“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.

Silicon Valley to eventually lose out to cities?

An urbanist argues that Silicon Valley will die out because workers want to be in cities:

Why is Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley?

“You’ve got Stanford, you’ve got federal expenditures, and you’ve got an ecosystem” of start-up mentors and established institutions, said Bruce Katz, the founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. But Silicon Valley’s stranglehold on West Coast innovation is in danger, he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday. The main problem?

It’s no fun to live in Silicon Valley.

“What’s happening now is workers want to be in Oakland and San Francisco,” he told Walter Isaacson. Young workers want to live in a city — somewhere they can ride bikes, shop locally, walk to their favorite restaurants and bars, and live in a dense urban or urban-lite environment with nearby amenities. But Silicon Valley isn’t like a city. It’s like a suburb. “Silicon Valley is going to have to urbanize,” Katz said. “[There is a] migration out of Silicon Valley to places where people really want to live.”

This sounds like Richard Florida’s arguments about the creative class: a younger generation of educated workers want to be in thriving urban environments. However, I’m not sure Katz’s arguments are consistent – at least as presented in this article. He suggests that groups of politicians and business leaders help create certain environments. Hence, an area like Silicon Valley exists because there was a concentration of investment and infrastructure. Yet, Florida’s argument emphasizes more the individual desires of the creative class (or perhaps some sort of class consciousness). If Silicon Valley was indeed losing workers to cities (not just the Bay Area but places like Austin or Chicago or Manhattan), it could respond by creating more urban environments. This is a popular idea these days in more suburban settings: retrofit older developments like strip malls, shopping centers, office parks, and tract home developments into something denser and mixed use. Young workers may want a certain kind of environment but business leaders and politicians can help create and develop such areas, whether in Silicon Valley or somewhere else.

Another interpretation of Katz’s arguments is that corporate efforts to build all-inclusive work campuses (like with Facebook recently building a Main Street) just isn’t as appealing as the more “authentic” urban life.