Hope for the Burbs

Ellen Dunham-Jones
Ellen Dunham-Jones

by James A. Bacon

While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. Shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt are being converted into town centers. Big box stores are becoming public recreation centers. Fifty-year-old shopping centers built over streams are being torn down and the waterways restored as greenways.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for “suburban” counties that developed since World War II, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. What she did not say in her enthusiastic, up-beat speech at Virginia Commonwealth University last night is that it is also a time of peril for counties that don’t embrace a strategy of selective urbanization.

Change is not only desirable, it’s necessary, Dunham-Jones contended. The low-density suburbs consume two to three times more energy per capita than central cities, making them vulnerable to upward spikes in energy prices. Local governments are suffering fiscal stress from the burden of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure. Poverty is an increasing problem as poor people, either immigrants or poor people leaking from inner cities, move into older, run-down suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, housing affordability is becoming a middle-class issue as rising transportation costs kill the old “drive ’til you qualify” housing model. Last but not least, Dunham-Jones cited suburbia’s automobile dependency as a public health issue. Infectious diseases (despite the ebola virus hype) are not a major health hazard in the U.S. The real problem is chronic disease stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, which leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Demographics also are driving the transformation of the burbs. People still think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaver land of households with school-age children. But a majority of households in the burbs now are childless, said Dunham-Jones, and 85% of the growth in household formation in the U.S. will have no children. Millennials are driving the shift to urban lifestyles. They don’t want to live like their suburban parents. But those parents, Baby Boomers mostly, are approaching retirement differently from preceding generations. YEEPIES (Youthful, Energetic Elderly People Into Everything) aren’t looking for suburban privacy; they’re looking for urban engagement.

While many childless families would love to live in old-style, walkable urban neighborhoods, not everyone can afford to do so because restricted supply has driven up prices. And the reality is, a majority of jobs remain in the suburbs. By default, much of the “walkable” community development will take place in suburban counties where land is cheaper. And that creates opportunity for creative real estate developers who can figure out how to retrofit aging suburban properties and for the counties that will accommodate them.

There is more than enough land in suburban counties to make room for the surge of Americans looking for urban lifestyles in suburban counties without disrupting the lives of people who still want to live in their conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions. One third of all malls are dead or dying, said Dunham-Jones. Thousands of big box stores are empty. Retail as a real estate category is shrinking, probably permanently, as more people shop online. As a result, vacancy rates remain stubbornly high in shopping centers. Meanwhile, as Millennials show a strong preference for working in an urban environment, businesses are less interested in putting their workforce in suburban office parks.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dunham-Jones. “We get to do a make-over!”

Developers have not yet settled upon a fixed formula for re-developing the burbs. Right now, an extraordinary amount of experimentation is going on. Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have built a database of more than 900 case studies of radical suburban make-overs across the country, many of them in Virginia.

Dunham-Jones said suburban retrofits fall into three broad categories.

From single-use to mixed use. Suburbia is loaded with malls and big-box stores whose retail function is no longer economically viable. Some of these structures are finding a new life by adding new uses. Dunham-Jones cited the example of Hundred Oaks Mall, a dying mall in Nashville; the property still had retail on the ground level but had abandoned the upper level. Vanderbilt University took over the lease for the upper level and installed a medical center. Now the medical center draws patients who otherwise would not have frequented the mall, and patients visiting Hundred Oaks can hang out at the mall while waiting for test results. Patients prefer Hundred Oaks to Vanderbilt’s city facility.

Regreening. An astonishing number of commercial properties were built in wetlands and flood plains. It was routine practice in the 1950s and 1960s to obliterate wetlands and route creeks through culverts underneath the buildings, said Dunham-Jones. The culverts could handle the run-off from undeveloped land upstream but as that land got built upon and paved over, run-off got worse and flooding became an issue. Today, an increasing number of suburban projects are “regreening” old development — ripping out buildings and culverts and restoring the stream beds. Benefits include not only better storm water management but attractive ribbons of greenery through the suburban landscape

Walkability. People are willing to pay a major premium for walkability, even islands of it in an otherwise autocentric environment, said Dunham-Jones. Perhaps the most spectacular transformations are occurring in plots of land large enough — typically old malls — to allow for a restoration of walkable streets and mixed-use development common to traditional cities.

In her presentation, Dunham-Jones offered example after example of successful make-overs. Perhaps one of the most successful was Belmar in Lakewood, Co. That project converted a dead mall into 22 blocks of walkable public streets with a wide range of housing types. The streets provided connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods. Although the buildings maxed out a five stories, density increased three-fold. The project generated remarkably little extra local traffic; it had an internal capture rate of 45% — people walking, biking or driving within the development. The project offered a high rate of return to developers and to the city tax base. And not one single-family home was demolished. Said Dunham-Jones: “It didn’t take way anybody’s choices.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Dunham-Jones’ outlook for suburbia is incredibly good news for aging, inner-ring jurisdictions that act to  facilitate the transformations she describes. These jurisdictions (here in Virginia, they are mostly counties) enjoy a big advantage in being located close to the metropolitan core near jobs and urban amenities but without the problems of inner-city school systems. As Dunham-Jones said, access to great transit is eclipsing access to great schools as a driver of property values. But jurisdictions that offer both will do exceedingly well.

The main obstacles to this transformation, said Dunham-Jones, is outdated zoning codes, outdated comprehensive plans, outdated Department of Transportation road standards, and outdated financing standards. State and local governments can’t do much about mortgage lending standards, but they control the other three.  Here in Virginia, we’ve made incremental progress toward a transportation and regulatory environment more hospitable to suburban retrofit but, frankly, it’s been limited.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle of all has been a lack of vision. Here in the Richmond region, we have abundant opportunities. But will we grasp them? A case in point: If we spend $68 million to install Bus Rapid Transit along the Broad Street corridor will the City of Richmond and County of Henrico make the appropriate changes to density along the corridor, establish the necessary form-based codes to protect nearby residential neighborhoods, and invest in upgrading streetscapes to encourage walkability? If we don’t make those changes, we’re wasting our money. If we do make the needed changes, we can transform an eyesore into an amenity that will delight Richmonders for decades to come.

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8 responses to “Hope for the Burbs”

  1. So, Regency Mall should not be rebuilt but abandoned and the property sold to Henrico Schools as an expansion for DS Freeman, as the kids themselves [https://www.facebook.com/DouglasSouthallFreeman] argue? Thanks, Danny Wahlquist.

  2. No, no, no. The mall needs to be redeveloped as walkable, mixed-use development. Think about the premium people would pay to live in housing just a short, safe walk from Tuckahoe Middle School and Douglas Freeman High School.

  3. whenever I read Jim’s tomes about settlement patterns – I think of all the towns that are spread across the US – that are not suburbs but real towns – but not urban centers either – just towns.

    and many of these towns – as well as some of the modern-day urban centers got their start similarly – and some of those towns went away – and it all has to do with how far a steam engine could travel before it needed water – and so a new term was coined (back in the day) – a “jerkwater” town.

    I will leave it up to the reader to find out where that term came from but you have a gigantic hint in the narrative above.

    what does a jerk-water town have to do with a suburban make-over?

  4. […] Hope for the Burbs Bacon’s Rebellion — October 2, 2014 While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. […]

  5. […] Bacon’s Rebellion Shares a Hopeful Outlook for Transforming the Inner Burbs […]

  6. doobie_keebler Avatar

    increasing suburban poverty isn’t really “poor people leaking into the suburbs” – it’s mostly formerly middle-class people who fell into poverty during the recession and never fully recovered – people who were (and are still) trapped in place by underwater mortgages and high transportation costs.

    1. we had a ton of mortgage defaults in the Fredericksburg, Va area but I never really found out were the people who defaulted went.. did they stay in the area and get a rental or did they leave?

  7. […] some folks are finding a new Hope for the Suburbs. What do you […]

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