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Building a New Suburbia for All Generations

August 2, 2012

Today’s suburbs aren’t what they used to be. And they’re only just beginning to show signs of what they will be tomorrow. This article examines four examples, at four different scales, of efforts to retrofit suburban-style, automobile-oriented places to accommodate a wider range of ages and incomes.

Today’s suburbs aren’t what they used to be. And they’re only just beginning to show signs of what they will be tomorrow.

You know the story: After World War II, government and private industry teamed up to promote the spread of an entirely new type of development — suburbs made up of vast zones of stand-alone houses with big yards, set well away from commercial and office districts, all connected only by automobiles running on cheap gasoline. The yards and quiet streets would be the perfect setting for a burgeoning middle class to bring up the largest generation of babies ever.

Fast forward to 2012. Those babies are starting to retire; yet the majority of them will continue to live in those houses and neighborhoods built for baby raising. In the older suburbs, they are being joined at a rapid clip by low-wage workers and the poor; as of the 2010 census, suburbs had a larger share of those in poverty than did central cities. The once-bustling commercial corridors are in dingy decline, taking the local tax base down with them. Between the high cost of gas, lower earning power and an aging population, fewer residents are able to drive for everything, yet few options exist.

In order to rebuild the tax revenues needed to meet the needs of this changed population, suburbs need to reclaim their economic mojo. To do that, economic developers advise, they need to attract the young knowledge workers and the creative class, key to today’s economy, as well as the updated housing, walkable neighborhoods, urban amenities and transportation options, which they are looking for. All while making the area more livable for their growing number of seniors and less-affluent families.

It’s a heavy lift, but the older suburbs start with the advantages of location, existing infrastructure and institutions, said Victor Dover, an urban planner and designer whose firm is helping a number of such places plan their recovery. “In every metro area we are going to find that the inner suburbs are the greatest locations, for young workers as well as retirees,” Dover said. “As we begin to reclaim these areas as walkable neighborhoods, as streetcar suburbs and new economic centers, the tax base improves and they will attract all ages.”

The long real estate recession has meant that relatively few of the anticipated, developer-driven suburban retrofit projects have broken ground, except in economically healthy regions such as Washington, D.C. But the slowdown has given local governments and institutions time to make plans for such redevelopment, and many are doing so. Ellen Dunham-Jones, who co-wrote, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs” with June Williamson, maintains a database of suburban retrofit projects. When they finished the book in 2008 there were 85 projects in the database. “Today there are more than 200,” she said.

Below we will examine four examples, at four different scales, of efforts to retrofit suburban-style, automobile-oriented places to accommodate a wider range of ages and incomes. They include redesigning a suburban hospital campus to become a mixed-use town center; transforming the area around a mall into an urbane downtown; re-imagining a typical commercial highway corridor as a string of walkable neighborhoods connected by streetcar; and, finally, a plan to remake a large, sprawling city into one of the most walkable, age-friendly cities in the country.

St. Francis Medical Center, Chesterfield County, VA

Chesterfield County in suburban Richmond is the prototypical “bedroom community,” a region of subdivisions and scattered commercial developments with no real center or civic focal point. Likewise, St. Francis Medical Center is a conventional suburban hospital campus, with low buildings surrounded by parking.

In 2009 the hospital’s parent company, the Catholic Bon Secours Health System, decided that there must be a better way to make economic use of its land while expanding its service to the community. The network hired the urban design firm DPZ to a create master plan for the area around St. Francis, as well as three other hospitals in the Richmond area.

“We saw the hospital as the economic engine for this birth of a future downtown,” said Xavier Iglesias, senior project manager for DPZ. As such, the plan covers an area twice the size of the hospital campus, in order to create a broader plan for a town center.

The resulting plan envisions developing new (mostly medical) office buildings and some housing on the parking lots and existing land. A new pattern of streets and blocks will be introduced to the campus, supplementing or replacing the long drives and curving roadways, to create a pattern similar to Richmond’s traditional Fan District. That will make the emerging village more walkable as new uses arrive, Iglesias said.

Because the county consists mostly of upper-end, single-family houses, “They don’t have the housing stock for the young families or for the nurses and other workers,” Iglesias said. “The local participants talked about providing housing so they don’t all have to commute.” Similarly, there are few low-maintenance dwellings for aging residents who want to continue living independently. The plan, developed in consultation with surrounding officials and residents, calls for low-rise apartments, and mansion-style, six-plex apartment houses, totaling 872 units, and a number of the row houses traditional to Virginia.

“With this plan, St. Francis is becoming the kernel of what should have been downtown Chesterfield,” Iglesias said.

Downtown Bellevue, WA

Although Bellevue by 1946 had enough residents to support one of the earliest malls in the country, Bellevue Square, it was primarily an amorphous bedroom community eight miles east of Seattle, across Lake Washington. It incorporated as a city in 1953, and exploded in population after a new bridge across the lake opened in 1963.

Twenty years later, city leaders decided they wanted a real downtown and set about turning the superblocks around a redeveloped mall into just such an urban center, said Leslie Lloyd, president of today’s Bellevue Downtown Association.

“It’s a real live city now,” Lloyd said. “Our resident population in 2000 was 2,500 and now it’s more than 10,000. Downtown is the fastest growing residential neighborhood in the city of Bellevue, [which has a total population of 122,000]. We have the bookends of the housing spectrum, primarily baby boomers and young millennials.” With 7,000 Microsoft employees and the headquarters of other tech and telecomm companies, such as Expedia, in downtown Bellevue, the area has proved a huge magnet for the younger knowledge workers. The median age downtown dropped from 57 in 2000 to 34, she said. That is aided in part by the arrival of families to downtown. “We now have 544 school-age children in downtown, and that’s a change.” If the trend continues, the neighborhood could eventually get its first school.

“The affordability of housing continues to be a challenge,” Lloyd said. “Our rents are not affordable to entry-level wages. Only about 15-20 percent is available at a level the service workers could afford.”

Many of those workers are arriving from outside the area via a transit network that is second only to downtown Seattle. Thanks to a ballot measure approved in 2008, that service will get even better when light rail arrives from across the lake in a few years. In the meantime, downtown Bellevue will work on continuing to evolve from a car-oriented place to one that is friendlier to people on foot or bicycle. “We have a continuing challenge to make it more walkable,” Lloyd said. “We have wider than normal streets, and a superblock lay-out with 600-foot long blocks,” meaning there are fewer intersections where pedestrians may cross safely, she added. “We are implementing mid-block crossings in a handful of places on the streets that are less high-traffic.”

“People who want to live downtown — whether retired or still working — want a vibrant, walkable, safe environment,” Lloyd said. “Downtown Bellevue gives you that option without having to live with the urban ills. And for our single-family neighborhoods, it puts the amenities of a city within easy reach.”

Plan El Paso, El Paso, TX

Lodged in Southwest Texas at the border with Mexico and slathered with the kind of sprawling development typical of Sun Belt cities, El Paso probably never made any prognosticator’s list of places most likely to adopt “America’s best smart growth plan.” But in March, by a unanimous vote, the El Paso City Council adopted a plan that earned that very accolade from urban observers such as blogger Kaid Benfield.

Plan El Paso makes a very clear and conscious choice to retrofit and redevelop for what city leaders see as the needs of a 21st century population. The local economy is strong, thanks in part to international trade. Nearby Fort Bliss has been booming since the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended moving significant numbers of troops and jobs to the Army post.

The plan envisions a future El Paso that works well for people of all ages and incomes, as the document’s language notes:

“The young and the elderly of El Paso, especially, have been left behind by urban forms that necessitate driving long distances. The plan proposes strategies to bring more of the activities of daily living within walking distance and a framework of transportation alternatives including transit and bicycle systems. … The City of El Paso wishes to become the least car-dependent city in the Southwest through meaningful travel options and land use patterns that support walkability, livability, and sustainability. Over time, El Paso will join the ranks of the most walkable and transit-rich metropolitan areas in the country.”

To get there, the city intends to redevelop five or so major corridors around a new system of bus rapid transit lines. New zoning codes and incentives are being put in place to start redeveloping some underperforming commercial properties into new mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. “There is a lot of drivable suburbia that will not change, but many corridors of ‘70s, 80s and 90s will be redeveloped,” said Dover, whose firm worked on the plan. “The plan includes detailed master plans for development or redevelopment of 40 square miles of the city.” Dover said the first enhanced bus line is being built now with strictly local money, although the city intends to use federal and other sources for future lines.

Dover predicted that downtown El Paso will be one of the early beneficiaries of the plan. “El Paso has a vast market for young professionals and empty nesters who will be willing to live in old El Paso. They have great old buildings and one of the most pregnant downtowns I’ve ever seen.”

Dunham-Jones said Plan El Paso is by far the most sweeping effort at suburban retrofits she has seen. “It’s very ambitious, but I think they’re also trying to be very realistic.”

Columbia Pike, Arlington County, VA

The discussion on suburban retrofitting wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the progress of Arlington, Va. Over the last several years, the D.C. suburb has sought to replicate along the Pike the success it had in creating a string of walkable neighborhoods around Metro Rail stations in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. The concept was to redevelop the shopping centers and office parks — and their parking lots — at key intersections into higher-density nodes with apartments, condominiums and townhouses located above or adjacent to stores, restaurants and offices. The single family neighborhoods on the borders would be untouched, but would have access to the new amenities, said Chris Zimmerman, a member of Arlington’s governing board since 1996.

“We are still very early in an extended process,” Zimmerman said. “The plan was for a generation, to transform from this auto-oriented strip into a Main Street as oriented to pedestrians as to through vehicles. And we’re starting to see that emerge.”

New development has to conform to form-based zoning codes that require buildings to be built to the street, rather than across parking lots. They also must provide wide sidewalks with a street furniture zone and street lamps. Some travel lanes are being converted to on-street parking to create a buffer for pedestrians and convenience parking for retail. The county has built “a lot of brand new sidewalk, in some places where there was none, in others where it was too narrow and hard against traffic lane,” Zimmerman said. “We went ahead and invested in the public realm, even though the development hasn’t all come yet.” The next big investment is the streetcar that will ply the Pike, creating another zone in the county in addition to the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor where it will be eminently possible to live without using a car every day.

Recently, the county has begun to see a change in demographics along the Pike that in many respects is exactly what they were looking for, but in others will require careful management, Zimmerman said. The area has many older homeowners and a large number of aging garden apartment complexes with lower-income residents. It did not have the younger professionals and knowledge workers until recently; now that they are coming, the county is concerned that the affordable housing stock will not be replaced without some intervention and direction.

“Rents are rising faster than incomes along the Pike,” in anticipation of the streetcar and other amenities, Dover said. “Now that development is resuming, the supply is going up so that will level off somewhat. But we are trying to plan ahead to keep it a mixed-income community. A lot of seniors are, or anticipate being, on a fixed income, so their rent can’t keep rising, or they have to find a new place to live. The affordable units on the Pike now are affordable because they are old or not substantially renovated or don’t meet modern expectations. Landlords are slowly overhauling the units and raising the rents.” Dover and the county are working on creating incentives for below market-rate units and measures to preserve some of the existing affordable units.

Communities should take a close look at Arlington’s successes, actions and changing demographics as they plan for their own retrofits. “We talk all the time to people who live in places like Arlington and have raised a family in a house and the kids are grown and gone and they are looking for locations like Columbia Pike where they can find a place in their hometown where they don’t have to maintain a lawn. They don’t want to leave their friends or their congregation or favorite coffee shop, but they want a low-maintenance place to live,” Dover concludes.