Looking to “produce, preserve, and retrofit” American homes for the future

What will happen to American homes in the coming homes, particularly all the suburban tract homes and McMansions? One path forward is to provide resources to fix up and improve existing homes. According to plans from the White House:

Photo by Rodolfo Quiru00f3s on Pexels.com

Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings. President Biden’s plan will create good jobs building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities all over the country, while also vastly improving our nation’s federal facilities, especially those that serve veterans.

As housing ages, issues pop up. They need maintenance. Standards change regarding efficiency, local codes, and what residents desire. The community around houses and housing can change in terms of demographics and development, affecting the reputation of the neighborhood.

This plan emphasizes retrofitting homes, among other options. Energy efficiency is one reason as features like new windows, better furnaces and air conditioners, insulation, and more can cut down on energy use and utility bills. Retrofitting can also help maintain the appeal of homes; instead of falling into disrepair or failing to keep up with the times, retrofitting can spruce up houses that have been around for a while.

Some of this has been available through various means for a while. The concept does stand in contrast to another approach Americans have taken: just build new homes in sprawling suburbs or as teardowns and leave the older homes and their issues to others. Retrofitting single-family homes could be quite a project in the long-term with the emphasis on the United States on single-family homes in the suburbs. Does every suburban home require or deserve retrofitting at some point?

Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments

The construction of Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois was important for the suburb, particularly since it was in Aurora and not in Naperville. But, as shopping malls and suburbs change, the former site of Sears at the mall may soon be apartments:

Google Street View, November 2018

The vacant Sears store at the Fox Valley Mall could be razed early next year to make way for a three-building apartment development and kick off a new phase of life for the 45-year-old mall.

Aurora aldermen will vote next week on a request to rezone roughly 11 acres of the property along Route 59 side of the property to allow the buildings.

The buildings, each three stories tall, would have a total of 304 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments…

A 2020 report for the city said that, including the closed Sears and Carson Pirie Scott department stores, 40% of the mall’s store space was vacant.

Adding residential units to shopping malls is a fairly common suggestion. With retailers in trouble, apartments fill the space more permanently, can address housing issues in communities, and could provide a ready population of potential customers for the nearby mall and other proprietors.

With the proposal working its way through local government, three things are worth watching regarding these apartments:

  1. How, if at all, will the apartments be connected to the mall? If they are completely separate buildings and are not marketed as being right next to the mall, then they could be like any new apartments. But, perhaps the mall is a draw for those who might want to be close to shopping, an indoor walking site, and food options.
  2. What kind of apartments will these be? Given their location, these will probably not be cheap apartments. In addition to being close to the mall, the apartments are near lots of other shopping and dining as well as potential employers, the location is just west of Naperville, and a busy Metra station is just to the north.
  3. How much of the mall will survive within five or ten years? The apartments could help revive the mall area or help hasten its demise.

What redevelopment will suburbs pursue with COVID-19 induced vacancies?

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating a number of trends already troubling many communities: struggling brick-and-mortar retailers, filling vacant office and commercial properties, and budget uncertainties. What might this lead to as suburbs consider redevelopment? A few possible directions.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  1. Desirable suburban communities – those with wealthier residents, more white-collar and professional workers, higher quality of life, and stronger economic bases – will do better at attracting and following through on redevelopment.
  2. The “easiest” answer in many suburbs might be to redevelop office or commercial properties for residential units. Given the needs for affordable housing or cheaper housing in many metropolitan areas, many suburbs could fill residential units. They may not want to for several reasons: residences do not bring in sales tax money and services are different for residences, including having more students in local schools. Plus, “affordable housing” implies certain things about the residents and the units that might not be palatable to some communities. But, if the primary goal is to put property to use, this might be the way to go.
  3. Mixed-use redevelopment that combines residential and retail or office space will continue to be attractive. However, these opportunities might be limited to already-advantages suburbs or particular properties that have certain advantages (large enough to create a self-contained community, access to highways and other transportation options, etc.).
  4. Certain properties may just present particular problems. Three come to mind quickly: shopping malls, empty big box stores, and sizable office parks or campuses. A number of communities have tried to tackle each of these (as one example among many, see this shopping mall post here) but the size of the property and their particular configuration present problems. There may a glut of new kinds of suburban properties that present their own issues: restaurants (both sit-down and fast food), strip malls, and movie theaters. Again, the ways the space was initially configured for these specific uses can make it difficult to pursue retrofitting.
  5. Converting private spaces into more public spaces. Imagine the shopping mall to public skating rink or office campus to park. These may have very positive long-term benefits including spaces for civic engagement, leisure, and interaction with nature. Yet, given the state of municipal budgets with COVID-19, it might be very hard to find money to purchase or use what was once private property.

If there are numerous vacant properties in suburban areas post-COVID-19, this will present a challenge for communities. Are there enough uses for these properties? How willing are suburbs to convert land from one use to another as they consider the “best use” for the community?

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

Photo by Norma Mortenson on Pexels.com

Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

“Epic Fail”: demolishing Charlestowne Mall for housing units

A failing suburban mall is slated to be turned into residential units – and it is has a humorous/sad sign in its empty corridors:

A handful of mall walkers represent the only foot traffic. There are faint signs of music emanating from a fitness center. A poster inside a former store directory sign displays what might be a fitting epitaph: “Epic Fail,” it reads.

The words in the World Wildlife Federation poster are a plea to preserve freshwater sources. Right now, St. Charles officials are more interested in protecting the economy on the east side of the city. It’s been six months since the mall owners provided the public an update on their mission to revive the site.

Mall representatives in May told city officials it’s time to abandon the idea of rejuvenating the mall by attracting new stores. Instead, they’ll keep the movie theater, Von Maur and Carson Pirie Scott. They will demolish all but 150,000 square feet of the structure to make way for 155 townhouses on the north end of the property and 256 apartments on the east end…

Rogina said Krausz would “engage a large, national residential developer” to handle the apartments and townhouses. He declined to name the residential developer since the deal may not yet be complete.

While this could be a good illustration for the overbuilding of retail around the turn of the 21st century (the shopping mall will be gutted even though a number of the surrounding businesses – including Walmart, Target, and numerous restaurants – will live on), it could turn into a good example of retrofitting suburban spaces. Adding residential units to this property could help create a vibrant location where residents can walk to a movie theater, stores, and eateries. Imagine a mixed-use area where once stood a solitary shopping mall surrounded by large parking lots.

At the same time, I could imagine how constructing these housing units could turn out poorly. Two things, in particular, could be problematic. First, the new housing units may be constructed in such a way to be completely disconnected from the existing uses. The opportunity to create a mixed-use, walkable environment could easily be lost. The suburb would end up with a case where walking is inconvenient or even strongly discouraged. If this happens, it is similar to the construction of many other suburban housing units: they exist in private realms. Second, the housing could turn out to be luxury units or expensive housing. St. Charles is a fairly wealthy suburb and the developers may want to make units for young professionals, young families, and empty-nesters or local retirees. Yet, this suburb – like many others – needs more affordable housing and the location near a lot of retail options could be nice for those who do not want to have to rely on cars all the time. (Granted, if they want to get to central St. Charles, a car is needed.)

Reviving the dead shopping mall with residences, hotels

Efforts to resuscitate dead shopping malls include adding living space:

Four years later, after failing to make that work, owner The Krausz Companies is pitching a new plan that would keep existing anchor stores but demolish vacant Kohl’s and Sears stores and significantly shrink the size of the mall. The concept plan, proposed in April, also calls for building 155 town homes and 256 apartments north and east of the existing mall…

Melaniphy said he thinks there also will be more redevelopments that shrink the amount of space devoted to retail and mix it with residential or hotel development.

That’s already happened at the former Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. It billed itself as the largest mall in the world when built in 1962 but struggled to keep up as more upscale shopping centers opened nearby. It relaunched as Randhurst Village in 2011, an open-air shopping center with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and hotel.

This sounds a lot like the retrofitting of suburbia suggested by Ellen Dunham-Jones. The key is to have a steady flow of people on the site – people who live there or who are staying at a hotel – rather than relying on people driving to the mall. If all goes well, it might be hard to tell decades from now that these sites were once large shopping malls. (At the same time: (1) these mixed-use developments might stick out in the suburban landscape and (2) the trickiest part of improving these malls might be linking the edges to the surrounding areas. Suburban developments often have fairly impermeable edges.)

A reminder: this does not mean that the traditional shopping mall is dead. There may just be a lot fewer and they will be concentrated in wealthier areas:

“The fancier malls are going to be healthy because there are always folks that want that aspirational lifestyle, but there’s still a lot of money to be made with people who might have more value-oriented customers as their focus,” Trombley said.

While food deserts were all the rage several years ago, we might talk of retail deserts in the future.

 

Offset House on display in Chicago peels layers of balloon frame homes

One of the featured designs in the Chicago Architecture Biennial involves a large home taken down to the timbers:

The droll Offset House by Otherothers in Sydney addresses lot-hogging McMansions by tucking smaller homes into the flabby frames of McMansions that have been stripped to the studs to serve as balconies and porches.

And a further description from the American Institute of Architects:

One of the most striking examples here is the Offset House from the Australian firm otherothers, which tears away the derivative façades of typical suburban housing to reveal simple stick-framed structural grace. The balloon frame was developed in Chicago, and otherothers uses it to create semi-public open-air verandas.

This is the best image I could find with some further description:

Using the Sydney suburb of Kellyville as its prototype, Otherothers suggests the adaptive reuse of timber-framed suburban homes by stripping off the outer cladding (often brick), exposing the outer frame, and creating a verandah in the space between the outer and interior frames. They claim there is beauty to be found in the exposed frames. They also propose that since the verandah would now define the home’s outer border, fences would no longer be necessary and spaces between houses could become shared common areas for gardening and communing.

The design seems to shrink the interior square footage (a waste to many McMansions critics) as well as alter the private nature of single-family homes (another critique of McMansions and suburban homes). The design also seems similar to some of the buildings in the post-World War II era that flaunted their essential infrastructure rather than cover it up. The retrofitted home still takes up the same footprint and the exterior balloon frame still requires maintenance. Yet, some of the critiqued aspects of the McMansion are softened and social life might improve. I’d be interested to see this in action across a whole neighborhood…

Preparing for a lot more baby boomer friendly housing

An aging population means that more Americans are going to be looking for housing that meets their needs – and there may not be enough of it:

While affordability is a problem on the horizon for some older residents, accessibility challenges are virtually guaranteed for all. While increased life expectancy and a factor that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cites as “compression of morbidity” means that older generations (even beyond the Baby Boomers) are living actively later into life, disability eventually affects almost everyone. One of the great equalizers in life, disability arrives without any deference to income or race. (Privilege in these realms often makes it easier for people to adjust to disabilities, of course.)…

The housing stock built for Baby Boomers largely wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. There are five universal-design housing features that tend to address a variety of disabilities that residents face as they age: no-step entries; single-floor living; switches and outlets set at lower heights; extra-wide hallways and doors; and lever-style doors and faucets. Nearly 90 percent of existing homes have one of these features, according to the report—but just 57 percent have two…

Homes built more recently are more likely to accommodate all five universal-design features. Among these universal-design features, the one that’s most common in homes today is the single floor. More than 86 percent of homes in non-metro areas features single-floor living. These figures for cities and suburbs are high as well: 74 and 72 percent, respectively.

Yet these detached, single-floor, single-family homes—and the automobile-centric society that comes with them—are only going to fall further out of step with the needs of residents over time. And sooner rather than later. Homes can be retrofitted with lever-style handles and no-step entries (albeit at great expense). It’s much harder to turn exurban and rural communities where older Americans live into places that nurture seniors rather than isolate them.

A range of issues to consider from design to the layout of communities. Given the retirement savings of Americans, how many of them could afford to move to a new or retrofitted home as they age? One benefit of aging is that these Americans could theoretically have already paid off their homes or gotten close to that point, capping how much they spend on housing. How many want to search out a new mortgage or pay for potentially costly renovations? Some possible solutions:

1. Building more housing for all ages that meet these guidelines. Accessibility can be an issue even for younger residents.

2. Finding funds at a federal or lower level of government to help people retrofit their current residents to better meet these standards. This has the benefit of helping them do what many want as well as letting them stay engaged in and involved with the communities they care about.

3. Aging Americans living in suburbs is a tougher issue as it often requires dependence on a car and it is more difficult to distribute social services. This might require finding ways to make single-family homes multi-unit or building pockets with suburbs that cater to older residents (and not necessarily creating whole new communities like Del Webb).

The real estate market for religious buildings in America

American religious buildings continue to change hands as different denominations and groups lose or gain members:

The handover in houses of worship across the country is not a straightforward case of an increase in non-Christian immigrants in the United States. In fact, many church sales can be attributed to shifts among Christian denominations. Roman Catholic weekly service attendance has slid from 75 percent in 1955 to 45 percent in the mid-2000s, while Southern Baptist and Evangelical churches have seen big drops in attendance, partially due to a split within the Protestant church between mainline Protestantism and Evangelicals. Meanwhile, Pentecostal churches have seen spikes in attendance…

Though sales of churches has picked up during the recent recession, it’s not a new phenomenon. Look to synagogues, says Ellen Levitt, author of The Lost Synagogues, a series of books and tours exploring the changing of hands of the Jewish place of worship to churches, community centers, and schools…

It’s not just because of immigration patterns—religions are also changing, creating ripples in the church sales market. Christian Science groups, for example, have reported declining attendance. Korean-based Christian congregations have reported spikes in worshipers, while Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in America.

But finding a new place to worship presents a dual problem: getting a brand new building for many groups is out of reach, while the smaller churches that are being sold are just too small for growing congregations. Most state rules require that a building be established as a church for fire code reasons, which means buying a house and turning it into a church is off. And parking, particularly in space crunched California, is precious.

The real estate market is not one many people might associate with religion but religious groups own a lot of property in the United States. It would be interesting to see some figures how much religious real estate changes hands on a yearly basis. And how many of the non-religious or people outside of the particular group that currently owns and uses the building notices much different?

As the article notes, as some groups decline, particularly older religious groups, newer groups are looking for space. Even as it might be complicated to adapt existing buildings, it might be even harder to construct new buildings, particularly if they are large, because of needing money or building in neighborhoods that don’t want a new religious building. I would guess proponents of reusing buildings and retrofitting – giving old buildings new uses, though this could lead to religious buildings being turned into things like residences – would also like this.

When fast-growing suburbs like Plano face build-out

Plano, Texas has had incredible growth in recent decades to over 270,000 residents but it is nearing build-out:

Of that 8 percent, 6.6 percent — or 3,052 acres — is earmarked for commercial development. A mere 1 percent — or 428 acres — is left for housing…Buildout, to Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, simply means “a new phase of the city’s life.”…

Instead of McMansions, Plano’s future housing could include more five- to 12-story high-rise buildings and mixed-use urban centers clustered around DART’s Parker Road Station, at Park Boulevard and Preston Road, and the Collin Creek Mall, according to the 2006 Urban Centers Study.

Apart from new development, efforts are also focused on revitalizing aging retail areas and neighborhoods, said LaRosiliere, noting the new Great Update Rebate program provides cash incentives to residents who update older homes.

Maintaining property values and retaining and attracting new businesses, he said, are critical to the city’s main sources of revenue: property and sales taxes.

Very interesting. For a while now, Plano has been known for its rapid growth and sprawling development with lots of big houses. Some choices facing the suburb moving forward (partly based on my own research on Naperville, another suburb that experienced rapid growth and is now facing build-out):

1. As is noted here, that rapid development led to money added to the city’s coffers and a slow-down in building would limit new income and possibly lead to budget problems in trying to keep up with an aging infrastructure. Keeping up with the costs for local services and amenities can prove tricky in suburban communities when residents continue to clamor for a relatively high quality of life.

2. What happens to a community when denser development is introduced? One way to do this is to build up but this may not be viewed favorably near single-family homes. Building taller can introduce very visible landmarks that may not mesh with the character of a single-family home community. In contrast, transit-oriented development is popular in many places and doesn’t have to be that tall.

3. Retrofitting older spaces can be cool and create new centers of activity. For example, older shopping malls can be reconfigured to be more mixed-use and walkable. However, this can also prove more costly for developers than building new buildings in more sprawling locations. Additionally, demolishing older buildings can lead to issues with neighbors.

Overall, this transition stage for suburbs between growth and build-out is relatively understudied. Many American suburbs have already faced this issue, particularly those founded before the post-World War II suburban boom, and have had a range of outcomes. Yet, many of the post-war suburbs are facing this issue and it is not necessarily an easy change.