Trying to split Naperville’s downtown streetscape improvement costs

Downtowns need regular upkeep and maintenance but paying for streetscape improvements can be a tricky matter:

In an estimated $15 million project that’s expected to take six years once it begins, the city plans to upgrade sidewalks, install new benches and street furniture and enhance street corners throughout its commercial core…

City staff members are proposing the work be paid for over 15 years, with the city contributing half and downtown property owners the other half.

They say it’s a fair cost distribution because a strong downtown improves the city as a whole…

Problem is, those same downtown property owners who could be asked to foot the bill for sidewalks and benches also are still paying off the Van Buren Avenue parking garage — and will be until 2021, 20 years after it was constructed. They’re also paying for ongoing downtown maintenance and marketing through a separate special tax that’s renewed every five years.

As is suggested in the article by local leaders, perhaps this is simply the price of doing business in a popular suburban downtown: you chip in to help make the downtown better. This sort of public-private partnership can work well when there is a vibrant business scene. But, I could also imagine that these added costs make it more difficult for certain kinds of businesses to participate.

It would also be interesting to know how these streetscape improvements compare with efforts of others – whether municipalities or shopping centers – to improve their appearance and amenities. One way to view retail competition is as an arms race: who can create and foster the most vibrant scene? Who has the mix of stores, restaurants, recreational opportunities, parking, weather, and events that would lead consumers to go there rather than somewhere else? Not making such proactive improvements, even though they may be costly, could lead to falling behind.

Row houses popping up in suburban downtowns

For the last twenty years or so, condos or luxury apartments have been constructed in numerous suburban downtowns in the Chicago region. The communities may have now moved on to row houses:

What’s in vogue now, at least in upscale living, might just be the row house, say developers of a six-unit project called Charleston Row.

These $1.1 million to $1.3 million row houses will have two or three bedrooms, two- or three-car garages, 3½ or 4½ bathrooms, a basement, a large mudroom, not one but two rooftop terraces and even their own private elevator…

After years of building new homes on the sites of teardowns in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Naperville, Charleston leaders said they started hearing a new trend. They noticed a desire for something other than the 5,000-square-foot luxury house, standing on its own with a good-sized yard in a subdivision on the outskirts of suburbia.

What these buyers want instead, Van Someren said, is what Charleston Row offers: convenience to a downtown with dining, night life and shops, a low-maintenance lifestyle without a massive lawn to mow, and luxury features such as custom staircases and tile work, hardwood floors, a butler’s station, a breakfast nook and countertops made of granite, marble or quartz. The fancy stuff.

In addition to the factors cited above, I wonder if a few other forces are also at work here:

  1. Row houses may connote a more luxurious or trendy setting than condos or single-family homes. One of the examples cited in the article suggests this: row houses may inspire images of similar higher-end dwellings in London. (On the flip side, these row homes do not remind suburbanites of the row houses in poor neighborhoods such as depicted in Baltimore on The Wire.)
  2. Row houses offer similarities to single-family homes but with densities that builders, suburbs, and opponents of suburban sprawl can appreciate. Builders would like them because they can fit more (expensive) homes on the same amount of land. Suburbs like them for similar reasons; the housing is contained in attractive locations. (I’m guessing not too many suburbs want block after block of these row houses – that would be too monotonous.) For those who dislike sprawl, these might be symbols of denser suburban housing that is ultimately better than continuing to build new subdivisions way on the suburban fringe. (At the same time, such row homes are often not cheap and are not within the reach of most suburbanites, continuing to push them further out.)

We’ll see how long these continue to attractive to the parties cited above.

Majority of American jobs in the suburbs

An analysis at New Geography shows the metropolitan locations of American jobs:

The 2014 data indicates that more than 80 percent of employment in the nation’s major metropolitan areas is in functionally suburban or exurban areas (Figure 3). The earlier suburbs have the largest share of employment, at 44 percent. The later suburbs and exurbs combined have 37.0 percent, while the urban cores have 18.9 percent, including the 9.1 percent in the downtown areas (central business districts, or CBDs).

These numbers reveal dispersion since 2000. Then, the earlier suburbs had even more of the jobs, at 49.4 percent, 5.3 percentage points higher than in 2014. Virtually all of the lost share of jobs in the earlier suburbs was transferred to the later suburbs and exurbs, which combined grew from 31.4 percent in 2000 to 37.0 percent in 2014. The urban cores had 19.4 percent of the jobs (8.8 percent in the CBDs), slightly more than the 18.9 percent in 2014.

While Chicago is one of the cities with a higher percentage of jobs in the city, Sun Belt locations dominate the list of cities with more jobs in outer suburbs:

These figures counter claims or stereotypes that (1) suburbs are primarily bedroom communities where people sleep but work in the city and (2) urban cores are the primary job centers of metropolitan regions. Of course, some suburbs are bedroom suburbs and big city downtowns are still important, particularly for certain industries (think global finance). At the same time, it would be interesting to envision some of these Sun Belt cities with no downtown…how different would Raleigh or Atlanta or Orlando really be?

Expanding Chicago’s downtown zoning; a good deal for poor neighborhoods?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel just released his plans to expand Chicago’s downtown which could provide new monies to help other parts of the city:

This week more details have emerged regarding Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious plan to expand the high-density “downtown” zoning designation to approximately 1000 additional acres outside the city’s central core to help fund improvements in underserved neighborhoods.

Under the scheme, the city will charge developers for the privilege of increased height and density permitted under the expansion. Each payment will be calculated by multiplying amount of additional space sought by 80 percent of the median price per square foot. In other words, if a builder wants to build an additional 5,000 square feet beyond what’s allowed under old zoning in an area where the median price is $30 per foot, the city will net an extra $120,000 for neighborhood reinvestment…

This week’s announcement also sheds some light on how the mayor plans to spend the extra cash. As reported by Greg Hinz of Crain’s, the administration plans to spend 80 percent of the money to help incentivize the construction of new grocery stores and cultural facilities in otherwise deprived neighborhoods. The remainder of the fund is earmarked for historic preservation efforts and streetscape and transit improvements.

The creation of this new value-capture mechanism is also aimed to supplement — if not help replace — Chicago’s reliance on its controversial TIF districts.

It sounds like Emanuel hears the criticism that poorer neighborhoods in Chicago need more resources and capital. However, is this the best way to do that or is it a deal with the devil? The idea seems to be that developers want new spaces to create downtown-like buildings and some of the revenue from this can be sent to help poor neighborhoods. The Neighborhoods Opportunity Fund – a description starts on page 2 of the proposed ordinance – can provide a unique pot of money to provide basic services, cultural and recreational opportunities, and help launch small businesses.

How much money will this generate?

The city says the plan will pull in about $50 million over the next several years. Eighty percent of the money would go to develop grocery stores, restaurants and cultural facilities in underserved neighborhood commercial corridors. The remaining 20 percent would be split among preserving landmark buildings, neighborhood streetscapes and public transit facilities.

I’ll leave it to others to consider how this money balances out with the goodies developers and others will get from the expanded downtown zoning…

NYT on wealthy suburbanites moving back to the city

Who is buying those expensive downtown condos in places like New York or Chicago? One article suggests it is wealthy suburbanites:

Like Dr. Fader, who lives in Bryn Mawr, west of Philadelphia, most of these new high-end buyers are coming from the suburbs, developers say. This is a group that loves its mansions and large homes but is finally, not so reluctantly, trading them in for high-end city adventure.

“Things just lined up in the last few years,” said Patrick L. Phillips, the global chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a research organization in Washington. “The peak of the baby boom is right around 60 and these wealthy folks have a lot of embedded equity in their homes. They have the wherewithal to move into something with space in the city.”

And cities have prepared for people with money, at least in their downtowns, Mr. Phillips said. They have concentrated theaters, arenas, upscale shopping and refurbished or new parks and museums there.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Just how many people are doing this? How many people could afford such a move? The key here is that these people are already living in expensive suburbs and have all sorts of housing options.
  2. What happens to other parts of the city where there is less money to be made for developers and builders? Cities like to trumpet new buildings in their downtowns and the growth of cultural and entertainment options. But, these are not necessarily available to everyone.

The revival of big city downtowns not about recreating economic hubs?

Joel Kotkin suggests revived downtowns of big American cities aren’t exactly bringing back the old days where they served as economic hubs:

Instead what’s emerging is a very different conceptualization of downtown, as a residential alternative that appeals to the young and childless couples, and that is not so much a dominant economic hub, but one of numerous poles in the metropolitan archipelago, usually with an outsized presence of financial institutions, government offices and business service firms…

The better numbers reflect then not a mass “back to the city” movement but an uptick in the market appeal of city centers. And it’s unlikely that the old urban cores will ever come close to recovering the economic preeminence they once enjoyed. In American Community Survey data from 2006-08, the central business district of the New York metro area was the only one across the country that accounted for over 20% of regional employment; downtown’s share topped 10% in just six other metro areas: Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., Richmond, Chicago and Hartford. This contrasts with the kind of employment dominance seen in the 1950s when Manhattan’s commercial core accounted for more than 35% of employment in the New York area. Of course, the decline is a natural outgrowth of the massive physical expansion of the New York area during the past half century, a pattern seen in other major regions.

From 2000 to 2010, the share of jobs dropped somewhat in the nation’s biggest urban cores, but employment declined far more in the inner ring suburbs, according to an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox. In contrast the fastest job growth was in suburban and exurban areas, paralleling their gains in population. This has become clearer since the recession ended; the consultancy Costar notes between 2012 and 2013 office absorption grew quicker in the suburbs than the core, accounting for 87% of new office demand. Overall suburbs account for nearly 75% of all office space in our metropolitan areas…

This resurgence in L.A., and elsewhere, is no mean accomplishment, but it also does not constitute sea-change in fundamental economic geography. Downtowns are back, but more as a lifestyle option than as a dominant feature of the metropolitan landscape.

Could big city downtowns be more urban lifestyle centers? Compared to suburbs, these downtowns offer more cultural options: museums, large urban parks, restaurants, theaters, non big box shopping. Suburbs have more cultural options than they did in the past – and the stereotypes that all suburbs were bedroom suburbs with no other activities was never true – but cities offer a higher concentration. And could city condos be a clear status symbol of today’s upper-middle or upper class?

Another piece of data that might help here are reverse commuting patterns. Looking at these downtown census tracts and blocks, how many residents work nearby or in the city compared to past decades?

Suburbs looking for ways to lure young adults back from cities

If young adults are going to the big city and staying in increasing numbers, how can suburbs get them back?

Demographers and politicians are scratching their heads over the change and have come up with conflicting theories. And some suburban towns are trying to make themselves more alluring to young residents, building apartment complexes, concert venues, bicycle lanes and more exotic restaurants…

Some suburbs are working diligently to find ways to hold onto their young. In the past decade, Westbury, N.Y., has built a total of 850 apartments — condos, co-ops and rentals — near the train station, a hefty amount for a village of 15,000 people. Late last year it unveiled a new concert venue, the Space at Westbury, that books performers like Steve Earle, Tracy Morgan and Patti Smith.

Long Beach, N.Y., with a year-round population of 33,000, has also been refreshing its downtown near the train station over the last couple of decades. The city has provided incentives to spruce up signage and facades, remodeled pavements and crosswalks, and provided more parking. A smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants flowered on Park Avenue, the main street…

Thomas R. Suozzi, in his unsuccessful campaign to reclaim his former position as Nassau County executive last year, held up Long Beach, Westbury and Rockville Centre as examples of municipalities that had succeeded in drawing young people with apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions, like Long Beach’s refurbished boardwalk. Unless downtowns become livelier, he said, the island’s “long-term sustainability” will be hurt because new businesses will not locate in places where they cannot attract young professionals.

This story should make New Urbanists happy. Because cities are attracting young adults with cultural amenities and jobs, suburbs have to respond with their own amenities. Simply existing as a bedroom community won’t cut it for attracting younger residents who want competitive housing prices as well as things to do. By appealing to these residents, suburbs can also win in two ways. First, their efforts to bring in more restaurants, stores, and cultural opportunities can help diversify their tax base. New commercial establishments and festivals help bring in visitors as well as residents who spend money. Second, these moves may also help make their downtowns and neighborhoods denser. This limits residents’ reliance on cars and makes streets more pedestrian friendly.

Of course, many of these suburbs will find it difficult to compete with (1) the big city and (2) other suburbs. Popular tactics in recent years across suburbs include transit oriented development involving condos and amenities near railroads or other mass transit and trying to build a more vibrant downtown around restaurants and small but unique shops.