Chicken or the Egg: Who takes the lead on incremental suburban retrofitting?

A proposed Trader Joe’s in Boulder, Colorado, brought up an interesting question this week in a spirited exchange on the Pro-Urb urban issues listserv: In auto-centric places where streets and infrastructure lack any sense of meaningful pedestrian amenity, who should take the lead on turning things around?

That is, should developers be required to build urban, pedestrian-oriented buildings fronting streets that are currently engineered as high speed arterials, in the hopes that, over time, a critical mass of new urban construction will foster the political will necessary to overhaul the infrastructure in further service of pedestrians and bicyclists? Or should the infrastructure be required to change first before any demands are placed on the private sector?

The case in question involves plans to demolish an Applebee’s restaurant — an auto-oriented business in a suburban context — and replace it with a 14,000 square foot Trader Joe’s.

The site, as seen on Google Streetview.

As presented, the building appears somewhat urban in terms of its siting but is otherwise conventionally oriented exclusively towards an interior parking lot and lacking any entrances along the sidewalk — something TJ spokespersons seemed disinclined to alter. That got new urbanists talking.

The proposed Trader Joe’s. Note the absence of sidewalk entrances. All entrances are oriented towards the parking lot on the other side of the building.

When it was pointed out that the adjoining road is currently “exceptionally hostile to bicyclists and pedestrians” and “has high-volume, high-speed car traffic on a 6- to 8-lane section of road without on-street parking,” PlaceMaker Nathan Norris noted,

“… [then] Trader Joe’s should not be required to build an urban-friendly building until the city commits to building an urban-friendly thoroughfare and public frontage (that will support their building and business).”

Not so fast, countered Rob Steuteville, editor/publisher of Better! Cities and Towns:

“I disagree with you here, Nathan. Cities have a lot of leverage now to get retailers to change their auto-dominated formats, and I see no downside to using it. The sooner the national retailers get used to that, the better — it could help many projects in the future. To get them to change the building is part of the commitment to making the street pedestrian friendly. This takes time and it can’t be done all at once. How can the city argue for context-sensitive design with the state DOT if they don’t do anything about the context? This is a chicken and egg problem, and they should work at it from both ends — and the first progress can come from either end.”

Steuteville supported his position with an example from Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon:

“… a decently designed building can make a difference in the character of an auto-dominated arterial, as you see from this Orenco image. There’s four 12-foot lanes, plus turning lane, plus shoulders on this road. Sometimes you can start with the building. Get enough of this, then you add on-street parking, restripe, add bike lanes, etcetera. The question ‘does the road justify the buildings’ can be turned around. Do the buildings justify the road? Or, how can context-sensitive design help if the context is bad?”

This urban building was built at the edge of a high-speed arterial and has subsequently influenced the street design in modest ways.

Acknowledging the value of what Orenco Station had accomplished, Norris noted that it was not entirely appropriate as an example, as it was built at the discretion of the developer and not in response to a city requirement.

“The distinction I draw is that the city is the regulator, not the private land owner. If the city is unwilling to invest in changing the context, I think it is unfair to ask the developer to do so on his or her own.

On the other hand, if the city invests its infrastructure dollars in making a walk-able, bike-able, transit-able, drive-able environment, then I agree that the private sector should be required to build urban buildings.

Why would I want to bring my building all the way up to the street with sidewalks if the cars are going 40 miles an hour immediately beyond the sidewalk? It would not only be bad business, but also dangerous. That is how many main streets have been killed by DOT ‘improvements’.”

What do you think? Should the prospect of suburban retrofitting begin with the chicken or the egg? Or some combination of the two?

Scott Doyon

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.


  1. Lisa Nisenson says

    As someone who has worked in the suburbs for awhile now, our Trader Joes offers up perhaps another twist – the increment within the increment. TJs took over an old Rooms to Go, gutted it, but inched closer to the street. The surroundings are hostile, but rate a whopping 80 something in Walkscore. Ther store is a block from a major regional intersection, where strip mall out parcels were built on the corner a la smart growth, but functionally work like the strip mall.

    I’m convinced we won’t get the right kind of urban environment unless and until there is better four corners planning that radiates along arterials and connects to neighborhoods. You can have increments that check the new urbanists’ design boxes, but don’t function. That’s because function is in flow and flow means scoping up.

    That being said, these new uses and increments do open suburbanites eyes on better planning because they start to walk it. I’ve been giving walk tours around town and have not done one at the new TJs. Maybe I will now. They are effective, and who knows – maybe they’ll teach us something.

  2. If a municipality cannot get the street right, it is not prudent or reasonable for the municipality to require property owners to build to a lousy public frontage and street section.

  3. Tom Boulet says

    Changes to streets happen because of political processes. If buildings are all car oriented, then there is likely to be little pressure from people to fix the streets. People see no value to having walkable streets if you can’t get anywhere on them and it’s not appealing because you’re walking past cold walls. If we require the developers to orient the buildings to the street, the political pressure becomes more likely. So there are really only two choices here: 1) require the developers to orient buildings to the street, or 2) give up.

    • The street is under the authority of the municipality or the state DOT. At some point these folks decided to build a lousy street. If they recognize their mistake and want to fix the street and install the right public frontage on a predictable schedule, then requiring new buildings to create the right private frontage becomes a very reasonable and equitable request.

  4. I’m firmly in the “street first” camp with Anderson, because that’s where the government has direct (monopoly) power. I argued that here:

    Government should act DIRECTLY with public funds to make streets safe and functional for all (narrow and shared, or wide and complete) and should set the minimum rules required (form-based zoning regulations) to guide private development INDIRECTLY.

    Because the streets are under government’s direct control, government should act there.

    – – – –
    Direct manipulation of individual developments by government (i.e. doing the architect’s job) is innovation and investment-stifling red-tape nitpicking. Instead set clear rules in the code, and rubber-stamp everything that meets those rules very quickly. Ensure the rules mean good urbanism is approved by right.

    My conception of government is that they (in fact, in a democracy, we the people) set the rules for the private sector to play by. The private sector is profit-maximizing, which is great and fine by me. Businesses are profit-making machines: that’s their M.O., their obligation in fact. Go right ahead and maximize profits, but in order to ensure nobody gets hurt, we the people – via government – get to set bounds for that profit maximization.

    So we set laws that provide boundaries to the metaphorical space the private sector can play in. No sewage spills, pay $x per tonne of carbon, etc. etc. And zoning laws fall under those.

    In order not to stifle innovation/dynamism/creativity, those laws should be as minimal as possible and should get to the nub of the issue, which is why I like transect over use-based codes. “Urban-ness”, the feel of a place, is what people care mostly about, not use, so it’s a better place to start.

  5. On a related note, here’s a to-and-fro I had with Brent Toderian on the requirement for creativity in city planners

  6. In an ideal world, the municipality or state would participate in the rebuilding of the auto oriented street to a walkable complete street in conjunction with or preceding private development investment. But I can’t think of too many examples where the City, County or State has the money to rebuild any infrastructure. They are having a hard enough time maintaining what they have. If a new building is proposed and the City has committed by policy to an urban – friendly community character, then the private sector should lead the way. The City of Lincoln, CA has some examples of this happening along their primary downtown highway corridor. Now that their highweay bypass has opened, they can de-emphasize the auto orientation of the corridor and they will already have private investment that supports that.

  7. Work through a combination of the two. Collaborate to make a better place for people to live. If the people and municipal authorities do not take the initiative to begin the conversation then developers will maintain the statuesque and continue business as usual. But if the policies are worked out and it’s decided that when new/redevelopment is proposed, then the city can begin work on the associated street improvements. Essentially saying “you (developer) bring your building up and face your entryway toward the street, and we’ll (the city) make the improvements to the street to make is safer for pedestrians.”

    • I think we all agree here that both should happen, but the question is whether we can move things along by one party going first. I’d say the city should lead: narrow the painted lanes, allow on-street parking protecting a bike lane, paint in some intersection bulges (or a blackson twist?), throw down some planters. None of these are capital intensive.

    • Paddy Steinschneider says

      I would love to be working with developers maintaining the statuesque. Unfortunately, all of the developers I work with are fixated on the status quo. Images of Sophia Loren and that tall, blond woman in the Conan movies. (Sondra Bergman?) appearing to closed eyes.

  8. Dean Gunderson says

    I once worked with a mayor, whose family fortune had been made selling eggs (lots and lots of eggs). She often repeated her grandfather’s retort to the question, “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” It’s simple, the answer is the rooster.

    I remember this when the question over whether a “city” or a “developer” is asked to take the first step. We forget that the city is nothing more than the sum total of the will of its citizens (whose taxes support any infrastructure investment), while the developer’s funds are nothing more that those borrowed from the hoped-for future customers.

    In this case, the “rooster” is no more than the sentiments of the average person (whether in the guise of citizen or customer). The answer as to the question of what needs to be built first, is the sensibility of the average person. For what that person deems appropriate for their own town, is exactly what will be built — and no more.

    • Infrastructure investments can precede public support. Moses didn’t take a poll before planning freeways. Cities may invest however they choose and the market will respond. Economic evidence suggests walkable is in demand, economic theory suggests true transport options and local use mix are beneficial. The public have spoken.

      And retrofits aren’t necessarily for those in place, but for eggs as yet unborn. Those with no option to live there, because it’s single-family-car-dependent or nothing. “Town” seems a stretch for the images above.

  9. Matt Korner says

    Is slapping some paint on the street that expensive? Institute a road diet using the existing pavement for on-street parking, protected bike lanes, and dedicated bus lanes. Slowing traffic is not that difficult, and reduced design speeds are really the only element that must be in place for private developers.

  10. On street retail requires on street parking except in major cities such as NYC. While in theory, pulling a building up to the street may someday lead to a walkable community, in most cases the building will orient its back to the street and its operating doors to the parking lot (Back).

  11. Let’s say streets are substantially resurfaced every say 8 to 12 years. If the city cares about a walkable environment the administration should develop a long term plan that embraces the goals. Once that’s done they can plan a set of design parameters and complete street practices to be incorporated into future development, road repairs, etc. In the meantime it doesn’t hurt to ask developers to proactively follow more pedestrian friendly practices, but it also doesn’t seem fair to require it until the city steps up and provides the vision to guide it.

  12. Paddy Steinschneider says

    I understand this dilemma too well, but I think there is a solution; at least one that makes it fair for the developer who is being required to improve the off-site infrastructure, because the municipality lacks the resources to do so. We are working on a $150m adaptive reuse of an office park that has a signalized intersection on the Saw Mill River Parkway. While there are a few of those, they are rare and having a light at the property that will directly access our site is a large value.

    While the property used to bring 1,000 cars during rush hours when it operated as offices, its use stopped almost 10 years ago when the company that owned the property changed their base of operations. People who live in condo developments along the road that leads to our property, which they pass by to get to the Parkway, have lived without the office park traffic for so long that they don’t remember it. They have been opposing our project on the basis that a mixed-use development will bring traffic on their streets all during the day. We have compounded their concern by establishing direct connections between our site and the Village downtown, which is approximately a mile away on Village streets. While this is understood as a good thing by local businesses in the downtown, as well as a benefit for the residents of the surrounding communities, the fact that some people are likely to travel between the two points using the existing streets is presented by the people in the condos as a reason for them to have founded the Rivertowns Preservation Civic Association and Women-haters Club. They have mounted an organized opposition, which is sufficient to confuse our appointed and elected Board members, many of whom are just good people without any training in things like land use.

    The solution has been to propose complete streets for the 1/2 mile of streets nearest the project. This actually will provide sidewalks, crosswalks, and similar street improvements that will make it safer for kids in the area to walk to school. The street improvements, which include signalization and redesigned intersections, will not only accommodate the additional traffic, it will actually eliminate congestion that currently exists.

    The price tag on these improvements is $4.5m. Many of the things included in these off-site improvements have been asked for by residents since at least 1983 or items on the Village’s wish list. The reason that they have not been done is simply that they didn’t get to the top of a limited priorities list for the costs of running the Village. I have gotten the developer to agree to make the improvements (note: not only pay for the improvements, but actually do the work, since the cost for a municipality to do the work can be 40% higher than private sector). This is a strong factor in the Village Boards’ feeling comfortable approving the project.

    To make this fair, which is the real reason I am writing, I have needed to get the Village to understand that, in order to be able to provide these off-site improvements, the developer has to get a better return than he would otherwise have had. This has required a negotiation for allowing an increase in the number of residential units, and a small increase in the size of the project.

    While the Civic Association continues to rail against the project, the balance between the benefits to the community and the economic benefits to the developer have enabled the project to move forward.

    The challenge that I have discovered in this project is the fact that so many people in a position to approve a project are operating with 1990s mentality that it is about cuts: that the way to reduce adverse environmental impacts is to make projects smaller. The fact is that this does little or no good. In fact, using land for a less intense use can result in adverse environmental impacts. We have moved to an understanding that it is all about the benefits that can be derived from a project. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to get this across to the approving agencies.

    It is a transitional time, however. In other roles, I am participating with groups that are working on the Economic Region Sustainability Plans for New York State and at the top of the priorities list are increasing density in the areas that are already served by mass transit and infrastructure. My hope is that I will see a day when the response to a proposed project by a developer from the approving board is, “If we increased the number of residential units that you are proposing, would you be able to accomplish these improvements in the area surrounding your site?”

  13. Since most cities are in a “take what we can get” economic development approach their hands are tied. They are afraid to make the decision’s that LEADERS must make.

    Bottom line is that businesses come and go but the city will remain long into the future. The City must first take an active role in suggesting what they want in their community. Then if a developer finds this to be worth his or her time so be it.

    Take the case of the Applebee’s that is presented above. It was not built to last and was only plopped down at that location to reap profits – profits which do not stay in town, but go Kansas City where they are headquartered.This has been the faulty methodology for longer than I’ve been living and is why things are in the shape they are in and why all of us are now commenting on website’s about new strategies.

    It is the City’s responsibility to create the Place they want and have the integrity to stand up to what they believe in – whatever that may be…

  14. Tom Boulet says

    Ironic that this is a Trader Joes fighting this because the TJ’s I used to go to in the 80s in Pacific Beach, San Diego–one of the original stores–still to this day has a street front entrance AND a back parking lot entrance. Check it out on google maps streetview

    Search for: 1211 Garnet Avenue, San Diego, CA

  15. If the city clarifies its future intent in plans and with a complete streets policy, then it is clear why they need developers to align with the vision.

  16. The chicken and egg question to me restricts the thinking process and sometimes forces the answer into thinking ‘inside the box’. In this case the question of which should adapt first the buildings or the roads limits the thinking to these two entry points. Just as in the question of the chicken and the egg, if we pursue this line of thinking further we would find out that a chicken alone would not be able to lay a fertile egg – end of story. If we start with an egg (assuming we started with a fertile egg) the poor hatchling all alone will also not be able to multiply – end of ‘poultryhood’! Therefore limiting the question to a chicken or an egg needs to be opened up to allow us to start with a chicken and a rooster (the rooster being the element that is screened out by the ‘in the box’ question.

    Forgive my elaboration on the way the question has been asked, but I believe this is important to make my point regarding suburban retrofitting. The question focuses purely on technical solutions or alternative starting points i.e. from a Planner’s perspective. I believe the missing element here is really the end users – the residents of the suburb and beyond. This would take us to the the missing ‘rooster’ in case of suburban renewal.

    Obviously urban development is much more complex even than that necessitating us to bring many more elements into play. For example, the sustainability of any solution so that it would make sense from the social, economic and environmental points of view. To achieve this we would need a lot of a advocacy, public debate amongst a variety of stakeholders then the appropriate direction or solution would be reached. We also need to note that these processes would allow those involved to arrive at an appropriate solution for each context with different entry points in different contexts. In some case also the decision might be not to invest in the change so neither the chicken nor the egg!

  17. The developer has proposed a solution that will allow him to retrofit store entrances in the future. Clearly, street-fronted entrances will go almost entire unused for quite some time. However, should the intersection become more pedestrian oriented in the future, it seems that the building is positioned in such a way that it could easily pop in street facing doors. Therefore, the current proposal sounds like a great compromise to me.

  18. it would be easier to convince the private sector if policies are in place to allow for incremental retrofit. Thus municipalities should starts with new tools. Once the policies are in place, and building placement start to change, streets can change later, i.e. to allow for parking alongside the curb. Street frontages would not work well without convenient parking nearby. Hence streets need not change first, but at least be allowed to change by adoption of new policies.

    However if the private sector is willing to start on the right foot without prompting, the gvt should not discourage it just because it doesn’t fit the ordinance.


  1. […] to a form-based code for the full jurisdiction, they would have also needed to come up with the funds required to retrofit their intended A-Grid into walkable streets in order to make the new buildings’ zero-foot […]

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