An Urban Fix for Suburbia? Tackling Growing Problems Through Retrofits

Watching Andres Duany go through images at the final presentation of the Lifelong Communities charrette in Atlanta, it quickly became clear how many of the goals of the ambitious planning effort could be lumped under one category: retrofitting suburbia.

“In one way or another,” said DPZ principal Galina Tahchieva, “all of the interventions we suggested were suburban retrofits.” They involved connecting street networks, creating town or neighborhood centers, “completing” neighborhoods with the missing components of mixed-use, and providing for transit interconnections.

Emerging evidence suggests the retrofitting phenomenon is going to grow in importance. Credit Georgia Tech School of Architecture director Ellen Dunham-Jones and City College of New York/CUNY professor June Williamson for getting out a book that explains it all.

The retrofitting movement is likely to benefit by a broader trend of redevelopment in close-in neighborhoods, including central city neighborhoods. Read about the EPA’s most recent research in the trend here.

At the Atlanta charrette, Tahchieva oversaw DPZ’s ideas for bringing new life to Gwinnett Place Mall in the northeastern suburbs. Expanding the study area to adjacent strip malls and offices, DPZ created three designs for a site totaling 900 acres. It’s a big enough parcel to accommodate something like a third of the projected growth of the county over the next 20 years, provided the declining single-use mall converts to an urbanized, mixed-use community with a town center.

“We were after a visionary sort of retrofit that could be a successful intervention,” said Tahchieva. Her team offered three alternatives. Two assumed adaptive reuse of at least some of the existing mall structures and the addition of residential and office components to the retail.The core of the mall would become either a public square or a Main Street.  “The interiors of malls such as this provide the best public space,” said Tahchieva. “So why not build on that?”

The third option went in the opposite direction, assuming a devolution of intensity to what would essentially become a medieval-style village surrounded by farmland. In his presentation of the options, Duany pointed to the canal that encircled the retrofitted site to help manage stormwater: “Here’s the moat.”

Tahchieva, Duany, and the authors of Retrofitting Suburbia make the case for malls as ideal places for second chances at urbanism on the metro edge. They are often large enough to make walkable mixed use viable; they have intact infrastructure; already sited at key transportation cross-roads, they connect easily to transit; and they are typically owned by one entity, which streamlines the planning and entitlement process.

Duany added one other advantage: “Since they’ve already decimated the natural ecosystems of the original site, there’s not going to be an environmental issue. Whatever you do, you’re likely to improve the environment.”

- Ben Brown

Atlanta’s Lifelong Communities Charrette Delivers the Goods

Atlanta’s landmark charrette on planning for “Lifelong Communities” wrapped on February 17, with an Andres Duany presentation to a downtown auditorium packed with some 500 people.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the Lifelong Communities charrette closing presentation.

A crowd of nearly 500 gathers for the closing presentation of the ARC's Lifelong Communities charrette.

On February 11, the opening night of the weeklong event,  Kathryn Lawler, who coordinated the ambitious project for the Atlanta Regional Commission, explained that one key goal for the charrette was to explore this question: “What does a community look like that does not have barriers to growing older?”

See her introductory remarks and Duany’s opening presentation here.

During the week, Duany’s DPZ team expanded the borders of their assigned model projects in five Metro locations and added a sixth, a retrofitted town center for a dying suburban mall. The core strategy was New Urbanism 101, “completing” neighborhoods with street connections, parks and plazas, and provision for node-to-node transit links. The idea, Duany told his audience, is to reassemble the fabric of community scattered by suburban planning and coding and give back to residents of all ages and incomes the full range of choices that make for quality of life.

“Suburbia is full of false choices,” said Duany. “It provides only the illusion of choice. Everybody drives everywhere.”

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

Ben Brown, up close and technological with Andres Duany.

What gave the DPZ/ARC/AARP charrette its distinction was in the way Duany’s team turned talk about the convergence of livability principles into actual plans for implementing them in actual places. The first days of the Atlanta charrette were devoted to hearing from experts not only on design, planning, and coding, but also specialists in public health, physical accessibility, aging issues, and demography. For a day-by-day report on those presentations, go here.

One of those who wanted to make sure her group’s views were reflected in the convergence was accessibility advocate, Eleanor Smith, founder of Concrete Change. “Most planners think of the ‘disabled and elderly’ as a clump of existing people who need a new place to live. Which is true to a certain extent,” said Smith, “but the big fact not taken into account by current planning and housing construction is that the way disability usually happens is that formerly able-bodied people who live in inaccessible houses have to move because their houses and neighborhoods can no longer accommodate them.”

There’s likely to be a growing sense of urgency for addressing aging in place. The graying of the Boomer generation will assure that. Already signs of nervousness are emerging among older Americans in existing neighborhoods. In a recent survey by Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, researchers found people generally satisfied with the places in which they lived. But the demographic category most likely to register dissatisfaction was the senior demo.

The effort to fit so many priorities into unified approaches was not without conflict. Pressed for time and space, the Atlanta Regional Commission and DPZ restricted studio access and risked alienating those who saw proposals sketched for their neighborhoods without their participation. Atlanta-area urban planner Don Broussard was among those who were bothered by at least some of the ideas he saw.

“The prototype dwellings for the elderly displayed by Andrés showed great merit,” said Broussard. “Also, the plans for at least three of the six charrette sites (Mabelton, Conyers, and Gwinnett Place Mall) provoked little controversy, since they create little if any potential for displacement of existing residential neighborhoods. The new thoroughfares planned by DPZ for the towns of Mabelton and Conyers could be accomplished under existing subdivision laws gradually over time and therefore involve willing sellers or owners of private lands desiring to redevelop. In contrast, Williamsburg [ed: the DeKalb site at Toco Hill] involves elderly renters at the mercy of a single landlord who wants to redevelop now.

“How can a plan that wipes out hundreds of affordable apartments in a decent landscape accommodate ‘aging in place’? It can’t,” said Broussard.

In his final presentation, Duany answered critics by acknowledging the limitations of a format designed to turn out provocative concepts in record time. While the proposals provide realistic options for real places, said Duany, they were created without consideration for the broader context best accommodated in an entirely open charrette.

“If you want us to take these ideas to the next level,” he said, “we would want to come back and do real charrettes,” with residents in attendance. And if adopted plans displaced residents, he added, “there must be a way of returning them to the community” when it’s redeveloped.

Check back here often. We’ll continue to follow news on the integration of aging in place with neighborhood planning around the country. And let us know about how your community or your project addresses the aging of the population. Email us at ben(at)placemakers.com.

- Ben Brown

Atlanta, AARP, DPZ Attack Challenges of Aging in Place

The New Urbanist mantra for neighborhood planning is to go for compact, connected, and complete. Well, one critical component of completeness, that of making communities comfortable – and practical – for residents of all ages, has been sort of assumed by NU planners. Yet it’s taken an effort by the nation’s primary advocacy group for seniors, AARP, to make the idea of “Livable Communities” for aging in place a planning priority.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Integrating that priority into master planning for real places is getting its first major test with a Lifelong Communities Charrette in Atlanta, Feb. 9-17. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which coordinates planning for the 10-county metro region, is behind the project, with AARP as one of its partners. Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), led by Andres Duany, will provide the design and planning expertise. Together they hope to make solid headway on an issue that will only loom larger moving forward.

The charrette targets five sites in the region, selected for their potential to represent typical challenges to aging in place and for communities’ willingness to embrace walkable, mixed-use, mixed-generational solutions to those challenges. How DPZ approaches the project and the plans that emerge from it are likely to provide models for similar efforts in other places. Lots of other places. Here’s why:

In 2008, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation became eligible for Social Security. The whole generation, 76 million strong, will have turned 70 by 2034. And if we’re not able to reverse the dominant trend of suburban sprawl and its near exclusive reliance on automobiles for mobility, we will make aging gracefully at home in America difficult for even well-off seniors and all but impossible for the majority of older people.

Flunking the aging-in-place test not only means an increased burden for family care-givers and public programs (and therefore tax-payers); it also means the loss of good neighbors and productive citizens who could live independently longer in their own homes and neighborhoods if their communities planned for walkability, diverse housing choices, and mixed-use.

In addition to AARP, healthcare and public safety experts have been connecting the housing issue with aging in place challenges for most of the last decade. You can read working papers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies here. Included among those papers is one on “Aging in Place: Coordinating Housing and Health Care Provision for America’s Growing Elderly Population” by Kathryn Lawler, who’s one of the planners of the Atlanta Regional Commission project.

We’ll follow the ARC/DPZ charrette in blog posts to follow. In the meantime, care to shake this story up a little?  Then share your comments below.

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development

It probably won’t surprise most folks that the pursuit of more traditional (and sustainable) urban patterns is often thwarted by…  lawyers! But here’s a refreshing change: Two of them – Dan Slone and Doris Goldstein, with Andy Gowder – have just released A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers and Architects, a wellspring of practical solutions for beating them at their own game.

Put the power of lawyers to work for <em>you</em>.

Put the power of lawyers to work for you.

From planning and zoning to development and operations, this richly illustrated resource lays down the law on all aspects of smart growth and development: incorporating good urban design into local land regulations, overcoming impediments in subdivision and platting, structuring community associations for mixed-use projects, maneuvering the politics and, yes, surviving litigation.

In a solid nod of approval, it’s perhaps equally unsurprising that the book’s foreword is provided by Andres Duany, who’s spent a career running the gamut of these legal and political hurdles – some successfully, others not.

And in a not-too-shabby September 2008 review, The New Urban News says, “Immensely practical, this guidebook is loaded with techniques that can enable New Urbanism to jump hurdles erected by the legal system, the political apparatus, and the day-to-day difficulties of community life.” Finally, Law of the Land, in an October 2008 post, summarizes, “Justice Brennan: ‘If a policeman must know the Constitution, then why not a planner?’ is a perfect lead-in to a wonderful new book.”

We agree. Get your own copy here.

- Scott Doyon

Gluttony and Glut: Finding the New Normal

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

An evening cross section of Atlanta's Atlantic Station.

How serious is the implosion of the once-booming urban condo market? And what does the downturn say about the prospects for housing in urban centers?

A piece in the business section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seems to say it all. Desperate to unload some units in “a stagnant market,” says the sub-headline, an Atlantic Station  developer will auction off some 40 units, with bids starting at 56 percent off list price. A similar story about the stalled condo market in Chicago appeared in a Feb. 3 New York Times story.

Well, welcome to the New, New Normal. Just don’t read too much into implications for the future of multi-family housing in these places.

To be sure, fire sales aren’t great news for developers caught in the current pinch, or for investors, including condo owners who bought into a project at the old list price. But it seems to us that the only environment in which this sort of mark down is seen as a disaster is one in which folks deny the realities of the real estate marketplace. It’s not a marketplace unless prices go up and down depending upon what buyers are willing to pay, right?

For what we now recognize as an unsustainable period of speculator insanity, prices of detached single-family homes and condos soared, particularly in desirable cities and desirable climates. The period lasted long enough for a lot of folks – buyers, builders, developers, and real estate brokers, to name just a few – to believe the aberration was the New Normal. For a look at how a misguided sense of entitlement played out in the lives of real people on Florida’s southwest coast, check out George Packer’s story in the Feb. 9/16 New Yorker – it’s called “Ponzi State,” and for good reason – and then take a look at his video. And for a west coast take, watch this video from the Associated Press.

The remnants of that sense of entitlement persist in many of the conversations about “stabilizing” home values by artificially propping up prices in a market still seeking a bottom. New Urbanist developer Vince Graham explained how it’s time for a get-real approach to home values in one of our previous posts.

But it’s just as dangerous to assume an opposite marketplace trend, that advocates for downtown mixed-use development got it all wrong.  The current shakeout is not about whether or not there’s a market for condos and rental apartment options in downtowns; it’s about the nature of that market, particularly about how diverse the housing choices have to be and how well integrated is the planning for truly mixed use opportunities.

One of the best overviews of demographic and marketplace trends is the 2008 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. And for a glimpse at how Americans rank places they’d like to move to – including places like Atlanta and Tampa that have experienced the greatest housing market downturns – see this recent survey from Pew Research. 

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: Retrofitting Suburbia

retrofittingConsiderable attention has been paid to development in urban cores and new neighborhoods on the exurban periphery. But in between, the out-of-date and unsustainable developments in existing suburbs also provide enormous opportunities for regeneration. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, is a comprehensive guidebook that illustrates how existing suburban developments can be redesigned into more urban and more sustainable places. Beyond simply re-skinning buildings or changing use, the best suburban retrofits systemically transform their neighborhoods, increasing connectivity and walkability, while contributing to affordability, transit, and sustainability.

- Hazel Borys