The Ring of Opportunity

Summer 2012

The Middle Ring suburbs (also referred to as the “Inner Ring”) are a category of older suburbs, caught between downtowns and (at least until the real estate crisis) the well-off exurbs and outlying suburbs.

Their socio-economic decline during the past 40 years has been documented as investment went to downtown centers and exurbs. The real estate crisis has shaved values in the exurbs by 20-40 percent, even in East Coast cities, while Middle Ring suburbs have retained their value remarkably well. Today, the Middle Ring suburbs may have become an area of opportunity for re-investment.

The basic premise for the NAIOP Research Foundation study, “A Development Model for the Middle Ring Suburbs” is to depart from the development model usually associated with downtowns and exurbs. The report overviews a new development model for the Middle Ring by analyzing its demographic and situational characteristics, as well as its strengths and weaknesses for development. It concludes by outlining the steps to be taken for development site selection and proposes a model to be implemented in such sites.

A series of interviews with real estate developers, brokers, bankers and government officials in Boston was conducted to gain insight into investment strategies in the Middle Ring. Twelve case studies were used, three of which are actual development projects being planned. Through a series of mapping exercises that use U.S. Census data, Geographic Information System (GIS) maps and aerial photographs, “Zones of Opportunity” were created. These zones were established through specific inputs deemed relevant based on situational criteria, which vary according to region or city specific issues, development types and desired mixed-use combinations. As the number of parameters to be met increases, the number of opportunity zones decreases. This systematic approach provides a technique to identify development prospects that may have been otherwise lost.

The proposed model (see Figure 1) is based on the following elements:

Programmatic and Spatial Entities

  • Ethnic Cuisine/Restaurants – At least three restaurants offering a variety of cuisine should be located in a same district, although five or more would be ideal. Seeing a variety of options concentrated in a same space helps create the sense of an urban meeting area.
  • Well Defined Public Space/Farmer’s Market – This space can be either outdoors or indoors, under a roof or inside a big box. It is crucial that it be visible as a civic area – a value-adding event located in a clear, simple space.
  • Well Defined Indoor Community Space/Art Center – An existing building or warehouse that, with minimal refurbishments, can be set up with immediate visibility.
  • Parking for the Transfer Station – The parking lot must be multi-functional and it should be reusable as other types of buildings. A lot that is no taller than three stories with office space above it is proposed.
  • Commuter Rail Access as Public Space – A public space that is directly connected to the path leading to the parking spaces and the street.
  • Suburban Mall Brands – These buildings need not be extremely visible at key spaces such as the center of the development, nor should they be grouped as subunits. The retail big boxes (with an increasing warehouse component) could be stacked over two stories tall, as their proximity to the commuter line station implies that their space will be limited.

Economic Engines

  • Lofts and Light Industrial Warehouses – These could be buildings that have been effectively converted for other uses.
  • High Quality Residential Space – Constituted by about 30-50 percent condominiums and 50-70 percent walkups and townhouses.
  • Office Space – Built over parking garages or constituted by transformed parking garages.

Typological Upgrades 

  • Remove Truck Traffic from Selected Areas – Redesign the streets to have significantly reduced sections.
  • Space Between Parking and Commuter Rail – Walking paths run through the city to promote retail exploitation.
  • Parking Structures with Conversion Options – To develop the land without sacrificing parking capacity, use buildings as parking structures first and develop them into offices or residential space later.

As the demographic and physical landscape of U.S. cities evolves, developers may look toward a new model to identify valuable development opportunities in the Middle Ring. 

For the full NAIOP Research Foundation report and accompanying Appendices, visit