Some Chicago suburbs welcome luxury apartments

A number of Chicago suburbs have new or recently approved luxury apartment complexes:

Suburbs that have long thought of themselves as bucolic communities filled with houses and families are warmly embracing the very type of residence that used to make them leery: the apartment.

Just don’t call them rentals, a word that conjures up an image different from the projects that municipal governments are selling to their constituents. Almost 4,000 apartments in well-appointed, amenity-filled buildings with rents to match are under construction or proposed in suburbs throughout the Chicago area. They are designed to attract young professionals and empty nesters with roots in the suburbs…

Some, but certainly not all the projects are transit-oriented, constructed near suburban downtowns and train stations or they are being used to create a downtown where there never was one before. But as they move forward, communities are grappling with concerns about density and traffic congestion, and affordable housing advocates worry that low and moderate-income residents who rely more heavily on public transportation don’t have the option of living near it…

“Many of them equated rental housing with low-income property,” Strosberg said. “It’s more recent that they’ve appreciated that rental comes in all different forms. There’s market-rate housing that appeals to a significant portion of their residents who don’t want to make a commitment to buying a place today.”

In wealthier suburbs, apartments often prompt images of transient residents who don’t care much about the community, lower-income residents, traffic, and large properties in communities proud of nice single-family homes. But, luxury apartments help reduce the perceived issues of social class and can bring money into the city (perhaps they can even help boost property values, residents spend money at nearby businesses, etc.). In other words, luxury apartments don’t create the same kind of issues, particularly if seen as part of reviving an area like a downtown. These communities may not go crazy approving such developments all over the place but I suspect many mature Chicago suburbs will continue to approve apartments that do contribute to higher densities but project a higher-end image.

Four transportation options in the new, denser suburbs

Leigh Gallagher, author of The End of the Suburbs, discusses some of the transportation options available for denser suburbs:

Many new experiments are in the works involving ride-sharing, and while none are likely to scale anytime soon, it’s a fix that draws heavily from the influence of Silicon Valley. As my colleague Michal Lev-Ram reports in the lead story in Fortune‘s New Metropolis issue about the end of driving, Google is partnering with GM on a pilot car-sharing service at its Mountain View headquarters that gives employees access to a fleet of 50 all-electric Chevrolet Spark EVs that are linked up to a mobile app that matches drivers and cars for morning and evening commutes. (This isn’t too dissimilar from Streetsblogger Mark Gorton’s idea for what he calls Smart Para-Transit, based on a fleet of vehicles with a central dispatch that matches riders and destinations.) In Palo Alto, Mercedes-Benz is testing a “Boost by Benz” program that shuttles kids around to piano lessons and soccer practice in brightly colored vans. Lev-Ram also notes that GM and Toyota recently said they would start giving discounts on new car purchases to Uber drivers…

Kannan of Washington Metro believes cities need to seriously rethink buses, which are much cheaper than rail, carry lots of people, and can go anywhere. “Today’s buses aren’t your father’s buses,” he says: they’re high tech, clean, energy efficient, sleek, and in some cases, highly amenitized. (As a longtime customer of New York’s Hampton Jitney, I can vouch for the quality of an “amenitized” bus ride.) There’s still a stigma against buses in this country, but it’s conceivable that this mindset could change. Consider the huge popularity of the controversial commuting buses in San Francisco operated not just by Google but by Facebook, eBay, Genentech, and others. And witness the rise of intercity carriers Bolt Bus and Megabus in recent years — especially among those transit-happy, texting Millennials as a dirt-cheap alternative to Amtrak travel up and down the Northeast seaboard (I’m no Jitney snob; I’ve taken these a lot, too). Something bigger may be going on…

There’s another solution here, too — the idea that the best way to build New Suburbia is off the back of Old Suburbia. Many developers are seizing opportunity to build updated, urbanized housing stock where transit already exists. In Libertyville, Illinois, a prewar suburb 35 miles north of Chicago, John McLinden has developed School Street, a row of 26 porch-adorned single-family homes with barely a few feet between them on narrow, Chicago-sized lots. The development runs right into Libertyville’s 178-year-old main street, Milwaukee Avenue, a vision in tightly packed boutiques, mom and pop retailers, restaurants and “2 a.m. bars,” as McLinden touts. Right behind it is where residents catch the North Line into Chicago. McLinden is now taking his model to nearby Skokie with a new development called Floral Avenue. Skokie sits on the Chicago Transit Authority’s yellow line, also known as the “Skokie Swift” — so named in 1964 as a two-year experimental service funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CTA, and the Village of Skokie to show that mass transit could be adapted to service the new suburban market.

Gallagher suggests two options that are already popular – cars, which won’t be completely eliminated in suburbs or even in many American cities, and transit-oriented development – and two that may be harder sells. It could be particularly difficult to get suburbanites to buy into ride-sharing and buses. Ride-sharing requires coordinating schedules, potentially traveling with strangers in relatively tight quarters, and a loss of independence. Buses take advantage of existing road structures but have a reputation and again limit independence.

I wonder if ride-sharing and buses can only really attract suburbanites if density reaches certain levels. What is the critical point where the suburbanite decides it is easier to take the bus as opposed to driving? Is it the cost of gas, more route options, nicer accommodations and more middle- or upper-class appearances, the price of parking (some still argue parking is way too cheap and plentiful in the United States), or something else? All together, there could be delicate dance of putting together mass transit alongside denser suburban development.

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.

Claim: New Jersey McMansions being built in well-connected places

If McMansions are on a comeback, one observer in New Jersey suggests the state’s new McMansions tend to be built to certain places:

The National Home Builders Association survey found growing interest in them, but Rutgers trend watcher James Hughes says not in New Jersey – with a few exceptions.

“In well-placed communities with rail access to New York city, some McMansions are being added.”

He says a large baby boom generation may be vacating their McMansion, but the pool of buyers for them is shrinking.

Hughes is hinting at a few things that influence McMansion placement:

1. Places connected to New York City by train may be likely to have more money, tied to their jobs in the city. These communities may be desirable because they offer options to driving as well as the possibility of more established suburbs.

2. Younger generations aren’t as interested in McMansions so there is less demand for such homes.

These may be actual reasons but the first one is also a bit paradoxical. New Urbanists as well as those interested in transit-oriented development have tended to emphasize that suburbs with mass transit nodes can be home to denser housing. What happens if McMansions and other big housing options come to dominate such suburbs and end up pricing out many suburbanites?

Peak sprawl does not mean the end of suburbs but rather their densification

One researcher argues the suburbs of the future will be less sprawl and have more density:

Since 2009, 60 percent of new office, retail and rental properties in Atlanta have been built in what Christopher Leinberger calls “walkable urban places” – those neighborhoods already blessed by high Walk Scores or on their way there. That new construction has taken place on less than 1 percent of the metropolitan Atlanta region’s land mass, suggesting a shift in real estate patterns from expansion at the city’s edges to denser development within its existing borders.

“This is indicative that we’re seeing the end of sprawl,” says Leinberger, a research professor with the George Washington University School of Business, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission. “It does not say that everything turns off. There will still be new drivable suburban development. It’s just that the majority will be walkable urban, and it will be not just in the redevelopment of our downtowns, but in the urbanization of the suburbs.”…

“I think there’s a cause-and-effect issue here,” he says. “I think that when the economy picks up steam, it’s going to be because we learn how to build walkable urban places. Real estate caused this debacle, and real estate has always acted as a catalyst for economic recoveries.”

He figures we’re sputtering along at 2 percent growth precisely because we’re not building enough of the walkable urban product that the market wants. “And it’s signaling with pretty flashing lights,” he says, “to build more of this stuff.”

New Urbanists FTW! The argument here is that the suburbs will continue – with their features of home ownership, cars, local control, autonomy, etc. – but they will look different due to denser designs, feature different kinds of community and social life, and include more features like cultural centers or mixed-use neighborhoods that are more traditionally associated with cities.

One obstacle to this might be how much existing suburbs are willing to increase their densities. This make make financial sense or be good for growth but it could also alter the character of more sprawling communities. For example, many suburbs have already considered or built transit-oriented development where denser housing and space is built near mass transit. But, would they be willing to extend such construction across more of their area?

Transit-oriented development in the Boston area

Transit-oriented development has been popular for years now and here is an update on this development strategy in the Boston area:

“We see a huge demand around Greater Boston. We’re working in communities from Winchester to Lawrence that are all working to develop vibrant urban villages around public transportation,” Leroux said. “An overwhelming number of people want to live in these types of places, and communities that don’t create them are less competitive for residents and jobs.”

Filling the need in Somerville, where the residential landscape consists mainly of three-decker homes, is Maxwell’s Green, which will feature 184 rental units with amenities to rival many downtown Boston luxury apartment buildings.

Near completion and ready for occupancy this September, the $52.5 million development sits on 5.5 acres and is located minutes from the Red Line stop at Davis Square and adjacent to the much- anticipated MBTA Green Line Extension’s Lowell Street station…

SouthField, one of the largest transit-oriented developments in Greater Boston, is on track for South Weymouth at the former naval air station.

The first phase of the project is already complete, with residents occupying both apartments and townhouses. The total cost of the project, including the homes already built, is targeted at about $2.5 billion, which includes 2,800 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space.

The “urban village” concept has been around now for several decades. They are thought to be particularly attractive for young professionals who want to live in the suburbs or further away from the city core (partly because of cheaper prices), don’t yet want to buy a home (condos being easier to maintain), want mass transit access, and also want to be in more lively areas with some cultural and dining options.

These types of development are very popular in the Chicago suburbs are well, particularly along the railroad lines that radiate out from Chicago’s center. Many suburbs have sought to build multi-use developments (condos plus offices or small retail establishments) near their commuter train stations. While this means that the residents can access mass transit, it also provides more pedestrians and hopefully customers for the downtown. A number of suburbs have pursued these developments as part of a downtown revitalization strategy.

I would be interested to see how studies about how much these developments reduce traffic and congestion. Particularly in a suburban setting, a couple might be able to go down to one car (or none?) if both use mass transit a lot. However, while mass transit access to the city center might be great, there is often a lack of mass transit options across between suburbs.

I also wonder how much transit-oriented development succeeds because it is seen as trendy.