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Californians Ponder How To Remake Aging Suburbs

Bay Area communities look at how to shift from the industrial era to an atmosphere that appeals to “millennials.”

Future urban planning should focus on altering industrial zones and business parks — turning them into attractive and lively workplaces to appeal to the rising tide of workers born in the 1980s and early 1990s.

That was the message the San Francisco urban design firm Freedman Tung + Sasaki and Rod Stevens of Spinnaker Strategies business consultants delivered on “Re-working Suburbia” on Sept. 14 in San Leandro, California.

Based on Bainbridge Island, Washington, Stevens sees many of the suburbs that developed over the past several decades — particularly those with manufacturing as a principal employer — threatened by current economic trends. “The Third World is now doing to the US what suburbs did to cities over the last 50 years” — taking many of their routine, repetitive jobs, Stevens told New Urban Network.

Stevens said that many suburbs used to compete based on being relatively cheap places for employers to set up operations. However, with intense global competition, the economic foundations of suburbs like San Leandro, an 83,000-person municipality south of Oakland, are being undermined, he believes.

Stevens and Tung told city officials and businesspeople from San Leandro and other Bay Area sections that suburbs must embrace the movement toward creating inviting workplace spaces that will attract the 80-million-strong millennial generation.

In an article available here, the Daily Review presented Stevens’s perspective this way: “Cities such as San Francisco will do well because young, educated workers want to live there. ‘Exurbs’ such as Walnut Creek will also thrive by offering desirable nonurban environments for families.” But close-in suburbs that once relied on the industry will have to change if they hope to prosper.

“Talented people want a good place to live,” Stevens said. Tung said industrial areas that previously attracted blue-collar workers could be modified to be more inviting to a younger, more diverse workforce.

Existing industrial buildings and business parks can be restructured to add outdoor spaces, trees, coffee shops, and streets that integrate into residential areas, The Daily Review said in reporting on Tung’s suggestions. “Low-cost upgrades — such as repainting industrial buildings and adding creatively designed logos and signs — can bring personality and vitality to bland industrial areas and anonymous arterials.”

Tung said the local government could foster revitalization by maintaining a vision, making rules, and building public spaces that transform parts of the suburbs. Stevens cautioned, however, that since governments are strapped for cash, leaders from the private sector will have to play an important role.

Stevens described millennials as being most productive in environments that are less structured than those of previous generations. Younger workers prefer to have socializing integrated into their workplaces. Tung called for restructuring outdated business parks into walkable commercial centers, revitalizing former industrial areas with new uses, and bringing more workplaces into downtowns, San Francisco Business Times reported in a blog.

In a phone interview with New Urban Network, Stevens emphasized that many suburbs “have to come up with new advantages.” Because of economic changes, many suburbs must evolve into places that accommodate more interaction. “It’s all about activity and people crossing paths,” he said, noting that in a “value-added industry,” much of the value is added through judgment and discussion. These “high volumes of interaction” were not expected in the “rather faceless” suburbs built in the mid-20th century.

“Our message for first-ring suburbs was to offer options,” Tung elaborated. This includes “major district restructuring where things are too far gone, or centrally controlled (i.e., a large business park operator); and incremental change where existing industrial districts contain active, tech-savvy industrial survivors and disinvested properties.” In the latter case, he pointed out, industrial uses do not have to be replaced entirely with new-economy businesses, but underused spaces can be put to better use.

Vitality can be added to those districts by creating meeting places. Harsh environments can be softened with landscaping and streetscaping. Aesthetic improvements, Tung thinks, would appeal primarily to female workers, who historically were less numerous in lunch-pail industrial areas. By bringing in more large and small businesses, communities can make attracting and retaining talent easier. “All of that taps into the phenomenon of ‘convenience living’ that closer-in, first-ring suburbs can offer” because of their locational advantage — “if they reposition and restructure themselves adroitly,” Tung said.

He also pointed out that industrial buildings may have some attraction to younger workers. “‘Industrial design’ (style) is cool to many millennials,” he said. New structures can be inserted that play off the industrial style. By contrast, he noted, “Downtowns and other locations might be more particular about ‘dressing for the party.'”

A large audience packed a public library meeting hall for Re-working Suburbia, which the San Leandro Chamber of Commerce sponsored. The Northern California Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism was a co-sponsor of the event.

The themes explored by Tung and Stevens are similar to some of the aspirations of Sonoma Mountain Village — the far-reaching new urbanist and “green” redevelopment of a former Hewlett-Packard and Agilent business park in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, California. That project was presented in the September New Urban News article,  available here.

Across the nation, other suburbs are trying to evolve into places that appeal to younger people who want more of a walkable mix of workplaces, living quarters, and opportunities for socializing. A prime example is Dublin, Ohio, where Goody Clancy & Associates helped develop plans for the Bridge Street corridor.