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About the Author
Jason Beske, AICP, is an urban planner and urban designer with public and private experience and a frequent speaker and instructor at planning conferences.
David Dixon, FAIA, leads planning and urban design for Stantec's Urban Places, an interdisciplinary team that helps cities and suburbs alike thrive by harnessing the growing demand for urban life.
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Urbanizing the Suburbs
The Major Development Trend of the Next Generation
Christopher B. Leinberger
The Built Environment
The dawning of the twenty-first century in the United States has seen a structural shift in how the country creates its built environment (defined as infrastructure and real estate). The suburbs have played the major role for a century, but that role is fundamentally changing. Understanding the implications of this structural shift requires the introduction of a few basic concepts.
First, it is important to understand that the built environment takes two basic forms: walkable urban and drivable sub-urban. There are many variations, but broadly speaking there are just these two.
Walkable Urban Development
Walkable urban development is the oldest form employed in building cities and metropolitan areas. This type of development has been the basis for how we have built our cities since Çatalhöyük (in present-day Turkey) was built around 9,500 years ago — the oldest city known to date. Walking is the primary means of getting to and getting around a walkable urban place. The distance that most people feel comfortable walking is about 1,500 to 3,000 feet, which limits the geographic size of a walkable urban place. Research conducted at George Washington University has shown that the average walkable urban place in metropolitan Washington, DC, is 408 acres, about the size of three regional malls, including their parking lots.
Beyond that distance, most people will use another means of transport if it is available. Historically that has meant a horse, a horse-drawn wagon, a bike, public transit (rail or bus), or a car. Within that defined and confined walkable urban place, walking provides access to many if not all everyday needs — shopping, social life, education, civic life, and maybe even work. This mixed-use character means the walkable urban place has a relatively high density; measured by gross floor area ratios (FARs, measuring all land within the area being evaluated, including right of way), between 1.0 and 30. The lowest walkable urban density, such as a small town, could be 1.0, whereas high walkable urban density, like Midtown Manhattan, is about 30 FAR. However, most walkable urban places developed today, particularly those in the suburbs, range between 2.0 and 4.0 FAR, assuming they are employment, destination retail, or civic places (defined later as regionally significant places).
Drivable Sub-urban Development
The second form of built environment is drivable sub-urban development (the hyphen is used to indicate that it is a fundamentally different from and less dense than walkable urban). Drivable sub-urban development segregates the various needs of everyday life one from the other — retail is in a shopping center, work is in a business park, housing is in a subdivision — and the only way to connect these is by car. Walking is generally not a safe or viable option, nor is generally any other form of transportation, such as public transport or biking. The early twentieth-century introduction of cars as a means of transportation was the obvious prerequisite for the drivable sub-urban form of development, enabling a never-before-known alternative form of building and living.
Drivable sub-urban has extremely low-density development compared to walkable urbanism, generally less than 20% of the density as measured by FAR. FAR tends to range between 0.005 and 0.40. Its various land uses — for-sale housing, rental housing, office, industrial, retail, civic, educational, medical, hotel, and more — spread out across vast swaths of land. In other words, sprawl. Most real estate developers and investors, government regulators, and financiers have come to understand this model extremely well, turning it into a successful development formula and economic driver for the midand late twentieth century. Drivable sub-urban development provided a foundation for the economy and "fueled" the dominant industry of the industrial era — the building of automobiles and trucks, including the support industries of road building, finance, insurance, and oil. Drivable sub-urban development was essential to American economic growth in the mid- to late twentieth century.
Economic Functions of the Built Environment
Metropolitan land use supports either regionally significant or local-serving functions.
Regionally Significant Locations
Regionally significant locations, sometimes referred to as submarkets by commercial brokers, are used for the following purposes:
Concentrations of jobs
Institutions of higher education
Major medical centers
One-of-a-kind cultural, entertainment, and sports facilities
Regionally significant land constitutes less than 5% of all metropolitan landmass, according to George Washington University School of Business (GWSB) research, yet it is where the region's wealth is created, where many one-of-a-kind facilities prefer to locate, and where regionally significant retail outlets locate (e.g., malls, concentrations of specialty stores, big box stores, flea markets, and major farmer's markets). GWSB research in metropolitan Boston has shown that regionally significant walkable urban places account for 1.2% of the metro landmass and regionally significant drivable sub-urban locations represent 2.5% of the metro landmass.
Regionally significant places are generally net fiscal contributors for local jurisdictions; that is, the tax revenues they produce (income, sales, property, and other taxes) exceed the costs of the government services they receive (transportation, police, fire, regulatory, legal, etc.). This land use function is generally the reason a metropolitan economy — and therefore the metropolitan area — exists.
Local-serving locations are bedroom communities dominated by residential development and complemented by local-serving commercial uses (e.g., grocery stores) and civic uses (e.g., primary and secondary schools, police and fire stations, etc.). The vast majority of the local-serving land is residential, either for-sale or rental properties, whereas the minority of the land supports commercial development, generally for retail (e.g., grocery stores).
Local-serving drivable sub-urban land use accounts for the vast majority (~ 92%) of the total metropolitan landmass. Local-serving locations are generally net financial losers for local jurisdictions; that is, they produce less in tax revenues (income, sales, property, and other taxes) than they cost in terms of public services (transportation, police, fire, regulatory, and legal services, but especially education). In other words, most local-serving jurisdictions have to be subsidized by regionally significant land uses within the jurisdiction or they would have to raise their taxes substantially to pay for these services.
Generally speaking, regionally significant locations are where the metropolitan area earns its living, and local-serving places are where most residents spend their nonwork lives and the income and surplus generated by regionally significant locations.
Form Meets Function
The two forms and two functions of metropolitan land use produce a simple four-cell matrix, shown in Figure 1.1. This matrix outlines the land use options available for any metropolitan land and includes an estimate of the metropolitan land used for each form/ function combination. The upper-left cell, regionally significant walkable urban places, are called WalkUPs. They are the focus of the urbanization of the suburbs, as will be shown here.
The "Foot Traffic Ahead" research from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at GWSB surveys the walkable urbanism of three real estate products (office, retail, and rental apartments) of the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. It demonstrates that there are eight types of regionally significant WalkUPs:
1. Downtown — the traditional center of the metro's central city
2. Downtown adjacent — surrounding the downtown, such as Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, Capitol Hill in Seattle, and Uptown in Dallas
3. Urban commercial — local-serving commercial districts that went into decline in the late twentieth century but have experienced a recent revival as regionally significant WalkUPs, such as Columbia Heights in Washington, DC, Lincoln Park in Chicago, and West Hollywood in Los Angeles
4. Urban university — institutions of higher learning that have embraced their community, such as UCLA in Los Angeles, Penn and Drexel in West Philadelphia, and Columbia in New York
5. Innovation district — described by the Brookings Institution as "geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators," such as Kendall Square Innovation District in Cambridge, Massachusetts (sponsored by MIT and the developer Forest City), University City Science Center in West Philadelphia (sponsored by the colleges and universities in the region, led by the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel), and Cortex in St. Louis (sponsored by Washington University and various health care and civic institutions)
6. Suburban town center — eighteenth- and nineteenth-century towns that the metro area grew to include and that have also enjoyed a recent revival, such as Evanston in metro Chicago, Bellevue in metro Seattle, and Pasadena in metro Los Angeles
7. Redeveloped drivable sub-urban — strip and regional malls that have urbanized, such as Belmar in metro Denver, Tysons in metro Washington, DC, and Perimeter in metro Atlanta
8. Greenfield/brownfield development — complete walkable urban developments built from scratch, such as Reston Town Center in metro Washington, DC, Atlantic Station in metro Atlanta, and Easton Town Center in metro Columbus
The first five WalkUP types tend to locate in the central city. The last three types tend to be in the suburbs.
The same research shows that the most walkable urban metropolitan areas, particularly metro Washington, DC, (ranked no. 2 most walkable urban) and Boston (no. 3), earned their high rankings because they contained 49% and 41%, respectively, of total rental office and multifamily walkable urban inventory in their suburbs (see Figure 1.2). These are places like Clarendon and Bethesda in metro Washington, DC, and Harvard Square and Assembly Row in metro Boston. The Washington, DC, and Boston metros are models of development for the future. Boston is an older metro area with a legacy rail system that has redeveloped formerly depressed walkable urban places to accept the majority of new development in recent years. Metro Washington, DC, behaved like a Sunbelt boom town in the late twentieth century, akin to Atlanta, Dallas, or Phoenix, but more recently it has begun building the majority of its development in walkable urban places immediately adjacent to stations on the 1970s Metrorail system. The Metro system has grown to meet demand over the last few decades (see Figure 1.3).
Arlington, Virginia, as the National Urbanizing Suburb
The most important suburban jurisdiction in the region, and in fact in the country, is Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Part of the original District, it was "de-annexed" in 1846 back to Virginia and eventually became Arlington County. At 26 square miles it is the second smallest county in the country. The county has seven WalkUPs, representing 11% of its landmass. A generation ago, most of these places were declining as drivable suburban strip commercial, including the first regional mall in metro Washington, DC, known as Parkington (lots of parking), and car dealerships were gradually moving to freeway locations farther out. This land was generating roughly 20% of county tax revenue, and falling, in the 1980s.
Fast-forward to 2016. Redevelopment of these dying strip commercial and car lots has seen a near quadrupling of square footage. Parkington Mall became Ballston Commons in the 1980s, an urban regional mall that is about to be redeveloped yet again as a mixed-use, open-air element of the complex fabric of the Ballston WalkUP. The seven walkable urban places in Arlington County now generate more than 50% of county tax revenues and rising. Counterintuitively, absolute car counts on the major boulevards have fallen (10–25%) since the 1980s in spite of the remarkable growth in square footage and vitality. The building of a major Metrorail line in the 1980s and its placement underground, beneath Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards, is a major reason for the success of Arlington, coupled with the enlightened leadership of the county and zoning (see Figure 1.4a, b).
Urbanizing-Suburb Walkable Urban Rankings
A ranking of the 30 largest US metro areas by level of suburban urbanism appears in Figure 1.2. Metro Washington, DC, and Boston both sit near the top and have some of the highest rates of suburban urbanization. Other metros that rank highly for their urban areas in Figure 1.5 do not fare so well when the scope expands to include their suburbs.
In terms of urbanization of their suburbs, these metro areas face different realities. The first category includes walkable urban metros where the bulk of walkable urbanism is located in the central city, highly ranked metros like New York, and Chicago, but also more modestly ranked Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Denver, and, surprisingly, Portland, Oregon. Most of these metro areas have legacy rail transit or are building new rail systems, yet most of their urbanism still focuses on the central city. This means that the next great opportunity for economic and real estate development in these metros will lie in urbanizing the suburbs, many times taking advantage of the existing or new rail transit infrastructure. These metros could be on the path toward building substantially more walkable urban places in suburban locations. However, all of them suffer from extreme attitudes of "not in my back yard" (NIMBYism) or self-satisfaction (Portland, Minneapolis, Denver), basking in an image of walkable urban character that doesn't fully match reality.
One of the best examples of a drivable sub-urban suburb transforming into a walkable urban place is Belmar in Lakewood, a first-ring suburb of Denver. The first regional mall in the metro area, Villa Italia, occupied the Belmar site beginning in the early 1960s and provided the tax base for the jurisdiction and a shopping destination for two generations of Denverites. By the late 1990s, the mall was nearly empty and the town's tax base had shrunken dramatically. Continuum Partners, in a joint venture with the town, bulldozed the bulk of the mall and built a grid of walkable streets, focused on urban entertainment (restaurants, a 14-screen movie theater, specialty shopping), high-density housing, and some offices in the first phases. It became a stunning success for the city and the developer as a new WalkUP emerged from the dust of the bulldozed mall (see Figure 1.6). Many more examples are planned in suburban Denver.
The second group comprises three metropolitan areas that have been infamous for sprawl over the past 60 years but are making an impressive structural change from drivable sub-urban to walkable urban development patterns. Although Miami, Atlanta, and Los Angeles ranked as moderate or low on the current rankings, their futures look much different. In the real estate cycle that began in 2010, most rental office and multifamily absorption has taken place in the suburbs in these three metro areas: 46% in Miami, 32% in Atlanta, and 38% in Los Angeles. Suburban WalkUPs like Ft. Lauderdale and Coral Gables in Miami; Roswell and Decatur in Atlanta; and Pasadena and Long Beach in metro Los Angeles have propelled the emergence of walkable urbanism in these sprawling metros. Most of these places, particularly in Miami and Los Angeles, were where the metro area was founded, based on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rail systems. This is certainly a Back to the Future outcome for these once-declining suburban town centers that are now seeing a real estate boom and the rise of vital, mixed-use suburban places.
Excerpted from "Suburban Remix"
Copyright © 2018 Jason Beske and David Dixon.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Setting the Stage 13
Chapter 1 Urbanizing the Suburbs: The Major Development Trend of the Next Generation 15
Chapter 2 From the Rise of Suburbs to the Great Reset 33
Part II Suburban Markets 63
Chapter 3 Housing 65
Chapter 4 Office 83
Chapter 5 Retail 95
Part III Case Studies for Walkable Urban Places 111
Chapter 6 Blueprint for a Better Region: Washington, DC 113
Chapter 7 Tysons, Virginia 131
Chapter 8 From Dayton Mall to Miami Crossing, Ohio 145
Chapter 9 Shanghai's Journey in Urbanizing Suburbia 161
Chapter 10 North York Center: An Example of Canada's Urbanizing Suburbs 173
Chapter 11 Dublin, Ohio: Bridge Street Corridor 189
Chapter 12 The Arlington Experiment in Urbanizing Suburbia 203
Chapter 13 From Village to City: Bellevue, Washington 219
Part IV Bringing It All Together 235
Chapter 14 Planning 237
Chapter 15 Placemaking 267
About the Contributors 293