The dearth of good, cheap, undeveloped sites in
suburban markets, the escalating number of vacant greyfield properties,
and the expansion of mass transit systems into suburban areas are all
factoring into a changed American suburban market.
The recession has brought the 50-year expansion of suburban development patterns to a halt. It also is accelerating the trend to retrofit, reinhabit, and "regreen" the rising numbers of dead malls, dying office parks, and other declining suburban properties. While no one likes to see businesses fail, redevelopment of these sites to respond to new suburban demographics, rising transportation costs, and infrastructure investments provides the opportunity to transform the most automobiledependent landscapes into more sustainable, more urban places. The big development project for the next 50 years likely will be retrofitting suburbia.
Some of the changes will be incremental-a
change of use here, a new street or building there, much as one sees in
the "incremental urbanism" that characterizes the perception of how the
world's great cities evolved over time. However, American suburban
development patterns are so highly specialized for single uses that
their layouts are resistant to incremental adaptation. Consequently, the
most effective redevelopments will be those that retrofit the streets,
blocks, and lots to provide a compact, connected, walkable mix of uses
and housing types. Unfortunately, projects at this scale often evoke
criticism as "instant cities" or "faux urbanism." The challenge for all
involved is to provide settings and buildings that transcend their
"instant" status and inspire their communities.
The global urgency of reducing greenhouse gases provides the most time-sensitive imperative for reshaping sprawl development patterns, for converting areas that now foster the largest per-capita carbon footprints into more sustainable, less automobiledependent places. The transformation of aging and underperforming shopping centers, office parks, garden apartment complexes, and other prototypical large suburban properties into more urban places allows new population growth to be redirected from metropolitan greenfield edges into more central greyfield sites where vehicles-miles traveled (VMT) can be reduced. It also allows for consideration of how redeveloped suburban areas collectively add up to "incremental metropolitanism" at a scale far more capable of confronting the problems of sprawl than is incremental urbanism.
Many of the retrofits produced to date have in fact been incremental and indicative of both gradual demographic shifts and public efforts to induce change. For instance, the original Levittowns have added not only countless additions to individual houses, but also multiunit housing for seniors as inhabitants have aged. A decade after Boulder, Colorado, revised zoning and setback regulations along suburban arterials, new mixed-use buildings with sidewalk cafés appear cheek by jowl with older carpet-supply stores set behind large parking lots. Similarly, numerous older retail buildings have been adapted for community-serving purposes. More than a dozen Wal-Mart stores have been converted to churches. La Grande Orange in Phoenix is a reborn strip mall containing locally owned restaurants and shops that have become so popular that La Grande Orange has its own T-shirts and is regularly mentioned as a selling point in real estate ads for the neighborhood. An L-shaped mini-mall was made into the award-winning Camino Nuevo Charter Academy elementary school in Los Angeles. The addition of sidewalks and pervious public green space figured into the transformation of a grocery store into a public library in Denton, Texas, and conversion of a Super Kmart into a megachurch in Woodstock, Georgia. Many other vacant big-box stores, malls, and shopping centers have been converted to office space, health care facilities, and civic space-including the headquarters for Hormel Foods, which includes the Spam Museum in a former Kmart in Austin, Minnesota, and the revival of Crestwood Court Mall in St. Louis by artist, theater, and dance groups as ArtSpace. Sometimes, the best approach to a dead retail site is to return it to nature, as in the reconstructed wetland that replaced a failed strip shopping center in Phalen Village, Minnesota, or the proposed park on the site of the Columbus City Center mall in Columbus, Ohio. Countless additional examples of this kind of recycling exist, showing welcome improvements to the physical and social infrastructure.
However, retrofitting's greater potential goes well beyond
incremental adaptive use or renovation. Through urbanization of larger
suburban properties with a denser, walkable, synergistic mix of uses and
housing types, more significant reductions in carbon emissions, gains
in social capital and public health, and changes to systemic growth
patterns can be achieved.
Mixed-use new urbanist greyfield retrofits routinely achieve projections of 25 to 30 percent internal trip capture rates, and substantially higher performance has been measured in recent studies. Belmar, a dead mall retrofit in Lakewood, Colorado, tripled density on its 100-acre (40-ha) site but did not require a single new traffic signal on surrounding streets. Such capturing of internal trips is dependent on achieving the critical mass associated with instant cities, not with incremental changes to the suburban pattern.
The most dramatic and prevalent retrofits tend to be on dead mall sites-retrofits such as Belmar; Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida; and Santana Row in San Jose, California. Each replaced a typical low-rise shopping mall surrounded by parking lots with a more or less interconnected, walkable street grid, lushly planted public spaces, and ground-level retail space topped by two to eight stories of offices and residences. In Denver alone, eight of the region's 13 malls have undergone or announced plans for retrofitting. There are also, however, significant retrofits on the land adjacent to thriving malls. The retrofit of Downtown Kendall/Dadeland outside Miami incorporates a mall (the Dadeland Mall) and new 20-plus-story residential towers, as does Perimeter Place adjacent to Perimeter Center Mall in Atlanta. Both are examples of how 30-year-old edge cities, even bête noire Tysons Corner, in northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., are being repositioned by infilling and urbanizing.
Suburban office and industrial parks are also being retrofitted. The parking lots of an Edward Durell Stone-designed office park of ten-story buildings in Hyattsville, Maryland, have been infilled with a new main street and a mix of uses to become University Town Center. The owners of a low-rise industrial park in Westwood, Massachusetts, are taking advantage of its location on a commuter rail line to redevelop it as Westwood Station, a four- to five-story live/work/ shop transit-oriented development (TOD) and the largest suburban development project ever in Massachusetts. Golf courses, car dealerships, park-and-ride lots, garden apartment complexes, residential subdivisions, and entire commercial strip corridors are being retrofitted in ways that integrate rather than isolate uses and regenerate underperforming asphalt into urban neighborhoods.
What has been driving all this? Several factors: shrinking percentages of households with children and a growing market for multiunit housing in the suburbs, an aging population, continued suburban job growth, regional growth patterns that have given leapfrogged suburban areas a new centrality, higher gasoline prices that have made closer-in living more attractive, and local smart growth policies and transit investments that are limiting sprawl and redirecting growth to existing infrastructure. The dearth of good, cheap, undeveloped sites in suburban markets, the escalating number of vacant greyfield properties, and the expansion of mass transit systems into suburban areas are all factoring into a changed American suburban market.
Collectively, these market forces and policies are
enabling implementation of the principal benefit of projects like these:
the retrofitting of the underlying layout of the streets, blocks, and
lots so as to change unhealthy suburban patterns and behaviors into more
sustainable ones. Incremental infill within as-of-right zoning in most
suburban municipalities is simply not a feasible path toward achieving
diversification or densification.
The larger, denser, and more urban the redevelopment, the greater the ability of its designers to change the existing development pattern and do the following:
- reduce vehicle-miles traveled and improve public
health by creating a transit-served or transit-ready mix of uses in a
walkable street pattern connected to adjacent uses;
- reduce land consumption and per-capita costs of public investment by absorbing growth that, without alternatives, would expand in sprawl and edgeless cities;
- increase the feasibility and efficiency of transit;
- increase local interconnectivity;
- add permeable surfaces and green space;
- add public and civic space;
- increase choice in housing type and affordability;
- increase diversification of the tax base; and
- establish an urban node within a polycentric region.
The key design challenge in altering the suburban
settlement structure is internal and external integration of the parts
over time and over multiple parcels. Research has yet to uncover built
examples of connected culs-de-sac-a longstanding holy grail of suburban
reform-or other perfectly seamless transitions between properties. But
designers are producing innovative adaptations to zoning and subdivision
regulations to overcome suburban fragmentation.
For example, Michael Gamble and Jude LeBlanc, professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have proposed trading the right to build liner buildings within the front setback along arterials for giving up half the width of a new street on the side setback as a means to gradually establish a finer-grained street and pedestrian network on suburban superblocks. Similarly, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a partner in the Miamibased town planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., and Victor Dover and Joseph Kohl, partners in the urban design firm Dover Kohl & Partners in Coral Gables, Florida, have developed a strategy for linking open spaces within a walkable street grid through the superblocks of Downtown Kendall/Dadeland's 324 acres (131 ha). Working for Miami-Dade County on new zoning across numerous parcels, they devised a system of anchor points at the corners of property boundaries to which each owner's mandated 15 percent of open space had to connect. Their suggested, rather than mandated, shapes of public space have been substantially followed by property owners and are far more appropriately sized to the development as a whole than a series of uncoordinated 15 percent bits would have been.
Internal integration of parts is indeed far easier to control on single-parcel sites-especially sites of 30 acres (12 ha) or more. Projects as small as 15 acres (6 ha), such as San Diego's Uptown District on the site of a former Sears store, can transform the character of suburban areas and generate local input concerning further changes. But larger parcels can more easily justify the inclusion of public space, decked parking, and a fine-grained street network on suburban superblocks. Large sites are also more likely than small ones to be able and/or required to include housing for a mix of incomes.
This has not been universally achieved-witness the exclusively high-end residences at Santana Row or exclusively lower-end apartments at CityCenter Englewood in Englewood, Colorado-but projects like Mizner Park, Belmar, and Addison Circle in Addison, Texas, provide a range of housing types, tenures, and costs. While they do not contain the social and physical diversity of incremental cities, the degree of internal integration, diversification, and densification of these instant cities deserves commendation.
Large, single-parcel projects also foster integration external to the property. By forcing municipalities to address rezoning and use tax-increment financing to provide infrastructure upgrades for the new density, larger projects are gradually reforming the regulations and financing practices that otherwise continue to favor sprawl. Large projects in particular increase a municipality's experience with mixed uses, mixed incomes, shared parking, form-based codes, contextsensitive street standards, transfers of development rights, and other regulations that encourage urban development patterns. As a result, one successful retrofit tends to breed another.
At the same time, the financing community is gaining
experience with evaluating mixed-use public/ private deals. Gradually,
the financial performances of large projects are providing the
predictable metrics that lenders require to offer the most competitive
rates not only to conventional suburban development, but also to
urbanizing redevelopment, increasing the feasibility of including
affordable housing. Evidence of the magnitude of change in the rules of
the game is that big players have now stepped onto the field. Mall
owner General Growth Properties added high-end housing to its mall in
Natick, Massachusetts, and was retrofitting the Cottonwood Mall outside
Salt Lake City to serve as a town center before problems with commercial
mortgage-backed securities loans forced it into bankruptcy.
By 2005, recognition of the changed market led many of
the country's high-production single-family-home residential builders to
start "urban" divisions offering lofts, yoga studios, and billiards
lounges. Not surprisingly, these divisions have been the best performers
while the rest of the housing market has tanked.
On the one hand, the urban divisions of K. Hovnanian Homes, KB Homes, and Toll Brothers, along with compact urban retail formats by Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot, are a promising indication that even the big guns are recognizing both the market for and the benefits of urbanism. The impact could be enormous if the new divisions perform well enough to shift these companies' focus away from spreading unwalkable, single-use suburban formats across the country. Combining affordability with urbanism in new construction, whether in new developments or redevelopments, has been difficult, and the expertise of these companies in providing affordable products should be welcomed. On the other hand, their highly repetitive and uninspiring "instant architecture"-a problem they are not alone in creating-is less welcome.
One way to enhance the character and diversity of
retrofits is to take advantage of the unique opportunities for adaptive
use in redevelopment. Although most aging low-rise suburban buildings
lack the systems or construction quality to merit restoration, the most
distinctive retrofits tend to creatively retain at least some buildings.
Surrey Central City outside Vancouver, British Columbia, revived a mall
by grafting a new five-story galleria of university classrooms on top.
The multistory department store buildings of several dead mall retrofits
have been converted to housing, offices, and city halls.
As counters to "instant architecture," these legacies contribute a sense of history, diversity, affordability, and a reduction of waste. The resulting quirks contribute enormously to the creativity and quality of the place making. They can also insert a cool factor to suburban places. Upper Rock in Rockville, Maryland, and Cloud 9 Sky Flats in Minnetonka, Minnesota, incorporate modern loft conversions of suburban office buildings.
Bit by bit, beneath the static image of uniform tract
houses, many suburbs are undergoing significant physical, social, and
cultural change-not all of it positive. For the first time in history,
suburban municipalities now house more people living in poverty than
central cities do. Maps showing recent mortgage foreclosures
concentrated in the newer outermost suburbs indicate the likelihood of
further decentralization of poverty and an ever-shifting terrain.
On the physical side, several aging garden apartment
complexes have been retrofitted and entire post-World War II
subdivisions in suburban Washington, D.C., and Atlanta have been bought
up house by house. One subdivision in Atlanta even self-organized and
put itself up for sale for redevelopment. New transit systems,
infrastructure improvements, programs to fund planning studies,
regulations allowing accessory dwelling units, and new overlay zoning
district designations are providing further incentives for suburban
But all this has not been happening everywhere. It has
been happening at specific nodes and along specific corridors, generally
where the transportation infrastructure-usually with some
improvements-can support it. The outer rings of new exurban expansion
continue to be low density overall, but the densified retrofits and
countless revitalized small-town main streets are joining the edge
cities as increasingly significant suburban activity centers. Arthur C.
Nelson of the University of Utah estimates that 2.8 million acres (1.1
million ha) of greyfields will become available in the next 15 years. If
only one quarter is redeveloped into mixed-use centers, it has the
potential to supply half the housing required by 2030. As a result, the
regional pattern emerging and likely to become more prominent is
While development has indeed been decentralizing away from central cities, it also has been recentralizing around new and existing suburban centers-and becoming more sustainable in the process. More bottom up than top down, these new instant cities are demonstrations of an incremental metropolitanism. While it is fair to fault instant cities when their replication of incremental urbanism is unsatisfying, the more relevant issue today is how well each contributes to retrofitting the larger systems of sprawl.
One of the first steps is to recognize the
inefficiencies of sprawl development. Most lower-priced houses are at
the outer edges, but come with higher transportation costs that
increasingly wipe out the savings gained. Jobs and retail space are
located along arterials, but typically with little transit access.
Thoroughfares designed for high-speed travel between centers have become
so lined with uses that they do not work well for either access or
mobility. Everything is designed in isolated pods. Even larger retrofits
run the risk of becoming stand-alone fragments unless their urban
structure integrates them into both local networks and larger
sustainable systems. Only as nodes of a polycentric metropolis can they
contribute to regional efficiencies distances, lower housing and
transportation costs, a jobs/ housing balance, and specialized labor
The inclusion of increasingly significant amounts of
office space within mixed-use retrofits is particularly important for
balancing polycentric growth and reducing VMT. Twinbrook Station in
Rockville, Maryland, and Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta are
integrating 12- and 14-story corporate office buildings onto the sites
of former park-and-ride lots. SkySong in Phoenix and Surrey Central City
are building incubator office space for Arizona State University and
Simon Fraser University, respectively, on the site of a dead shopping
center and a mall's parking lot.
Transit is especially critical in the effort to network nodes into a metropolitan area-wide economy and system. Unfortunately, most potential retrofit sites are not on transit lines. While retrofitting them can still enhance local conditions and reduce automobile dependency, the larger challenge is connecting retrofits to each other to achieve the benefits of a more sustainable metropolis.
There are two principal strategies for "connecting the
dots." The first is to extend transit to improve suburban access,
encourage even greater differentiation between nodes, and reduce VMT.
The planned extension of Metrorail through Tysons Corner is an example
of this strategy and reveals the high cost and design difficulties of
inserting stations and TODs into an edge city not planned for them. (See
"Edge- City Evolution," May, page 46.)
The hope is that densification of enough retrofitted
sites will make suburban transit feasible. However, the track record so
far indicates that more often transit in the suburbs is what makes
densification feasible. In fact, examination of over 80 retrofits
reveals that the arrival of a rail system is one of the strongest
triggers for large-scale suburban redevelopment. In addition to
Washington, D.C., the availability (or construction) of rail transit in
Boston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix has stimulated suburban
retrofitting at existing and proposed rail stations.
The second strategy for connecting the dots is to
retrofit corridors themselves. The general argument is that if
commercial strip corridors are made more attractive to and safer for
pedestrians, they can better attract redevelopment. Cathedral City,
California, converted four blocks of what had become a commercial strip
corridor back into its downtown by retrofitting it into a multiway
boulevard. Palm-lined medians separate the high-speed traffic from
slower local traffic and wide sidewalks. Now serving as the town's main
street, the retrofitted corridor has attracted upscale hotels, shops,
and housing to join the new city hall on a site that would not
previously have been considered attractive.
A more incremental approach for retrofitting corridors is being pursued on Columbia Pike by Arlington County, Virginia. A form-based code with fast permitting and the promise of a streetcar are the incentives for its ongoing redevelopment of low-rise supermarkets and strip malls into six- to ten-story mixed-use buildings.
One of the newest strategies for retrofitting corridors
is to expand the network efficiency of the local streets surrounding
arterial roads. Virginia's new state law requiring connectivity between
subdivisions is intended to allow local roads to handle many more local
trips so that the arterials can function more efficiently as the links
between metropolitan nodes.
So how well do instant cities and suburban retrofits live up to their sustainable aspirations? Each case is unique and merits consideration of at least the following questions:
- At metropolitan and regional scales, does the project make it easier for people to have access to jobs, affordable housing, and affordable transportation while simultaneously reducing VMT and carbon footprints? Or is it gentrifying an important remnant of an affordable landscape and/or draining an existing downtown?
- Are there tangible means, such as transfer of development rights, to link densification at targeted nodes with equally targeted land conservation elsewhere? Or are developers getting a free ride as local communities get overburdened with traffic and displacement, and the region as a whole benefits little?
- At the local scale, does the settlement have an urban structure that supports interconnectivity, density, transit, and walkability? Has it triggered further redevelopment?
- Will its design and mix of uses improve with age and endure, or will it remain a fragment of drive-to walkable "product" with a life span driven by its retail and limited to the fashionability of its scenography?
- At the building scale, does it offer a variety of
housing choices to accommodate a diverse population with varied needs
and ideas about public and private space, or are the choices too similar
and the expectations of behavior too conformist?
These questions will be at the heart of local and metropolitan politics as people move beyond debates of sprawl versus smart growth and tackle the thorny specifics of implementing real change. In many respects, the even more difficult assessment is determining how well instant cities and suburban retrofits live up to their urban aspirations. It is easy to compare them to "real" cities and find them lacking the culture, excitement, diversity, conflict, grit, and suffering that coexist in core cities. But this misses the point. Instant cities and suburban retrofits are not core cities. They are urban nodes within a new polycentric metropolis that simultaneously complement the core city's downtown and serve a predominantly suburban population. They are hybrids and reflect aspects of both centeredness and decentralization.
This hybrid nature is revealed in many ways, including
- suburban parking ratios and urban streetscapes;
- ambiguous "public" spaces developed in public/ private partnerships and privately owned or leased;
- populations that are more diverse than stereotypical suburbs but less diverse than stereotypical cities;
- new, single-ownership parcels deliberately masked to look old and multiparceled;
- urban qualities delivered at suburban costs;
- transit orientation and automobile dependency; and
- the appearance of local town centers and reliance on larger networks of users, tenants, funders, and designers.
Hybrid network nodes are neither suburban nor urban. As a
result, they are prone to critique from the advocates of both
better-understood categories. But are cities and suburbs really so
different in the polycentric metropolis? The old dichotomy of suburb
versus city as the separation of home and work was always
oversimplified. Today, it is further complicated by continued
metropolitan decentralization, new forces of recentralization, the
replication of national retailers throughout, and the extended networks
afforded by global communications.
More than 60 percent of U.S. metropolitan office space
is now in the suburbs, but many of the same metropolitan regions seeing
the most retrofitting in suburban contexts are also seeing population
growth in their central cities. Post-World War II suburbs originally
built at the edges of the metropolis have been so surpassed by new
growth, often losing property value in the process, that they now enjoy
relatively central locations. New instant cities exploit those
centralities and activate them as metropolitan nodes in a network
increasingly reinforced by mass transit.
The networked urbanity of metropolitanism reinterprets the Aristotelian ideal of the city-living together well-at the larger scale. This bodes well for confronting the challenges of economic and environmental sustainability but is less promising for dealing with entrenched social inequity.
Retrofitting ushers in networked urbanity in which living, working, shopping, and playing are no longer separated-but neither are they entirely conjoined.
Although instant cities and suburban retrofits are
neither as sustainable nor as urban as older established cities, they
are more sustainable and more urban than the conditions they have
replaced. As such, they have great potential to reshape the
metropolis-while encouraging the planting of trees on former parking
lots rather than chopping them down at the metropolitan fringes.
Retrofits also face many challenges, including
addressing gentrification, producing architecture that lives up to
cultural aspirations, and constructing the infrastructure to support the
changes. Communities interested in retrofitting should revise their
zoning codes and regulations to support mixed uses and higher densities
while seeking means to invest in transit boulevards and public parking
garages to stimulate private redevelopment. Similarly, those not
familiar with the complexities of mixed-use redevelopment need to expand
their skill sets-and their imaginations.
As the country
looks ahead to recovery from this recession, it is clear that
public/private partnerships at a multitude of scales-national, state,
and local-will be needed more than ever to collectively take on the
challenges and opportunities to retrofit suburbia. UL
Ellen Dunham-Jones is director of the Architecture Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology and June Williamson is associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York/CUNY. (This article has been updated and adapted, with permission, from Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2009.)