McMansions as part of or outside of a changing suburbia?

This description of the changing American suburbs includes McMansions:

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The demand for something like urban living is real. Even at the outer edges of growing metro areas, mixed-use walkable developments pop up alongside familiar subdivisions and McMansions. “Mixed-use centers—often in suburban locations—continue to be built from the ground up in many communities across the US,” wrote the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2019.

As more immigrants and millennials become suburbanites, and as Covid and remote work give the suburbs another growth spurt, they are evolving into something different. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of millennials who live in suburbs increased by 4 percentage points; and in 2014, more than 60 percent of immigrants lived in suburbs, up from just over half in 2000.

Many communities that were once white, exclusionary, and car-dependent are today diverse and evolving places, still distinct from the big city but just as distinct from their own “first draft” more than a half-century ago…

If a “second draft” of the suburbs is now being written — at least in some of America’s growing and expensive metro areas — what might it actually look like?

This is part of the complex suburbia we have today. Where do McMansions fit into this? The selection above suggests “mixed-use walkable developments” are near McMansions. But, what happens to the McMansions in the long run? Here are a few options:

  1. The McMansions continue in their neighborhoods for those that want them. Even amid proclamations that McMansions are dead, there are some homebuyers and suburbanites that want such homes.
  2. McMansions themselves are altered in ways to fit the new landscape. Perhaps they are subdivided into multiple units for more affordable housing. They could be added to. Their properties could host accessory dwelling units.
  3. McMansions are demolished and replaced with something else. This could be because the quality of the homes does not stand the test of time or the land is more valuable used another way (some of the teardowns become teardowns).
  4. Some McMansions live on through historic preservation marking a particular era of housing and American life.

For some, McMansions represent the peak of an undesirable suburban sprawl and excess. For others, they are homes that provide a lot for a decent price. Their long-term fate is to be determined both by those who like them and those who detest them as the suburbs continue to change.

How many suburbs will be willing to replace suburban office parks with denser housing?

If the golden age of the suburban office park has passed, what will some of the empty properties be used for? One option is denser housing:

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It will mean taking land long zoned for offices, and allowing townhomes to be built among them, or permitting apartments or industrial-scale warehouses for the first time. Amid a nationwide housing crisis, many obsolete office parks could be ideal sites for denser housing.

However, this is a very pertinent issue:

The problem for some suburban officials: “It’ll be, ‘Oh, what do you mean we can’t just zone for single-family homes and offices? That’s our thing. That’s why we exist,’” said Tracy Hadden Loh, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. “So now it’s like an existential crisis.”

This is an issue that comes up for numerous kinds of large suburban properties, whether they are shopping malls, golf courses, or grocery stores: how to convert a vacant property into a useful long-term use? The number one goal is probably to generate significant property tax and sales tax revenue. In other words, to keep it at its original as approved by the community years before.

But, if that is not possible – and communities might go years trying to fulfill this vision – then the discussions get interesting. Expensive single-family homes, fitting with the upscale suburban character of some suburbs, would fit in. Zoning protects single-family homes for a reason: suburbanites and suburban communities prefer these homes and their lifestyle.

However, single-family homes can bring more children to local schools and add to the loads of local services. They do not necessarily produce the revenues that offices and retail do. Denser housing is even less desirable because it adds even more residents, which can add to community services and traffic, and some suburbanites are concerned with apartment dwellers.

My guess is that mixed-use redevelopment will be a popular path a number of these communities will try to pursue. Replace that office park with a “metroburb.” But, it remains to be seen how many such developments are viable and how eager suburban leaders and residents are to pursue them.

Limiting landmarked buildings in a suburb with a history of growth

Naperville, Illinois experienced explosive suburban growth after 1960. With demand still high for development in Naperville, evidenced by hundreds of teardowns and rising rent prices, the city council does not appear to have much appetite for landmarking buildings:

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On the heels of the Naperville City Council’s decision to deny landmark status to the downtown Kroehler YMCA facility, officials are proposing changes to the city’s landmarking procedures.

The changes, which need city council approval, are intended to reduce the impact on property owners and make it more difficult for applicants to achieve landmark status for structures.

The idea of forcing landmark status on property owners emerged as a key issue in February when the city council voted 8-1 to reject the request by Naperville Preservation to landmark the Kroehler YMCA against the owners’ wishes. The vote freed the owners to demolish and sell the site.

After numerous speakers at last week’s city council meeting debated the idea of creating more-stringent landmarking regulations, and based on recommendations by Councilman Ian Holzhauer, city staff was directed to return with an ordinance preventing individual citizens from applying for landmark status.

For at least several decades, historic preservationists in communities across the United States have argued that older buildings are worth preserving. Acquiring landmark status is a way to help ensure the structure retains its original form even as neighborhoods and streetscapes change.

It is less clear how well historic preservationist arguments work in suburbs where communities can be used to growth and the rights of individual property owners can reign supreme. As suggested above, landmark status can be seen as an impediment to property owners who can profit from changing or selling a property. Why save an older structure when there is money to be made and progress to be pursued?

If this logic wins out in suburban communities, how many older buildings will remain and in what format? It is one thing to save older buildings and move them or recreate them in a historical museum setting. It is another to preserve important older structures that mark important community locations even as communities continue to change.

Transitioning a glittering downtown shopping mall to a more experiential space

Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue has fallen on hard times, as have many malls, and plans are underway to revive the property with new uses:

In consultant-speak, today’s juice is “experiential” retail. It means that people not only want something they haven’t seen before, but they want an experience to go along with their purchase. The Apple Store and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery further south on Michigan Avenue are examples of that — places where shoppers come to see and feel as well as to buy. A pop-up show called the “Dr. Seuss Experience” filled Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place this winter. Down the street, a “Museum of Ice Cream” is opening at the base of the newly renovated Tribune Tower this summer…

But she and her colleagues are already thinking big. A report titled “North Michigan Avenue: Strategies for a Vibrant Future” issued in March by a group of business and city leaders envisions a grand promenade running from the historic limestone Water Tower, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the lake along Chicago Avenue; and a soaring pedestrian bridge stretching from Michigan Avenue, over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, to Oak Street Beach. The bridge, modeled on a structure in Moscow, would make it possible to see and get to Lake Michigan from the Mag Mile without descending into dank tunnels under the beachfront drive.

Also in the report: a more run-of-the-mill property tax on landlords raising about three quarters of a million dollars passed the City Council this year; it will be used for cultural events like “Music on the Mile” and for security cameras. The city also awarded Bares’ group money from a federal grant to deploy a team of uniformed “ambassadors” — unarmed security personnel with radios to help tourists, assist the homeless and report criminal activity on the Mag Mile — starting in June.

But most of the report is focused on getting people excited about going downtown to enjoy attractions such as music, art and culture, and Water Tower Place recently scored its own big get on that front. In April, the world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago surprised everyone and moved from a temporary home on the North Side into the mall’s fourth floor.

For years, shopping in a lively context was enough “juice” to bring in both serious shoppers, curious shoppers, and other visitors. Shopping was one of the most popular activities for Americans and the glamor of a downtown mall plus at least a decent-sized crowd would make it feel exciting.

Now that shopping is decoupled from physical space, these former shopping spaces do not have enough “juice.” They need more experiences, ranging from music to arts to unusual sights to places where people can post intriguing social media images.

Can cities and communities be flexible enough to shift spaces and experiences? And how many experiential areas can there be? On the first question, communities need to open to how spaces might be used in different ways when conditions change. Shopping malls may have worked for decades and brought in significant revenue, but when they struggle, what is next? For the second question, Chicago already has some of these experiential spaces: Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, a Riverwalk, and other concentrations of interesting activity. Can these work together in that a visitor could access several of these in a single day or trip or at some point do they start competing against each other?

The decline of in-person shopping is a big deal and a shift that many communities are struggling to address. Those who find successful alternative uses for these shopping spaces and also develop a mindset of needing to refresh certain places may just come out ahead.

Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

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The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

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Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

Residents, local leaders oppose a plan to redevelop a struggling suburban mall with 560 apartments and several businesses

Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, Illinois has struggled in recent years (earlier posts here and here). Yet, when a developer proposed adding 500 apartments to the property, residents and local leaders did not like the idea:

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Plans were to raze the majority of the largely vacant mall to make way for 560 apartments and townhouses, a hotel, new restaurants and retail spaces along East Main Street…

“It’s a good plan but the question is, is this the best use of space?” 2nd Ward Alderman Ryan Bongard said at the meeting. “In speaking with constituents, they don’t want to see 500 apartments.”

On Friday, St. Charles Mayor Lora Vitek confirmed the developers have pulled out of the project. The partnership of S.R. Jacobson Development Corporation and Lormax Stern Development Company LLC had previously entered into a purchase agreement for the former Charlestowne Mall property with current owners The Krausz Companies LLC.

In December 2017, Krausz closed Charlestowne’s interior shops and enclosed mall space at the center. Anchors Von Maur and Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18 remains…

“That’s the overwhelming comment that I have heard through the city council,” Vitek said. “And I do believe that we can try to accomplish that. We shouldn’t settle. We’ve got a lot going for us. We know there needs to be more people here and we’re going to bring residential, but there needs to be a balance over there, too. The east side is very important to our town, but we do want to see the right fit.”

On one hand, I can understand this common suburban concern: if you eliminate commercial property and rezone it for other uses, will you ever get the same amount of money in tax revenues from the property? A successful shopping mall or entertainment area brings in sales tax revenue in addition to paying property taxes.

On the other hand, this particular shopping mall has languished for years. Shopping malls in general face big issues and many will not survive. There are only so many suburban entertainment districts that will work. A willing developer wants to build a mix of residences and businesses and it is not enough?

Here is my guess about what scuttled this project: suburbanites do not often like the idea of hundreds of apartments, particularly when they are located in a community that sees itself as full of nice single-family homes. Apartment dwellers are looked at with suspicion. Apartments threaten the single-family home nature of the community as they can increase traffic, bring more kids to local schools, and threaten local property values. Even expensive apartments are not desirable in large numbers.

As St. Charles does not “settle” for this kind of proposal, what better option will come along?

The fate of church buildings when thousands of churches cease operating

A new book addresses the fate of church buildings when congregations end:

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Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing Costs,” a new book about how church property can be repurposed, says there are thousands of churches around the country that have closed or will likely close in the years to come. And too often, he said, leaders of those churches put off any discussion about what to do with their building until it’s too late.

“I’ve had situations where buildings are empty and they have no plan at all,” he said.

A 2021 study from Lifeway Research, based on data from three-dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 were started. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that the median worship attendance for churches in the U.S. dropped from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.

Dutra argues that billions of dollars in church property could be put to work for ministry ­— if church leaders become proactive about the future. He has worked with a number of religious groups to do just that.

The numbers cited above are interesting: prior to COVID-19, more churches closed than opened. Additionally, the data from the survey is consistent with the National Congregations Study run over the last two decades regarding the median size of churches.

This is one area that my co-author Robert Brenneman and I did not address as much as we could have in our 2020 book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. One of the later chapters looks at the fate of church buildings in the Chicago area. We found big differences across four denominations and a number of church buildings put to other uses. Church building are used in a variety of ways, including used by new congregations, converted into housing or commercial space, razed, and preserved.

Based on the description of the book in the article above, my guess is the recommendation is that church buildings no longer housing congregations can be put to other faith uses. There is certainly opportunity, ranging from serving new congregations to housing non-profits or parachurch organizations to being home to community centers.

Keep the suburban shopping mall alive by charging current shoppers an extra 1% tax

Leaders in Skokie, Illinois want to approve a new 1% tax for purchases at Old Orchard mall in order to help keep the shopping mall going:

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Skokie lawmakers during their Feb. 7 village board meeting voted 7 to 1 to make the mall a “business district,” under Illinois’ Business District Development and Redevelopment Sales Tax provision, allowing businesses there to charge an extra 1% sales tax. The board will take a final vote on the proposal in March.

The $5 million generated annually by the additional 1% sales tax will be used by Westfield to do about $120 million in upgrades and rehabs in the mall, which is the largest tax generator in the village.

Mayor George Van Dusen said the new tax and upgrades are essential if the mall is going to remain viable…

Creating a “business district” includes designating the area as “blighted” to facilitate development and redevelopment by imposing an additional tax, Village Manager John Lockerby told the board.

“The viability of the mall is critical to the community, applicable school districts as well as other units of government,” he said, adding that the initiative will set the mall up for long-term success.

Shopping malls, in general, are struggling and not all will survive. This move is intended to help keep Old Orchard going amid tough conditions with COVID-19 and online retail.

But, this is an interesting choice. Here is a few reasons why:

  1. It takes money from private consumers to fund private development through and to ensure local tax monies. The profits go to the mall developers and the community benefits from ongoing tax revenues, jobs, and shopping opportunities. Would this be appropriately termed a “public-private partnership” or a “taxpayer subsidized” project?
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, other communities could use similar tactics to establish “business districts” and keep their own shopping centers alive. Does this just keep the competition going?
  3. The goal is to keep the mall going because it is already there. Is it a sunk cost? What other good might be done in the community with $5 million annually?

The importance of a 35 acre property for sale in the middle of the built-out suburbs

What are the stakes when a 35 acre horse farm is for sale in the middle of a mature and built-out suburbia?

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In recent weeks, the Bolger family, which owns the Gladstone Ridge horse farm on Leask Lane in Wheaton, asked area homebuilders for bids to develop the property. And on Tuesday, the Forest Preserve District’s board voted unanimously to authorize district staff to pursue negotiations with the Bolger family to buy the horse farm.

While no purchase price has yet been determined, some recently developed subdivisions in the immediate vicinity have sold for between $275,000 and close to $500,000 an acre, suggesting that the Bolger family could expect to reap between about $10 million and $17 million for the land from a developer…

“We have not expressed an interest in selling the property to the Forest Preserve (District) and hope you are not of a mind to condemn our property,” she told commissioners. “Please value the rights of our private property and practice open communication.” Forest preserve districts use condemnation to purchase land through eminent domain…

Forest Preserve District officials haven’t yet said publicly if they would consider using condemnation powers to acquire the farm now if they are unable to reach an agreement with the Bolger family. And Wheaton officials said that they have not yet been approached by a developer seeking to develop the Bolgers’ land.

It sounds like the property could go two directions right now: (1) sale to a developer, who would likely build expensive residential units in an exclusive residential area, and (2) (forced?) sale to the Forest Preserve who has aggressively pursued property in DuPage County for decades.

More broadly, properties of this size do not come available often in suburbs that are older and largely built-out. Bigger properties tend to be emerge when redevelopment is a possibility. For example, just a few miles away in Naperville is a part of a large office park where a developer wanted to add several hundred residential units. Or, office parks in the I-90 corridor can become mixed-use properties.

This is different than noting decades ago that the last farms were disappearing from DuPage County. At that point, the farms disappeared to new subdivisions that continued the process of mass suburbanization. Redeveloping a horse farm or an office park or another large property now is different: it does not occur under conditions of mass construction, there are neighbors to the property who likely have concerns, and municipalities and other government agencies think carefully about what the next use for a property could be. The character of the nearby neighborhoods and communities are already established yet a sizable redevelopment could alter future experiences. In other words, when larger parcels of land are infrequent, the stakes for getting this right may be even higher.