Taking the ‘sub’ out of suburb


Philip Langdon

Issue Date:

Thu, 2009-01-01

Page Number:



A new book finds the pace of suburban retrofits accelerating, leading to polycentric metro areas.

The time for taking modest steps to alter little pieces of the suburbs is over, say Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. The rate of redevelopment has sped up in the past several years, but if the promise of suburban transformation is to be realized, we’re going to need larger-scale projects — preferably increments of 40 acres or more, according to Dunham-Jones, of Georgia Tech’s architecture program, and Williamson, an architect and urban designer who teaches at City College of New York.
In their thoroughly researched new book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs (Wiley, 272 pp., $75 hardcover), the two assess new urbanist progress outside of America’s central cities. They report the beginning of “a wave of suburban retrofits,” which they attribute to factors such as these:
• “Aging, out-of-date properties, often in first-ring suburbs.” In Denver alone, the authors note, “seven of the region’s thirteen malls have closed to be retrofitted.” Researcher Arthur C. Nelson estimates that nationally, “2.8 million acres of greyfields will become available in the next fifteen years.”
•  Concern over traffic congestion and air pollution. This is triggering a spate of transit-oriented development (TOD), planning for mass transit (even in Sunbelt regions that used to look askance at rail service), and the emergence of “a market for more intown locations.”
• Impatience with “edge cities” and “edgeless cities” (businesses strung along miles of highways). Recently announced plans for turning Tysons Corner in northern Virginia into a more walkable place with four Metro rail stations are just one example of the growing push to urbanize and pedestrianize suburban concentrations of offices, retail, and other uses.
• Changing demographics. “Between the aging baby boomers and the surge of young echo boomers, increasing percentages of households are without children, even in suburbs,” the authors point out.
The good news is that the development of popular mixed-use, transit-served centers in the suburbs is generally not a threat to cities. “Our research shows that the areas where suburban retrofits are most thriving — such as Atlanta, Denver, and Washington, DC — have all simultaneously experienced significant center city revivals,” Dunham-Jones and Williamson say. As metropolitan areas evolve to produce a series of centers rather than just the traditional downtown, suburbs appear ripe for the creation of lively places that mix housing with office, retail, and civic uses.
The bad news is that post-1950 single-family neighborhoods resist changes in their basic layouts. Ideally, already-built suburban residential areas would incorporate more sustainable settlement patterns — more extensively connected streets, for instance. But Dunham-Jones and Williamson could find no built examples of connected cul-de-sacs “or other perfectly seamless transitions between properties.”

Bigger is better
One of the urgent needs of the suburbs, they contend, is redevelopment on a substantial scale. “Projects as small as 15 acres, such as San Diego’s Uptown District on the site of a former Sears store, can transform the character of suburban areas and excite local imagination about further change,” the authors observe. “But larger parcels can more easily justify the inclusion of public space, decked parking, and a fine-grained street network on suburban superblocks.”
Most of the book’s case studies involve projects of 40 acres or more. The authors say large projects “are needed to achieve the critical mass necessary to induce behavioral change,” such as encouraging more walking and less driving. With large projects, opportunities for introducing mass transit would grow. Large projects can force local governments to reform their zoning, parking requirements, street standards, and other regulations. That usually leads to increasingly widespread progress: “One successful retrofit tends to breed another.”
The Downtown Kendall project in a suburban section of Dade County, Florida, illustrates how a large project can generate better parks and open spaces for many people. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Victor Dover, and Joseph Kohl developed a strategy of linking and coordinating open spaces in Downtown Kendall. Each property owner within a 324-acre area had to connect his open space to others’ open spaces. This has the potential to generate more useful open spaces than isolated smaller undertakings can bring about, according to Dunham-Jones and Williamson. “Large sites are also more likely than small ones to be able and/or required to include housing for a mix of incomes.”
Consistent with this stance, the authors attempt to rebut critics of big suburban mixed-use centers that are built all at one time — “instant cities” or “faux downtowns,” as they’re sometimes derided. These new suburban centers (think of Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida, CityCenter in Englewood, Colorado, and Santana Row in San Jose, California) “will not soon compare to the urbanism experienced in Manhattan or San Francisco,” Dunham-Jones and Williamson concede, but they provide opportunities to get cars off the roads, use land more sparingly, burn less fuel, generate less greenhouse gases, supply more civic space, and achieve other social and environmental benefits. The authors’ vision is one of “incremental metropolitanism,” through which population growth can be redirected — “from metropolitan greenfield edges into more central, VMT-reducing, greyfield redevelopment.”

Flawed architectural design
If “instant cities” are okay, “instant architecture” is a problem, according to this book. Dunham-Jones and Williamson decry building designs “seemingly dropped from a catalog onto land scraped and flattened of distinguishing features.” They accept that a traditional style of architecture may have virtues, but they caution that “especially in the hurried atmosphere of a charrette,” the architectural complexity that’s desirable “tends to default to the formulaic.”
They contend that despite occasional instructions such as “Keep the Pike Funky” (an exhortation guiding redevelopment of the Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia), “form-based codes risk dumbing down design when they are overly prescriptive about style. … they can also lower the bar on the designer’s ability to incrementally improve the architecture of the place.”
Arrival of rail transit is proving to be a powerful trigger for suburban retrofits. The most promising places for intensive development are at the intersection of an existing or proposed rail station and a suburban arterial corridor.
Among other points made in this well-organized, generously illustrated book:
• “Establishment of public space where none previously existed is the first step” toward making a vital suburban center.
• Some mixed-use retrofits, such as Twinbrook Station in Rockville, Maryland, and Lindbergh City Center in Atlanta, include significant volumes of office space — a trend that should be encouraged.
• Conversion of suburban corridors to multiway boulevards is a promising method for encouraging dense, mixed development in the right locations. In Cathedral City, California, the conversion of four blocks into a boulevard “has attracted upscale hotels, shops, and housing to join the new city hall on a site that would not previously have been considered attractive.”
• Generic office parks are “often prime candidates for retrofits,” particularly now that many “creative class” workers desire lively, mixed places where they can not only work but also enjoy other facets of life.
• Garden apartment complexes, typically three-story walkups, are “ripe for change” because they are higher-density and are closer to retail than are single-family subdivisions and are currently “hostile to pedestrian use,” among other reasons. Often these complexes are razed and replaced by higher-income, more densely built, mixed-use neighborhoods which offer proximity to restaurants and retail.