Suburban municipalities are using mixed-use planning and the classic walkable urban street grid to create lively new downtowns.
IN RECENT YEARS, real estate investors and developers have been seeing increased market demand for suburban projects with an “urban feel.” Suburban governments are adopting new goals for urban-style redevelopment featuring urban streetscapes and public spaces. This is not just a design goal favored by theorists; it’s the market talking. The result can be faster absorption, higher occupancy and higher rents, particularly for new office space.
Urban development in the suburbs calls for a mixed-use, mid- to high-rise approach. It means walkable sidewalks that create a stronger feeling of community, as well as retail and office storefronts and buildings that help shape this kind of rich and lively public realm, an 18-hour-a-day scene. “Walkable” means more than just walking to your car; it means compact, dense, inviting development. Locations already accessible by transit and those that are transit-ready are ideal for this type of redevelopment. Walkable and transit-served design also reduces parking requirements. While the costs of mechanical systems in mixed-use buildings typically are higher than those in single-use structures, the suburban shift to taller buildings should result in lower costs per resident, employee or customer. A longer-lived building and a different value proposition may justify higher initial costs. A more durable, sustainable building may, in turn, help improve an owner or tenant’s brand image. Private and public spaces become more distinctive and lasting. As employees, residents, shoppers and visitors identify more with these places, this too enhances community engagement.
Several suburban downtown initiatives offer examples of this new approach to suburban redevelopment.
A Pioneering Texas Suburb
Addison, a close-in northern suburb of Dallas, represented ordinary edge-city sprawl in 1992, with a busy general aviation airport occupying a quarter of the city’s land area, a resident population of only 5,000, and 100,000 workers who drove to Addison’s office district each day. It was the opposite of a bedroom suburb.
Addison Circle’s narrow, tree-lined mews streets — similar to alleys except that residences face toward them, rather than away — calm traffic and provide both vehicular and pedestrian access.
Courtesy of Town of Addison
Addison had substantial property tax income from the office development but little in the way of a center or community. A planning committee of citizens and elected officials took it upon themselves to develop a vision for a central business district, “an urban location that would become the identity of Addison, represent the city and be a key part of its brand,” explains Orlando Campos, Addison’s director of economic development and tourism. The group perceived that there was a market for apartments that would add permanent residents to the new downtown and help make it an 18-hour neighborhood. The city selected an 80-acre site, later expanded to 124 acres, as a place to build a coherent core for the community, to be named Addison Circle.
Addison retained RTKL Architects (now part of CallisonRTKL) to develop graphics portraying a new downtown. “The staff then began trying to sell the idea to developers,” according to a chronology by the late Carmen Moran, the city’s former director of development services. Robert Shaw (then CEO of Columbus Realty Trust), RTKL and Moran’s staff wrote new zoning rules and designed the first phase of Addison Circle and the necessary infrastructure.
The city’s approach was to make relatively large investments in infrastructure and sidewalk furniture and to develop a grid of streets with a dense, mixed-use, walkable design offering landscaping, parks and public art. The development office’s view was that a walkable streetscape not only would respond to the market, but also would make for a more secure and comfortable environment. The traffic circle itself was the Dallas region’s first to be built in decades.
Other notable elements of the design include all above-grade parking and, in some locations, narrow, traffic-calmed streets that provide both pedestrian and vehicular access. These “mews” take some traffic off the city’s wider streets.
Shaw and Art Lomenick, pioneers in bringing walkable mixed-use products to the Dallas market, led the early development effort at Addison Circle when they both were at Columbus Realty Trust and, later, at Post Properties after Post acquired Columbus. These two firms delivered, between 1996 and 1999, 1,334 multifamily units, 86 condominiums and six townhomes, as well as 75,000 square feet of retail space and 340,000 square feet of office space. Other companies involved in developing Addison Circle include Aventura, Behringer, CityHomes, David Weekley Homes, Savannah, Fairfield Residential, Gaylord Trust, Opus West and SNK.
Addison Circle started as a vacant tract but now has over 2,400 residences, ranging from brownstone row houses to rental apartments and condominiums. Residential demand is high, according to the city, and more multifamily properties are under construction. The new downtown also has 625,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail space, including eight dining venues and seven nearby hotels. There is almost no more land available for development.
The master plan for Addison Circle called for a grid of streets with a dense, mixed-use, walkable design featuring landscaping, parks and public art. The new downtown, which is almost built out, now has over 2,400 residences as well as 625,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail space.
Courtesy of Town of Addison, RTKL
The tallest building to date is 10 stories, but the zoning regime places no restrictions on height. Campos adds that “The walkable environment certainly makes leasing office space in the area much easier. More and more companies are searching for the ultimate live, work, play environment. The two largest office buildings in the neighborhood include Addison Circle One (294,000 square feet), which is 95 percent leased, and Addison Circle Two (200,000 square feet), which is 100 percent leased. Retail vacancies are at record lows.”
Addison Circle has a Dallas commuter park-and-ride bus station, and the region has preserved a legacy rail line adjoining Addison Circle for future light rail service. Rail transit has recently become a concern, however. While Addison has contributed to Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART, the region’s rail transit authority) for decades and even built a station for the expected rail service, the transit authority recently announced that it would not be able to extend light rail to Addison until 2035 or later. Campos says that Addison Circle is the most-talked about rail TOD new downtown in America that has yet to be served by rail transit.
The success of the new community has helped attract new employers to Addison, and has resulted in more mixed-use development in the region. Campos singles out, as an example, another new high-rise Addison neighborhood, Vetruvian Park, which is being developed on the site of an old garden apartment project about a mile from Addison Circle.
The Trend Continues in Colorado
Colorado’s first form-based planning code requires ground-floor retail space along parcels fronting Downtown Westminster’s primary north-south street to create a commercial Main Street experience.
Torti Gallas and Partners
Westminster, with about 113,000 residents, is a suburb northwest of Denver, about halfway to Boulder. Much of the city stretches along a multilane freeway, U.S. 36. The community, which has views of the Front Range, was the home of Westminster Mall, a 105-acre regional shopping center that had struggled since the late 1990s. As the mall’s properties and sales declined, the city, led by the mayor and the city council, decided it wanted a “true downtown, an authentic residential, employment and civic center,” in the words of Sarah Nurmela, real estate and development manager for Westminster.
Seeking a variety of uses, affordability and building styles, the city started working with a series of master developers in 2008, but eventually decided to supervise the project itself. Westminster then took the noteworthy step of buying the mall for $29 million and becoming the master planner and horizontal developer. The city spent several years on community visioning and consensus-building efforts to build support for this approach and for the project, now called Downtown Westminster, which has been planned as the next urban center in Colorado’s Front Range area.
Eventually, the city retained Torti Gallas and Partners for urban design assistance and code development. Neal Payton, FAIA, a principal with Torti Gallas, recalls that city officials made it clear that “They did not want a formulaic redevelopment. They wanted design character.”
In 2012, the city adopted a form-based planning code for the project that “determines the character of the streets and controls the building elements that frame the public spaces but, for the most part, not the uses,” Payton explains. “The exception is that ground-floor retail is required along parcels fronting the primary north-south street in order to create a commercial Main Street feel. As the market evolves, there will be flexibility about which uses to put on which parcels.” The new code allows the city to designate a district and then be flexible about the mix of uses and design while establishing the framework of infrastructure and urban form.
The specific plan sets the streets’ locations, sizes and specifications and requires that they connect to streets in adjacent neighborhoods. As the master developer, the city is building all of the streets. The new community will offer walkable, landscaped streetscapes and four parks of various sizes. Development goals include approximately 2 million square feet of hotel, office and retail space, and as many as 2,300 dwelling units, up to 20 percent of which will be affordable or workforce housing.
The master plan for Downtown Westminster requires a grid of blocks ranging from one-and-a-half to three acres, with larger blocks divided by alleys. The new community will include hotel, office and retail space, as well as up to 2,300 residences.
City of Westminster
Demolition left several existing businesses surrounded by the new construction. Site preparation and infrastructure improvements are underway now, and the city is in negotiations or under contract with multiple developers for the first six blocks, which make up about one-fifth of the site. Westminster is now the landlord for three remaining mall tenants: J.C. Penney Co., Olive Garden and U.S. Bank. The city has renegotiated Penney’s lease; the chain is investing $3 million in renovations and is “excited to be a part of the new downtown,” adds Nurmela.
Construction of the first phase of development is scheduled to start in 2016. Most of the buildings now on the drawing boards top out at five or six stories, but the city places no height limits on commercial buildings. Minimum floor-to-area ratios (FARs) will eliminate surface parking except on the enclosed legacy business parcels. The design shifts loading away from main streets to side streets and alleys, reducing curb cuts in the main pedestrian spaces and streetfronts.
A park-and-ride bus rapid transit station served by over 500 buses a day sits at the east side of the development, and the site has links to regional bike trails. Denver’s regional FasTracks system plans to locate a commuter rail station on the southwest corner of the site. The system expansion, however, is limited by a funding formula, and rail service may not arrive until the 2040s, although Westminster is working to make it happen earlier. Almost the entire project is within a half-mile walk of one or both of these stations. Rail service to a station about three miles south of the development started in summer 2016; the planned Downtown Westminster station will be the next station on the line.
Residential demand is strong in the Denver region, particularly among millennials looking for condominiums and townhomes. The market has, Nurmela adds, an “incredibly strong” appetite for rental housing. She reports that Westminster is also seeing “retirees and empty nesters with a desire for walkable and urban neighborhoods that offer a full range of retail and services. People just don’t want to be tied to their cars.”
Westminster is also seeing growing interest in midsize (10,000- to 50,000-square-foot) office suites, as well as demand for larger office suites in the U.S. 36 corridor, from technology, health care, energy and other types of firms. The city is concentrating on creating a cohesive mix of uses in the first phase, including residential units, midsize office suites and ground-floor retail space. Projects underway now include Alamo Drafthouse, which is developing its own retail space, as well as Grid Collaborative Workspace (a co-working center) and Solera Salon (which rents private suites to beauty professionals), both of which are being built by developer Danny Needham. Sherman Associates is building 520 midrise rental apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail space. Nurmela reports that Westminster’s market studies indicate that the site could easily absorb at least 750,000 square feet of retail uses. Later phases will offer larger office suites and hotels as well as additional residential and retail development.
Coming Soon in Dublin, Ohio
Situated about 15 miles northwest of Columbus, Ohio, straddling Columbus’ beltway, the 25-square-mile city of Dublin has a historic small downtown on the west bank of the Scioto River and 43,000 residents, up from just 681 in 1970. Those residents enjoy a median household income of $114,000, over twice the national figure.
Dublin was proactive in encouraging the development of Class A office parks in the 1990s and earlier, and has been very successful. The city is home to a number of large headquarters and other offices, including Nationwide Insurance, Cardinal Health, Ashland Inc., OCLC and Wendy’s. In the past decade, as many as 60,000 people have been employed in Dublin, 75 percent of whom commute from elsewhere in the region.
Recognizing that employees’, employers’ and residents’ preferences for places to live and work were changing, in 2008 Dublin’s mayor and council started an effort to create a new plan for the center of the community. The city engaged Boston-based Goody Clancy to develop a “Main Street” case statement and a new vision for downtown Dublin. After many discussions with local developers and major property owners, as well as a public education campaign, the city council adopted both by 2010.
According to Ben Carlson, director of urban design at Goody Clancy, the Dublin government “had a clear emphasis on economic development and an awareness of new markets. They kept a focus on preserving Dublin’s traditional downtown, but they also commissioned analyses of where today’s college graduates wanted to settle, where top-quality employees wanted to live and what the market was likely to be for various kinds of housing. The city had an insight that walkable mixed-use redevelopment was part of the answer.” The council then created a new form-based zoning code, which was adopted in 2012.
Dublin is in a smaller metropolitan area than Addison and Westminster, and is focusing on the center of the existing community rather than an undeveloped or razed tract. It began, however, with a much larger (1,100-acre) footprint and a recreational advantage: the river and adjacent parkland. The town also, according to Kaid Benfield, a sustainable-design advocate who has praised Dublin’s plans, has “large tracts under single ownership, and owners looking for higher and better uses for their properties.” OCLC, for example, which controls a parcel almost as large as Addison Circle or Downtown Westminster, has been interested in starting new construction via joint ventures with development firms and has retained Atlanta-based Cooper Carry to help create a vision for a mixed-use, multi-owner campus.
Though there has been discussion of rail transit for Dublin, this is just an idea for now. But the downtown redevelopment project is well on its way to implementation. The city has allocated over $150 million through 2019 for capital projects such as expanded park facilities that will connect many parts of the planning area, plans for enhanced work-week walkability and bikeability, a landscaped and traffic-tamed circle that will open in 2016 (replacing a congestion-prone major riverside intersection) and design of a new pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the river. The city is financing these projects with an income levy on taxpayers who work in Dublin, both residents and nonresidents.
The redevelopment area, called the Bridge Street District, has at least nine commercial, government and residential buildings or complexes, up to 30 acres in size, in design, underway or completed. All are intended to be compatible with a walkable, mixed-use, denser and more compact downtown. The scope of the city’s vision is ambitious, including up to 19 million square feet of new commercial and residential development, with 8,000 new dwelling units, over more than 30 years.
Dublin city leaders and Carlson believe that housing is a strong driver for other investment, such as retail. “You can lead with walkable residential, including multifamily,” says to Carlson. “With the first wave of new downtown residential redevelopment, you can attract neighborhood retail. It’s not that retail matures more slowly than housing, but typically you need a significant number of housing units to support healthy, growing retail. Even small retail outlets can have a big impact, though, if the retail is clustered in a few blocks. The next step, if it fits into the overall goal, is to see whether you can develop successful destination retail.”
Notable in Dublin’s planning has been an insight into walkable development as an economic stimulus, attracting talented young employees and mature white-collar workers who want to reduce their driving time or bike or walk to work; offering choices to residents who want to stay in Dublin but in a more urban development; and adding value to Dublin’s existing homes, commercial properties and more than 3,000 businesses. The plans call for affordable and workforce housing as well as market-rate units. The focus has been on the needs of Dublin employers and the desires of the employees they seek.
This Ohio story is an example of a clear municipal vision, community support, businesslike approach, use of public-private partnerships, cooperation among governmental entities and smart financing. Dublin is weaving tomorrow’s city streetscapes and redevelopment into the fabric of today’s suburban town.
Westminster is an example of a successful 20th-century suburban community changing to meet the market desires of boomer residents who have become empty nesters and retirees, as well as their children, the millennials, and the businesses that employ these young adults. Addison’s focus was different, since the city had only a few thousand residents at the start of the process, but it led to a similar product.
A 2014 NAIOP Research Foundation report, “Preferred Office Locations,” and a related article in the spring 2016 edition of Real Estate Review, both by Emil Malizia, report that office space in mixed-use walkable suburban centers is enjoying faster absorption, higher occupancy and higher rent levels than comparable space in low-density auto-oriented office corridors or office parks in the same suburban communities. Addison provides solid evidence that demand for walkable new downtown residential and retail development can and will be strong. Westminster also expects this to be true.
The economics can make sense for developers, too. The suburbs have more existing infrastructure than greenfield sites. Foreign investment has driven up prices in city centers. When a potential investor sees an opportunity in a jurisdiction that uses a form-based code rather than conventional single-use zoning, the development process can proceed more flexibly and quickly to design, construction and completion.
Many other suburbs throughout North America are starting to recognize the advantages of a real, albeit compact, walkable mixed-use downtown. A walkable downtown can be good for community branding and for attracting investment and jobs. It can be a way for a suburb to diversify its property tax base and a potential tax bonanza.
Developers, property owners, investors and other municipalities can learn the following lessons from Addison, Dublin and Westminster's experiences:
- Suburban municipalities, which traditionally have been responsive to the needs and wants of residents, should also focus on the needs and desires of employers and the workers these businesses seek. Dublin is an excellent example of a city acting on this insight.
- Suburban redevelopment efforts like these can't be accomplished on a property-by-property basis; they require a master planning effort, with municipal leadership and an understanding of the market.
- Public funding and public-private partnerships also are typically needed to get these types of efforts off the ground.
- Form-based codes may be gaining popularity among municipalities and are particularly well suited for walkable downtown-type development.
- Large, contiguous land parcels, whether former mall sites or abandoned/underused properties, are excellent sources of land for walkable urban development.
- The municipality's role does not need to stop at infrastructure development, as demonstrated in Westminster. Cities can take ownership positions to accelerate development and mitigate risk.