Building amenity-filled suburban apartments to encourage community

Some suburbanites may not just expect more amenities in apartments; the larger push may be toward creating community rather than just rental units.

Tony Rossi, president of M&R Development, the company behind the Wilmette and Itasca properties, agrees that the “explosion of amenities” seen downtown is starting to take hold in the suburbs as well. He said rent in the suburbs is usually two-thirds of rent in the city, but newer buildings with extra features will have a higher price tag. Martin pays about $1,925 a month for her one-bedroom and underground parking…

Greenberg developed the project with more than 20 years of hospitality experience and considers design a key factor in changing the vibe and perception of suburban rental living. For example, adding color and art to corridors in apartment buildings, as hotels do, makes all the difference, he said.

And while some suburban developers merge residential and retail in the same physical structure — think storefronts at street level and housing on top — Greenberg said 444 Social is unique because the apartment building is new and located near (but not connected to) existing commercial facilities, like Regal Cinemas next door. It also has natural elements, like forests and a lake, nearby.

“This goes to part of the DNA of this place,” Greenberg said. “If you want to be happy, if you want to live a healthy life, if you want to stay active, you got to be social. … That is what is missing in apartments where it’s downtown or in the suburbs where you just go to a place and hole up. Here we’re actually creating a community, so it’s pushing that experience.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Building apartments in certain ways does not guarantee that community will develop. Certain features of units, buildings, and the grounds could help encourage social interaction but it does not necessarily mean that it will happen.
  2. Apartments with more amenities and higher prices are likely to attract certain kinds of residents. Might it be easier or harder to create community among groups with more resources?
  3. I wonder how many residents in such apartments are interested in developing more community as opposed to enjoying a higher level of luxury or feeling that such apartments fit their cultural tastes (with connections to their social class).
  4. Are developers interested more in profits they can obtain through more amenities and higher rents or creating community?

More broadly, see an earlier post on “surban” places.

Scrambling to fill empty suburban HQs

Chicago looks at development efforts involving several large suburban corporate campuses that lost their famous tenants to the big city:

For many of these suburbs, the solution isn’t to replace one corporate behemoth with another. Instead, they’re dicing up the land for different uses and radically changing the face of suburbia for decades to come — just as the mammoth corporate enclaves and shopping malls once did. In Oak Brook, for example, an unexpected entity pursued the 34 undeveloped acres at McDonald’s. “As soon as we found out they were leaving, we asked if they wanted to donate it,” says Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook Park District. “They said, ‘Good idea, but we’re going to put it up for sale.’ ”

So the park district bought it. Residents of Oak Brook, a village that levies no property tax, took the unusual step of taxing themselves by voting for a bond referendum that covers the $15.8 million price tag, with $2 million left over for creating soccer fields and spaces for other recreational activities. The deal closed in December with the promise that the land won’t turn into anything other than a park.

A separate McDonald’s property a few miles from the main campus, next to the Oakbrook Center mall, was sold to Houston-based developer Hines last summer. It will likely become a mix of apartment buildings, office space, and shops — what the developer has called a “new village center.” It’s a similar tack to the one Schaumburg is taking after it was rattled in 2016 by the loss of Motorola Solutions’ headquarters, which moved to the West Loop. Chicago-based UrbanStreet Group bought 225 of the site’s 322 acres and intends to remake the parcel into a mini community with houses and apartments, a retirement home, a driving range, a park, and sidewalk cafés…

Nearby Hoffman Estates has already lost one giant — AT&T, which began vacating its 150-acre satellite campus in 2014 for several smaller sites in Chicago and other suburbs — and doesn’t exactly have a sure thing in another: the hobbled Sears Holdings Corporation, which is fighting to stave off liquidation. New Jersey–based Somerset Development is turning the AT&T site into what it calls an indoor downtown, essentially a 21st-century Bio-Dome that packs offices, restaurants, entertainment spots, conference centers, and hotels under a massive roof. It’s possible a Montessori school, public library, and other communal spaces will be weaved into the site, just as the developer did in New Jersey, where it revamped the huge Bell Labs property…

State representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the village, is floating a so-called Big Empties bill, which is being redrafted after it was introduced during the last session of the General Assembly. It would provide hefty incentives, including relief on up to half of the property taxes, for developers that make over old HQs larger than one million square feet.

The redevelopment plans sound like they have promise. The goal is to reduce the ways that headquarters are often set apart from the surrounding land by reincorporating the properties into the fabric of the suburb as well as introduce a variety of uses that will generate more around-the-clock activity. Big office campuses and/or buildings can be impressive displays but they may not contribute much to local community and social life.

On the other hand, I wonder how to weigh these changes against the loss of status that can come with the move of major companies out of the community. Particularly for edge cities, suburbs with millions of square feet of retail and office space and often located near major highways (like Oak Brook, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates), a Fortune 500 company helps establish the suburb’s reputation. New mixed-use neighborhoods may be attractive but they don’t have the same oomph as saying the suburb is home to Sears or McDonald’s or Mondelez.

I, for one, will be very interested to see how this all plays out within twenty years. These properties offer unique opportunities for established wealthier suburbs to do something unique. However, the redevelopment plans could go awry or the what is constructed may not be that interesting or the suburb’s status may never quite recover.

#1 payment priority for Americans: car loan

In a country dependent on and built around driving, perhaps the importance of making car payments is not a surprise:

“Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, “said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.”

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places…

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be more savvy about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

This article made me think a little: does this mean that cars come before homes in the United States? This would counter my own claim that suburbs are more about single-family homes then they are about cars – see my rough rankings of Why Americans Love About Suburbs.

Yet, the suburbs existed before cars. By the early 1900s, suburbs existed and utilized transportation technologies like railroads and streetcars. Mass suburbanization certainly occurred on a different scale with the availability of cars in the 1920s and then after World War II. But, the United States would have had some form of suburbs and their emphasis on single-family homes without cars even if that was on a smaller scale.

The whole relationships between cars and homes was cemented in the postwar era when increasing sprawl really did limit other transportation options for many people. And the shift of jobs to the suburbs made this problem even worse. Perhaps we could shift the what-if scenario to the future: could the suburbs go on without cars (hard to imagine) or cars on without suburbs (probably)?

Publication on the Soprano’s McMansion

The home of Tony Soprano and his family on HBO’s The Sopranos is a key setting for the show. It is here that Tony considers his own unrest and anxiety, where the family interacts with each other alongside Tony’s other “family,” and the home embodies the search for the suburban good life as encapsulated in a spacious home in a wealthy neighborhood.

I am grateful for the opportunity to explore this in more detail in a recently published paper: “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

A call for the Green New Deal to address sprawl and where people live

Want to pass a Green New Deal to benefit the United States? One commentator suggests it must reckon with the legacy and persistence of sprawl:

The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program. If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land-use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to jobs centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.

Where we live is no coincidence of preference. Federal policy has enforced inequities and disparities for both the environment and vulnerable people at a national scale. It’s never too late to address the most fundamental aspect of our carbon footprint: where we live. And building housing near jobs, transit, and other housing—rather than ultra-LEED-certified parking garages—is merely a political choice. No innovation required.

This makes sense: how much can the United States truly address environmental matters if it does not reckon for the actions of roughly the last century that encouraged decentralization?

Here is what I wonder: would it be harder to address sprawl or environmental issues? On one hand, climate change is contentious and partisan. On the other hand, going after sprawl would require taking on deeply ingrained American values. When Americans value single-family homes, driving, and all that the suburban life offers, shifting priorities and funds to denser housing, mass transit, and cities may prove difficult.

The environmental movement in the United States has roots in suburbia. Rachel Carson was inspired by her suburban settings to write Silent Spring. But, truly reforming land use as opposed to making suburbs greener is a tall task. Of course, important decisions made today could address the issue of subsidized sprawl. American suburbs are neither natural or have to last forever. It would likely take decades to see the consequences on the ground.

Of course Tidying Up with Marie Kondo starts in Lakewood, CA

In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:

  1. Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
  2. The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
  3. The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
  4. The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.

Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.

Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?