Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.

Turning a large suburban office campus into a “metroburb”

There are plans in the works to transform the former 150-acre campus of AT&T in Hoffman Estates into a “metroburb”:

Village officials announced in mid-April that they were in talks with representatives of Somerset, who had recognized an opportunity to apply the lessons learned on their conversion of the 2 million-square-foot former Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey, into the mixed-use Bell Works project to the 1.6 million-square-foot AT&T buildings.

The key similarity apart from their overall sizes is the large central atriums both properties have, Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker said.

“All of our retail is facing that center court,” he said of Bell Works. “It’s really a vibrant street scene … literally a small downtown.”

Somerset’s concept plan proposes using the existing AT&T buildings for 1.2 million square feet of offices, 60,000 square feet of retail shops and 80,000 square feet of conference space, while new construction would add 375 apartments, 175 townhouse units and possibly a 200-room hotel.

Zucker said the term he coined for this concept at Bell Works — “Metroburb” — is one he hopes will become generally used among other developers.

Successful redevelopment of sizable properties is crucial to both cities and suburbs. Once companies make decisions to move away from existing properties, communities have two goals in mind. First, they need to find ways to make that land attractive to other users. Even a nice facility may not meet the needs of many other users or it may be sized wrong. Second, they often hope to turn the property into something that can generate more for the local tax base. At the least, property taxes are helpful but if retail can be incorporated into the property, sales tax revenue can be generated. The redevelopment proposed above seems to tackle both of these issues: it splits up the space into multiple desirable uses (and there are not that many single firms that need 1.6 million square feet) and has multiple uses (business, retail, and residential). This might have the bonus holy grail of redevelopment: the potential for a mixed-use property that could become a vibrant community on its own.

Given the initial use of this campus, it would be fun to see the AT&T history incorporated into the redevelopment. Bell Labs has an important research and development legacy in the United States and featuring its accomplishments could help set this redevelopment apart from other suburban palces that have less character or history.

Avoiding the shame of Ogden Avenue in southwest Naperville

Thinking more about the decision in Naperville to turn down a car repair shop for a vacant property, I was reminded of how Naperville would prefer its retail areas to look: not like how Ogden Avenue has looked:

The idea is to update the look and feel of intersections and parkways along East Ogden Avenue so drivers know they’re in Naperville, shoppers find the area more inviting and businesses see it as primed for development, said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership…

And my own comments on this:

But, I would suggest there is a deeper issue: can these kinds of improvements truly lead to more development and a stronger sense of community? East Ogden Avenue is like many sizable suburban streets: it is fronted by numerous businesses (ranging from restaurants to auto care facilities to big box stores to home converted to offices), there are signs and buildings everywhere, and has numerous cut-outs to the road. To many, this look is not very attractive. These are the sorts of streetscapes that wealthier suburbs today try to avoid even if they were common several decades ago.

Does putting signs at intersections, putting in new landscaping, burying power lines, and rebranding the stretch “Uptown Naperville” really change what is there? It may look nicer. It may tell people more clearly that they are in Naperville (God forbid that they are in Lisle). But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked? I am skeptical. Just contrast this stretch to downtown Naperville where a certain level of density and vibrancy leads to an exciting scene. The stretch on Ogden is too long, too broken up, devoid of attractive residential units (though they are often just behind the businesses), and difficult to connect.

In other words, higher-status suburbs want to avoid stretches along major roads that are marked by fast-food restaurants, car dealers and car repair places, strip malls, signs for retailers and businesses, and endless curb cuts. These may be quintessential American stretches – everything is accessible by car, it separates these uses from residential areas, it crassly shows off consumerism – but they are not considered aesthetically pleasing nor do the businesses that locate there tend to cater to a wealthier clientele.

The step up from this jumble of businesses would be the locations of retailers and businesses around shopping malls and “lifestyle centers.” These nodes are increasingly organized around entertainment and eating. They offer opportunities to have a single unifying aesthetic as well as walkability within the development. This is what Naperville has aimed for in Naperville Crossings with a large movie theater, numerous restaurants, and smaller retailers. It is supposed to look more like a small town and be less threatening to nearby upscale housing.

One final thought about Naperville Crossings: even within a wealthy suburb like Naperville, there is vacant space in an upscale development that has been open for quite a while. It is hard to know whether this reflects on Naperville and the surrounding area or is indicative of broader headwinds facing businesses and retailers.

From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

Watching for the rise of Accessory Dwelling Units

A new book suggests Accessory Dwelling Units – ADUs – are going to become more common in the United States:

Eight years later, Peterson works full-time helping others build ADUs, preaching the granny-flat gospel via classes for other Portland homeowners. The number of ADU permits the city issues has risen dramatically; in 2016, it was 615. In Vancouver, Canada—an ADU pioneer—more than 2,000 ADUs have been built citywide in the last decade. But for most cities in North America, steep legal barriers are preventing this form of housing from taking off: Many cities ban them outright, and those that don’t often have severe restrictions on size, owner occupancy, and parking. Only a handful of cities have adjusted their regulations to encourage more ADUs—mostly on the West coast, where severe housing affordability is a growing problem. But Peterson and other ADU advocates are predicting that the country is on the verge of welcoming more of them.

 

And a short portion from the interview with Peterson regarding the benefits of ADUs:

ADUs allow people housing flexibility over time. You can design an ADU in which to age in place, and then rent out your main house, allowing you to stay in your neighborhood as you grow older, and at less cost. Parents, caregivers, or adult children can also live in ADUs.

ADUs use fewer resources like gas and electricity due to their size, and because they’re often built in walkable and bikeable areas, their residents generate less of an environmental impact that way as well. They also reduce the per capita residential footprint. This is important because there are a lot of one- and two-person households in cities, but not the housing to match that demographic. ADUs can help fill this need.

And ADUs generally don’t have a significant infrastructural impact on a city, in contrast to, say, a 400-unit apartment building. They bring more housing to an area organically, and the city doesn’t have to build new infrastructure to accommodate it.

If these do catch on, in which neighborhoods would be become most popular? I would guess they would be most attractive in working-class and up-and-coming neighborhoods where homeowners are looking to generate extra income and where they are more open to having close neighbors. In contrast, I think it would be more difficult for these to catch on in wealthier neighborhoods. After all, don’t Americans tend to think that one of the benefits of having a larger and more expensive home is the ability to be separate from other people?

 

Converting an architecturally-noted Chicago synagogue into apartments

The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.

Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.

After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.

Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…

Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.

Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.

It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.