Finding uses for the “big empties” in the Chicago suburbs

When businesses move their headquarters from sprawling suburban campuses to the city center, they leave behind a lot of building space and land:

Inside the sprawling, 2.4 million-square-foot headquarters — composed of seven interconnected office buildings — there is an almost eerie ghost-town quality, former employees describe. The bank, dry cleaners, hair salon, coffee shop and small sundry shop that once lined the corridor of the main atrium have all closed. Gone, too, are the Sbarro’s and Panda Express restaurants.

Over the years, Sears has hired leasing agents to bring in sublessors without much success. Today, with the economy uncertain and Sears’ days seemingly numbered, the building has become an even harder sell. Only about 3% of the complex is leased to outside tenants…

If Transformco tried to sell the campus, it would face long odds, local real estate experts said. The large complex, custom-built for Sears, is nearly 30 years old. Suburban business parks are as outdated and obsolete as fax machines…

The entire region is a buyer’s market, burdened by other big empties. Right down the road from Sears headquarters are two such examples.

Perhaps the easiest answer to filling these properties is to bulldoze them and build housing on the land. In the suburbs in which these suburban headquarters are located (Hoffman Estates, Oak Brook for McDonalds, etc.), there would be demand for housing.

But, bulldozing buildings adds costs as would changing the infrastructure for the site. Plus, as the article notes, housing would not bring in the same kind of revenue or status that a large corporation did. Additionally, more housing might even lead to a bigger tax burden for the rest of the community if there is more demand for schools and other local services.

Thus, suburbs often hope to find corporate partners for such properties. Finding someone to take over the whole property would be ideal. Or, perhaps create a mixed-use community with some residences but also businesses and restaurants. See more on efforts in Hoffman Estates to transform a former AT&T campus into a “metroburb” (also mentioned in the article).

Side note: this does not bode well for large tech campuses amid a possible shift to more employees working from home.

Addressing “green gentrification”

As American cities develop land in ways to combat climate change, researchers have examined who benefits from the new development:

Fighting climate disasters is a good idea for the planet, but can have unintended consequences for neighborhoods. “In order to construct a green, resilient park or shoreline, we get rid of lower-income housing … and behind it or next to it, you’ll have higher-income housing being built,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who co-wrote an article about green gentrification in December’s PNAS. It can get even worse, she says. Hardening one neighborhood so that water can’t flow inland there means the water goes somewhere else. “The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door,” she says.

That’s double jeopardy. And it turns into triple jeopardy, thanks to economics. New amenities plus new luxury housing drive up local housing prices, which drive out working-class and poorer residents. “The question is not only what Boston is facing, which is middle-class gentrifiers with a slightly higher income and education. It’s über-rich people who end up taking over cities until they are unable to fulfill their direct functions,” Anguelovski says. The gentrification wave is its own kind of economic apocalypse. If it hits, none of the people who make a city work—teachers, police officers, health care workers, bus drivers—can afford to live there. “Or it becomes so important from an economic standpoint, so desirable and hardened with infrastructure that entire buildings are empty—purchased by real estate funds or individuals from the Middle East or Russia,” Anguelovski says.

The problem that cities face is the difference between physics and real estate. Climate change happens on the scale of decades or centuries; real estate development and politics happen on fiscal and electoral timescales. “I get it. Green space is great, and while it may not be much of an improvement in terms of climate adaptation, it’s good for people’s well-being and quality of life,” says Ken Gould, an environmental sociologist at Brooklyn College and coauthor of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. “Does it sequester much carbon? Not really. It’s fine. But you have to manage the real estate markets, because markets left to themselves, when you put in an amenity, are going to generate development.”…

Obviously, cities are facing more and more climate-related hazards. It’d be policy malpractice to not get ready for them. “It’s not too difficult for a city to make green infrastructure investments in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, but the housing side needs to kick in,” says Constantine Samaras, an energy and climate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “The people who live in these underinvested neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood with bike lanes and green space. It’s up to city policy to make sure they can stay.” The trick is to build new housing while not uprooting people who live in the old stock—so that everyone benefits from the protection against disaster, not just a wealthy, lucky few.

This sounds like a twenty-first century version of urban renewal programs in American cities. In the name of the good of the whole community – now to protect neighborhoods and cities against environmental risks – lower-income housing is removed and the land eventually ends up in the hands of wealthier residents and property owners.

The sociological literature on urban development would suggest this is not surprising. Through a variety of means, leaders and wealthier people find ways to procure desirable land and profit from them. Redevelopment, whether undertaken to improve properties or make places greener, tends to benefit those who move into the neighborhood, not the ones who have been there a long time.

As is noted in the portion above, what is good for real estate and property values may not be good for the community even though the changes themselves – such as putting up barriers to water or creating more green space – would be welcome. At least now, the American system tends to privilege the real estate side, not the community improvement and well-being side. What could be done to limit the real estate market for the good of the city? Which city leaders will lead the way in arguing that green improvements should not be tied to market forces?

Imagine the American suburbs shrunk by a factor of five

A comparison of suburbs in Germany and the United States hints at places built on two different scales:

The fact is, my wife’s parents didn’t drive her anywhere because they didn’t need to. Her German suburb looks like an American suburb – shrunk by a factor of about five. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the gardens are smaller, and around most corners are buildings with multiple housing units. It’s denser. That means friends and volleyball practices and first jobs at pizza shops are all closer, and parents can tell their kids to walk or take a bicycle.

For the younger generations in America, that is an increasingly pleasing prospect. Car buying is dropping and a growing share of millennials and Gen Zers is putting off getting a driver’s license or eschewing it entirely. They want to take the bicycle. Add in concerns about climate change among many young Americans (and wanting to limit car emissions), and you get a scenario where density becomes desirable.

Yet most American neighborhoods have been designed with the exact opposite in mind. The expression “your home is your castle” gives some indication of the prevailing mindset since the 1920s, when modern single-family zoning first took hold. Who wants the smallest castle on the block?

So what is happening now, from the D.C. suburbs to California, is a recalibration of what American homeownership should look like. There are other important factors, too. The single-family mentality and its lower density mean fewer places to live – and therefore more upward pressure on home prices. That has meant many people of color have been locked out of the most common way for individuals and families to build wealth. Many young Americans say equity demands greater density.

The argument for denser suburbs is a common one in recent years. Packing in more buildings and housing units in the same amount of land has the potential to allow suburbanites to keep single-family homes (just with smaller yards and multi-family housing would not look as out of place). New suburban development would shift from new homes on the the edges of metropolitan regions and focus instead on filling in existing communities.

I could see this happening in at least three kinds of suburbs:

1. Mature suburbs with little greenfield land for development but there is still demand/interest in more housing. The only way is go denser or up and denser at least preserves the vertical scale.

2. Communities built around significant mass transit options. Transit-oriented development promotes density and less car use.

3. Suburbs with larger populations. More density is likely to be resisted in smaller communities because they can still claim to be a small town. In contrast, large suburbs are already past that point so more density already fits the size of the community.

Then, we might see in a decade or two an altered suburban landscape where certain communities are quite dense and nearby suburbs are in the older mode of single-family homes and bigger yards. Imagine “surban” pockets with sprawling neighborhoods next door. This will provide options for homebuyers but also means mass transportation options in the suburbs will remain uneven.

Looking for productive ways to use the campuses of closed colleges

When college campuses close, what happens to the land and buildings?

Saint Joseph is one of several small private liberal arts colleges across the country to have suffered that fate in recent years. In many of those cases, leaders are left wondering what to do with the shuttered campus. Under the wrong circumstances, buildings can remain locked and quads can lie fallow for years as banks try to recoup unpaid debts or brokers seek buyers who are willing to invest in land filled with outdated or dilapidated buildings…

Conversations between community and state leaders led to a search for partners interested in working with the college. That brought Vermont Works, an investment firm, and Vermont Innovation Commons, a benefit corporation that is a project of Vermont Works, into the picture.

Ideas grew for trying to offer education to a wide range of students, keep Vermonters in the state and attract new residents, Scott said. The direct path from high school through college to employment isn’t necessarily what employers or students want anymore. Professional skills, technical skills and experience are being emphasized much more today than they were in the recent past…

Across the country, the idea of repurposing closed or closing colleges is a critical planning problem, according to experts. College leaders need to be considering their prospects for the future and whether different models can help them fulfill their institutions’ missions, said Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning.

Redeveloping large properties is not an easy task: see shopping malls, big box stores and large retail stores, and office parks. College campuses present their own unique challenges given how the land is used. Simply plopping a new organization into the same set of buildings is likely to be difficult. Location will matter as well; the story above used the example of a more rural college where there is limited demand for land.

As the story hints, it would be great to be able to use the property for an ongoing educational purpose to keep the mission of the college going. If that does not work, perhaps the land could be used for community purposes. Ultimately, simply turning the property back to the free market for commercial, industrial, or residential uses – which could generate more money and taxes for local communities – seems like it could be a loss. Given the predicted fate of numerous colleges and universities, perhaps we will have a landscape in a few decades where it will be hard to know that the land formerly housed a thriving higher education institution.

I wonder if there is a way for college campuses to head off the problem long before they need to close their doors. Would having more permeable membranes between the campus and the community better connect all the land uses? is the impulse to have a controlled campus a bad idea in the long run for communities?

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Exact numbers on how many religious buildings have sold in the last five years

I have tracked the fate of religious buildings both professionally and on this blog (such as conversions to residential units). I have also asked: just how many conversions of religious buildings to residences are taking place?

Some hard numbers to start answer this question recently arrived:

More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.

Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop.

And some helpful context for these numbers:

“The buildings we have that were built in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are not really functional for today’s perspective,” said Simons, author of Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America’s Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools. “Too many classrooms, a little bit too big.”

These large religious buildings can fall into disrepair, placing a financial burden on shrinking congregations. The process is a “vicious circle,” said Simons, because congregations in deteriorating buildings may have trouble attracting new members, which in turn reduces donations.

The numbers are helpful: out of roughly 300,000 religious congregations in the United States, roughly 1,350 religious buildings a year are sold. Alas, we do not get more data on what happens to those structures. The rest of this news story follows a format similar to earlier stories: religious buildings can be turned into all sorts of things! This is true – there are lots of possibilities. How many are demolished? Converted into businesses or residences? Made into schools, community centers, or homes for non-profit groups? And while the angle of a religious buildings becoming a secular structure is interesting, the number of times one religious group sells to another – a fairly common occurrence and often a very helpful option for the purchasing congregation – is ignored.

Going further, the numbers on sales only tell so much when the range of costs to rehab or reuse the building could be high. The suggestion from the story above is that a number of the buildings need significant work. Selling a building may often be a last resort of a congregation, meaning the group may not have had the resources to take proactively keep up the building for a while. The sale of the building might just be the first step in a much longer process of transforming the building (which my research suggests could then lead to issues in the community regarding making changes to an established structure).

SimCity, Jane Jacobs, and real estate values near the High Line

In a recent walk along New York’s High Line, I was reminded of two competing claims about how parks enhance nearby land uses.

In SimCity’s take on urban planning, building a park was a good way to help adjacent properties. If nearby residential and commercial properties suffered from low property values – perhaps due to higher crime rates or locations near industry – building a park could help enhance their values. This seems to make intuitive sense: people like being near greenery and this land use can distract or suppress less desirable land uses.

Jane Jacobs, in contrast, suggests parks are not the automatic panacea some planners suggest. More important than simply having green or recreational space is having a steady mix of people flowing through and around the park. It is human activity that makes the park, not just green space. Indeed, negative activity can thrive and recreational space can easily become part of a dull or blighted area.

HighLineAug19

In a simplistic take, the High Line seems to support both of these views. The conversion of an unused railroad line to a thriving park has enhanced nearby property values. The park is regularly filled with people – from tourists to local walkers to vendors – during much of the day. This is a success story for both the SimCity and Jane Jacobs school of urban planning.

Yet, how exactly such an urban space came about and has both positive (new development!) and negative (those same values limiting who can live nearby!) consequences is more than just plopping a park into an area that could use more development. If it worked this way, every city would have such a successful project.

HighLine2Aug19

In a complex environment like Manhattan where land is highly prized and regulated, putting together such a project takes collective efforts spanning activists, residents, local officials, developers, and others who have an interest in this land and who may have competing interests. Property values may indeed be high and the park full but the long-term effects of this on the neighborhood and the city are harder to assess.