this increase police preference as unobtrusive as possible. A very visible presence might be bad for business but more incidents could also be bad for business.

Plans for purchase of Wheaton Grand Theater; hope for larger economic impact

Many older American downtowns are looking for ways to bring in new business and revenues. One way to achieve this is to pursue entertainment opportunities. Here is how this is currently playing out in Wheaton, Illinois where there is a perspective buyer for the Wheaton Theater:

Downtown property owner and lifelong Wheaton resident Jim Atten said he has “verbally agreed” to buy the theater, constructed in 1925, from Elmhurst-based Suburban Bank and Trust.

“It’s going to take a while to do, but our plan is to turn it into a performing arts and movie theater,” Atten said…

Atten said, if the purchase goes through, an extensive fundraising effort will be launched to make a dent in the necessary repairs and remodeling in the building, which he estimated could be about $5 million…

The theater closed in the 1990s and after an unsuccessful attempt by the Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. to revive it by hosting concerts, the deed was given up to the bank after coming up short on a loan payment.

Last year, Wheaton voters rejected a proposal to let the city use $150,000 in public funds each year to renovate the building…

Still, [Wheaton mayor] Gresk said the expected purchase is a “wonderful, huge first step.”

We’ll see how this moves forward. The benefits of a theater for a smaller downtown could be large: theaters can generate money themselves but can also attract other business as theater goers eat and shop nearby, festivals could make use of the space (think film, music, art, and theater festivals), and this building could serve as an example of how to effectively remodel and utilize older spaces. Smaller downtowns need spaces like this to succeed, partly to help provide energy and people for all of the downtown but also to make good use of storefront space that might be difficult to fill with other uses.