Tag Archives: Walkability

Walkability No Guarantee of Healthy Housing Market

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

This graph shows how the midsized cities (excluding Arlington) with Top 10 walkability rankings score in WalletHub’s latest ranking of cities with the healthiest real estate markets. Sad to say: High walkability seems to be correlated with moribund real estate economies. The cities are (from left to right): Jersey City, Newark, Hialeah, Buffalo, Rochester, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Richmond and Madison. (Click for more legible image.)

There is an interesting juxtaposition of news items today. Redfin, the real estate brokerage website, has published a list of the Top 10 most walkable midsized cities in the country. Arlington County (a highly urbanized county) scored third and Richmond scored ninth, based on their Walk Score rankings.

Arlington won kudos for its Ballston-Virginia square neighborhood, where residents can walk to an average of 13 restaurant, bars or coffee shops within five minutes. While the Washington metropolitan area is notorious for its traffic, many Arlington residents live car-free, opting to get around on foot, bike and public transportation.

Richmond earned recognition for the revitalization of neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including Jackson Ward, Shockoe Bottom, Monroe Ward, the riverfront and Manchester. The Fan and Carytown neighborhoods to the west of downtown also stood out for their walkability.

To many urban theorists, walkability is a critical determinant of a community’s livability, ranking close behind the cost of real estate, the quality of schools and the level of taxes in what people take into account when deciding where to live. But it’s no guarantee of prosperity or rising real estate values…. which brings us to the other news item.

The top two midsized cities ranked by walkability are Jersey City (No. 1) and Newark (No. 2). But guess where Jersey City and Newark rank in WalletHub’s ranking of 2015’s Healthiest Housing Markets. Out of 94 midsized cities ranked, Newark scored 94th — dead last — while Jersey City ranked 76th. (Richmond ranked a ho-hum 45th among midsized cities.)

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll concede that this is a quick-and-dirty analysis based on a comparison of midsized cities only, not a comprehensive comparison of all types and sizes of municipal governments, so it may not reflect the larger reality. But I would advance this as a reasonable hypothesis: Walkability is a wonderful thing, and many people desire it, but it is a relatively minor factor influencing the health of urban real estate markets.

— JAB

The Democratization of Data

Map showing green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Map showing density of green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, is studying how the redevelopment of Tysons affects the pedestrian experience. The first step is collecting data. Accordingly, he is dispatching students equipped with sensors, wearable cameras and smartphone apps to monitor temperature, light levels, green cover, noise pollution and carbon monoxide emissions in ever nook and cranny of the what he calls the “archetypal American edge city.”

The goal of Fairfax County planners is to transform the autocentric mix of offices, shopping malls and plate-of-spaghetti road network from the epitome of suburban sprawl into a smart-growth poster of mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streets.

tysons_illumination

Map showing intensity of illumination.

“Tysons Corner is on the forefront of transforming suburban places into more urban places and all that entails,” says Mondscheinin an article published in UVa Today. “For city and urban planners, it is exciting, because if we densify suburbs we could reduce driving and emissions, provide more housing and make transit, walking and biking easier and more pleasant – hopefully improving public and environmental health. The Tysons Corner project embodies all of these wonderful goals.”

The data collected by students will provide on-the-ground measures of the pedestrian experience as Tysons evolves.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Mondschein says other communities can do the same thing. “With devices like these, communities could self-organize and self-initiate studies that can show what they need in an objective manner, with hard data. That can be arguably more persuasive when speaking to policymakers, fundraisers and politicians.”

(Hat tip: John Blair)

— JAB

Private Investment in the Public Realm

libbie_mill_lake
by James A. Bacon

The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.

But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.

Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.

That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.

Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.

As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“),  Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use  project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.

Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.

The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.

Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.

“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.

The Invisible Parking Garage

Draft rendering of planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space.

Draft rendering of a planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space. Illustration credit: Gumenick Properties.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among New Urbanists and like-minded brethren in the Smart Growth movement that parking garages create dead space in the urban fabric that discourages walkability and depresses neighboring property values. Some architects try to dress up the structures by giving them facades that imitate the look of regular buildings, draping them with plantings or otherwise making them visually interesting. Another strategy is to hide garages underground or relegate them to the middle of the block.

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, so the Gumenick Properties design for a planned apartment building in its Libbie Mill-Midtown project may not be the first of its kind. But I feel safe in saying that it is unique to the Richmond real estate market — and it’s a solution that, economics permitting, should be employed more frequently.

Libbie Mill-Midtown is an 80-acre mixed-use development in Henrico County roughly midway between downtown Richmond and the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The company is billing the $434 million community as “ten minutes from everything.” When complete in ten years or so, depending upon market conditions, the project is expected to have 994 for-sale homes, 1,096 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space, a public library and office space. Marketing the project to people who want to rely upon the automobile less, Gumenick is placing tremendous emphasis on walkability.

The development will contain a grid street system and wide sidewalks, and designers are paying close attention to the science of “place making — creating public spaces where people enjoy spending time, as I gathered during an interview last week with  Shane Finnegan, Gumenick’s vice president of construction, and Ed Crews, company spokesman.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown. (Click for larger image.)

One of the basic rules of place making is to minimize the expanse of parking lots and to hide the parking garages from view. Having erected two retail-office buildings, Gumenick now is designing the first apartment building, which will consist of 40,000 square feet of street-level retail space and 327 apartment units above. In a nod to market reality, the developer acknowledges that most suburban Henrico tenants, while wanting to live in a walkable community, still will own automobiles. Rather than surround the apartments in a sea of asphalt parking, which would diminish the appeal of the streetscape, Gumenick plans to encase the parking garage inside street-facing stores.

Other developers have done the same thing but Gumenick is going one step further. It’s building a pool, terrace and public area on the roof of the parking garage. The parking lot will be totally hidden from view, not just from the street but from the perspective of the tenants living in the apartment building.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick did not divulge financial details of the planned parking structure, but it doesn’t take a construction engineer to figure out that reinforcing a garage so it can support trees, decks and a swimming pool is not an inexpensive proposition. But the invisible parking garage accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows Gumenick to create a shared recreation/courtyard for its tenants. Second, it tucks parking into the middle of the block, preserving pedestrian-enhancing streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how the market responds. Will people pay a premium to live in a walkable community with such amenities? I would. I’m betting others would, too.

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

No Wegmans for Tysons… Too Bad for Wegmans

wegmans_bakeryCan Tysons have its cake and eat it, too? Perhaps not, at least if the cake is baked in a Wegmans Food Market bakery. Discussions to bring the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain to a transit-oriented development around the McLean Metro station have ended in frustration, reports the Washington Post.

CityLine Partners, developer of Scotts Run Station South, won rezoning approval last year to transform a typical suburban office park into 6.7 million square feet of mixed-use commercial and housing towers with ground-floor retail. The development plans includes contributing to a Tysons-wide grid street network, creating more walkable streets and reducing the parking footprint.

It would be a real coup to bring a Wegmans to the development. The upscale store appeals to exactly the kind of higher-income demographic that CityLine wants to attract to its project. But Wegmans’ business model meshes best with suburban development.  The company normally builds stores of more than 100,000 square feet surrounded by large surface parking lots. In Tysons, Wegmans was considering a new “urban” format of 80,000 square feet, similar to one it opened in Boston this spring, the Post reports. The idea was to place the store on the ground floor of a building with apartments upstairs.

Too bad Wegmans couldn’t make it happen. Some other grocery chain will. A tremendous share of future development in the United States will take place in walkable, denser, mixed-use communities like Scotts Run. Vast surface parking lots do not figure into the plan — the land is simply too valuable to squander on such a marginal use. In contrast to Wegmans, Wal-Mart, once the epitome of land-intensive suburban development and the object of scorn among urbanists across the country, has re-tooled its stores to fit in smaller urban footprints. In fact, a new complex developing around the Tysons West station will be anchored by a Wal-Mart.

For decades, retailers were a driving force behind sprawl. They built their business models around big stores, big parking lots and easy automobile access. They provided amenities in the suburbs that few center cities could match. But the market dynamics have shifted. People are moving to walkable urbanism whether Wal-Mart and Wegmans like it or not. Retailers need to invent new formats to serve the new markets. Inevitably, someone will. And when enough retailers make the switch, they will make walkable urbanism all the more alluring and its rise all the more inevitable.

— JAB

The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

— JAB