Peak sprawl does not mean the end of suburbs but rather their densification

One researcher argues the suburbs of the future will be less sprawl and have more density:

Since 2009, 60 percent of new office, retail and rental properties in Atlanta have been built in what Christopher Leinberger calls “walkable urban places” – those neighborhoods already blessed by high Walk Scores or on their way there. That new construction has taken place on less than 1 percent of the metropolitan Atlanta region’s land mass, suggesting a shift in real estate patterns from expansion at the city’s edges to denser development within its existing borders.

“This is indicative that we’re seeing the end of sprawl,” says Leinberger, a research professor with the George Washington University School of Business, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission. “It does not say that everything turns off. There will still be new drivable suburban development. It’s just that the majority will be walkable urban, and it will be not just in the redevelopment of our downtowns, but in the urbanization of the suburbs.”…

“I think there’s a cause-and-effect issue here,” he says. “I think that when the economy picks up steam, it’s going to be because we learn how to build walkable urban places. Real estate caused this debacle, and real estate has always acted as a catalyst for economic recoveries.”

He figures we’re sputtering along at 2 percent growth precisely because we’re not building enough of the walkable urban product that the market wants. “And it’s signaling with pretty flashing lights,” he says, “to build more of this stuff.”

New Urbanists FTW! The argument here is that the suburbs will continue – with their features of home ownership, cars, local control, autonomy, etc. – but they will look different due to denser designs, feature different kinds of community and social life, and include more features like cultural centers or mixed-use neighborhoods that are more traditionally associated with cities.

One obstacle to this might be how much existing suburbs are willing to increase their densities. This make make financial sense or be good for growth but it could also alter the character of more sprawling communities. For example, many suburbs have already considered or built transit-oriented development where denser housing and space is built near mass transit. But, would they be willing to extend such construction across more of their area?

Transforming a Bell Labs complex into a mixed-use development

The famous Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, New Jersey is due for a makeover into a mixed-used development:

Developer Somerset Development has tapped Alexander Gorlin Architects to convert the 1.9 million-square-foot facility into a contained island of retail, dining, residential, hotel, performance, and office space—providing new amenities, from a town library to an outdoor sports complex, for the sprawling suburban community. Two New Jersey–based firms, NK Architects and Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design, will also collaborate on the design of the interior tenant space.

“It is almost like the Romans have left the arena. How do you re-inhabit the coliseum? How do you inject new life in a space that is waiting for something to happen?” said Gorlin. “It symbolized America at its post-war peek in 1962.”

The colossal, quarter-mile-long atrium will be the cornerstone of the renovation. Gorlin imagines that this vast, open space will serve a similar function to that of the Armory, and host a variety of events such as large and small-scale performances, a farmer’s market, and pop-up shops…

So far the development has one tenant, Community Healthcare Associates, which plans to take over 400,000 square feet of the building. The developer envisions the complex will house a variety of tenants that meet the needs of the rather affluent surrounding community. “Everything has to mesh and come together: the clientele, the target market. There is room for many different levels,” said Zucker.

A fascinating building where much technological progress took place will be converted into another sort of lifestyle center for wealthy suburban residents. On one hand, it is a good idea to use the building for something the community can utilize now rather than let it fall into disrepair. On the other hand, the building could be treated like any other big box facility. There is potential here to market the new offices and uses as part of technological history – but this may not fit the theme of farmers markets, pop-up shops, and boutiques.

As the article notes, this building may just symbolize America at its post-war peak: big business, modern architecture, technology, all in a bucolic suburban (median household income over $140k) office campus setting. Perhaps after its redesign it will symbolize America of the 2010s: consumption, entrepreneurship, mixed-income developments, still in a bucolic suburban setting.

Some Chicago aldermen, businesses argue they want parking meters to move cars and customers along

As Chicago debates a parking meter policy, some aldermen and businesses want metered parking on Sunday so they can keep customers moving through the parking spaces:

Some aldermen are saying “no thanks” to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offer of free Sunday parking when it comes to their commercial districts for fear it would hurt businesses that rely on street parking for their customers…

“As soon as this deal happened, I got a letter from my chamber of commerce, saying … this is going to hurt local businesses,” Ald. Michele Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes most of Lincoln Park, said during a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday to weigh the mayor’s proposal. Businesses need parkers to move on so others can take their place, several aldermen said…

“In some commercial areas, with some businesses, the businesses actually want the turnover that payment on Sunday gives, because having spots filled by somebody that’s just leaving it there all day hurts business, and that’s the concern that we’re trying to address on a case-by-case basis,” Patton said.

Intriguingly, this puts the aldermen in a tough position between residents/customers and businesses:

But aldermen would have to request it, something Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said could leave council members in a tough spot. “What it ends up setting up is a situation where, ‘Well, whose side are you on — the businesses or the constituents?’ It’s problematic,” Pawar told Patton.

This highlights an advantage of parking meters: they can keep the parked traffic moving so that cars can’t clog up spaces. Without them, city residents and visitors are likely to sit in the spots for a long time. This also is a reminder of the mix of uses often found in urban neighborhoods: both residents and businesses are vying for parking for much of the day. In contrast, parking is more plentiful in suburban shopping areas and many suburban downtown businesses gave up parking meters decades ago to keep customers happy. But, these suburban downtowns rarely have the density and demand for street parking that cities face.

So, if residents in these neighborhoods complained loud enough about wanting free parking on Sundays, would they be able to force an alderman to side with them?

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.

Naperville moving forward with proposal for influential mixed-use Water Street development

An important new development proposal in Naperville is back up for discussion:

Plans to develop the Water Street area of Naperville’s downtown are being revived after five years and now include a 130-room hotel.

However, the latest proposal will have to overcome concerns from city officials and residents about issues of height, density and traffic congestion.

Marquette Companies, under the name MP Water Street District LLC, presented its revised plan to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission this week. The 2.4-acre site is 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 current proposal calls for a 130-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites; 61 to 65 apartments; retail, restaurant and office spaces; and a 550-space parking garage. There also would be a plaza and connection to the Riverwalk.

The tallest portion of the development would be the hotel, which has a tower that reaches just above 90 feet…

Bob Fischer, vice president of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation, said the plans will “canyonize Water Street.”

“Allowing this kind of height and density along the Riverwalk will forever diminish it as the crown jewel of our downtown,” he said.

I think there are two big points about this that are not mentioned in the article:

1. One important feature of this mixed-use development is that it is south of the DuPage River. In other words, this development would firmly move the downtown across the river. This is no small matter: while there is development on the south side, it is primarily smaller and single-family home. Naperville’s downtown is popular (see the parking issues) but it is not clear that a majority of Naperville residents want the downtown to expand into more residential areas.

2. This development speaks to a broader issue: is Naperville ready for denser development? While the community added about 100,000 people between 1980 and 2008 as it expanded primarily to the south and west, there is really no open land left in the community. Thus, to grow, the city must approve denser development. The downtown is the logical place to start: it is near a train station, it has a number of restaurants and stores, and seems to be quite popular. Yet, projects like this could push Naperville into a new era of mixed-use and denser development as opposed to the primarily single-family home development that characterized the post-war era.

I’ll be tracking what happens with this proposal as both of the issues I cited above are likely to generate a lot of public discussion and comment. This could be a turning point in Naperville’s history: should the downtown expand in a big way and should the city pursue denser development in desirable locations?

UPDATE: I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is approved but the height is limited to something like fifty or sixty feet (five or six stories). Ninety feet would be quite high for downtown Naperville though approving that height could indicate some willingness to to pursue taller projects in the future.

Encouraging sprawl or downtown growth

A recent Canadian conference brought together scholars and practitioners interested in strengthening downtowns. Several of the participants made comments regarding the relationship between a city downtown and the suburbs:

By themselves, speakers warned, studios, galleries and quaint little bistros won’t solve the problems of troubled downtowns. Real solutions will have to overcome public policies that favour urban sprawl and punish core businesses with excessive parking requirements.

Consultant Pamela Blais pointed an accusing finger at municipal development charges that she argues favour suburban “McMansions” over turning downtown buildings into condos.

As one example, she pointed to one Ontario municipality that collects lot levies of $31,000 per parcel regardless of size — that means a house with a 30-foot frontage actually pays more toward the cost of water and sewer mains and parks than a bigger property.

Michael Manville, of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, argued minimum parking requirements in city centres actually harm development by driving buildings farther apart.

“Most parking policies turn downtown into a sorry imitation of a mall,” he said. “We have to stop this quiet process of turning downtowns into suburbs one parking lot at a time.”

He argued for maximum parking requirements, rather than minimums, a policy he said will make downtown living attractive to people whose lives aren’t centred on their cars.

There are a lot of moving pieces here including big cultural forces favoring suburbs over denser environments (though perhaps not with younger generations). For planners in individual communities, it can be difficult to counter all of this at once.

At the same time, this is not a new issue. Urban (and suburban) downtowns really started to face these issues in the 1950s with the advent of the strip mall and shopping mall. Some of these same issues are reflected in the comments above: what to do about parking? How can a downtown compete against a mall where there are a number of interesting stores within a climate-controlled space? Other communities may not be completely on-board with promoting condos over single-family homes, particularly when condos can be tied to higher densities and bigger buildings which might clash with a community’s character.

One thing I have wondered before: is it always worthwhile for a community to try to revive a downtown? On one hand, a core is a valuable asset as it represents an opportunity to bring people together and to share a common history. Some newer communities have no real core or public space. On the other hand, downtowns can require a lot of revitalization and it can require fighting an uphill battle in some communities to put the kind of money and attention needed to get a downtown up and running again. It is one thing to present people with a thriving downtown that is attractive and exciting (see: downtown Naperville, which can lead to its own issues) but another to ask a lot of people to undergo a 5 to 20 year project to really transform a downtown. Frankly, some people don’t care about having a downtown and see it as a relic of the past – why not just build the newer versions of downtowns: lifestyle centers?

Here seems to be the primary strategies for downtown revitalization these days:

1. Promote mixed-use development, preferably buildings with retail on the first floor and then condos or offices above. This ensures social spaces and residents to use them.

2. Take advantage of transportation advantages such as mass transit. If you can increase density around important rail or subway lines, you can attract more people.

3. Generally aim to attract two sets of residents: younger professionals and creative types (a la the creative class). These groups like the idea of denser, exciting areas and are more willing to try things out. If you need a third group, aim for downshifters and young retirees who are also looking for a new scene.

Findings about mixed-use communities and crime rates

Mixed-use developments are the rage these days among architects and planners, both in urban and suburban settings. However, there is some contradictory research about whether these developments have higher or lower crime rates. One recent study suggests that crime is reduced once there are enough people on the streets even as there might be a short-term increase in crime before the neighborhood has enough people on the streets. An earlier study had suggested that mixed-use neighborhoods lead to higher levels of crime and therefore, planners should design neighborhoods with features to reduce crime.

This reminds me of Jane Jacob’s ideas of “eyes on the street.” Jacobs suggested this was easier to maintain in mixed-use urban neighborhoods where storekeepers, shoppers, residents and others maintained a steady watch on what happened in the neighborhood.