Letting go of Suburbia

This week, Strong Towns' members and readers respond to the questions: Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia/big box stores, or would we be better off abandoning underused suburban spaces? How might we go about retrofitting big box stores for future use?

Here's Strong Towns member, Nathan Lewis's answer.

All of today’s existing “suburbia” cannot and will not be “retrofitted” to a substantially different model of development. The basic reason is density: At the typical 1,000-3,000 people per square mile density of suburbia today, to upgrade to 20,000-30,000 people per square mile (which can be easily achieved, even with single-family detached housing, in the model of Japanese “suburbs”), would obviously imply a 10x increase in population. This may actually be the course of evolution for some cities, but likely not for most US suburbs.

In order for retrofit to work, the developer must be able to buy the land, cover all construction costs, and sell or lease the result at a decent profit.

Some small portion of suburbia – probably that portion nearest to some amenity like a beach or train station – can and should be upgraded to a substantially different pattern. Most of suburbia will be left as it is, perhaps with some minor tweaks like dedicated bike lanes. The least desirable parts of existing suburbia will likely follow a path of underuse, vacancy, deterioration of structures from lack of maintenance, and eventual demolition.

The economics are simple: the developer must be able to buy the land, cover all construction costs, and sell or lease the result at a decent profit.

Thus, the most likely way forward is to concentrate on that 5% or so of suburban areas where there would be demand for a much denser form of development – probably, near beaches and existing train networks, or neighborhoods perceived as “desirable.” This usually means, in practical terms, that they have good schools, low crime, and shared community values.

It also tends to mean higher incomes and a pattern of development (single-family homes with minimum lot sizes) that imply high housing costs. This naturally leads to a demand for a lower-cost housing alternative within these more-desirable neighborhoods. Whether it is a $300K multifamily condo in a neighborhood of $900K detached houses, or a $100K cottage in a neighborhood of $300K detached houses, cheaper and commonly higher-density forms are desired, even as nearby places perceived as “bad neighborhoods” are shunned at any price.

In these neighborhoods, a political concession to higher-density forms might be made along commercial avenues, now dominated by a low-density “strip mall” retail pattern. These locations are seen as less desirable due to traffic noise, and thus potentially suited to lower-cost housing alternatives. Also, worries about traffic/parking problems following multifamily development are mitigated by the direct access to high-capacity roadways. Higher-density development along commercial avenues does not alter the character of existing low-density detached housing neighborhoods. This is a prime opportunity for conversion from a low-density “strip mall” or “big box retail” pattern to a higher-density residential/commercial pattern reflective of traditional modes of urban design.

Realistic Ideas for Retrofit

Retail property, including “big box” retail, is arguably overbuilt in the U.S. today. Especially as more retail moves to the Internet, the United State's vast amount of retail space per person will likely become increasingly underused and finally fall vacant. The United States now has 23.6 square feet of retail space per person, compared to 3.8 square feet in the U.K. and 2.4 square feet in Germany (source).

Deferred maintenance and the gradual aging of these buildings will eventually lead to a decision to tear them down.

The actual buildings of a typical “strip mall” or “big box” store center have little value after their retail purpose has passed. Although there is probably some enthusiasm for things like an indoor farmers’ market or skateboard parks, the fact of the matter is that people’s willingness to pay for such things is probably rather limited. It might be difficult to raise even enough money for modest property taxes and basic maintenance, even if one got the buildings for free. These uses are, in effect, a sort of government-sanctioned squatting. This is fine for a while, until there is a need for a $100,000 roof repair. Deferred maintenance and the gradual aging of these buildings will eventually lead to a decision to tear them down and turn the sites into open lots.

However, in places where land values are high, reflecting demand for new housing or commercial properties, then the existing buildings – which have a short lifespan in any case – would most likely be demolished, along with parking lots and any other existing elements, and the site rebuilt completely. These would probably be sites where retail vacancy is not a problem – the buildings are occupied -- but where the land could be put to much higher use.

Big-box centers represent a prime source of large blocks of land in urban areas, blocks large enough that one can design entire new neighborhoods and street systems. Many shopping centers represent contiguous land plots of 30-100 acres, which are rare in already-developed environments.  

Others have made interesting observations about what could be done with existing large sites. For example, here is a 151-acre airport site (from Andrew Price):

Here is the same site with a portion of Barcelona, Spain superimposed:

Here is a big-box shopping complex in Binghamton, NY. It is approximately 93 acres in size:

This is a portion of Paris, France, of approximately the same scale:

At the street level, this traditional development pattern can look something like this example from Meersburg, Germany:

You could do something with more of a highrise theme, like this project in Osaka, Japan:

A common format for lower-cost housing today, in the U.S., is the “trailer park,” or “manufactured housing.” While the structures are commonly very dismal, thus giving this pattern its present poor reputation, this does not have to be the case.

Very elegant and respectable homes could be constructed using this pattern for a cost of under $100,000 each. However, they would be rather small “cottages,” such as this neighborhood in Martha’s Vineyard, MA:

So, whether people decide to pursue very high-density highrise development, compact single-family detached residential designs, or something in between, many solutions are available that can produce attractive neighborhoods, that can also be much more affordable than existing options, and highly profitable for developers.

Much the same process can be applied to other large blocks of urban land. This could include underused industrial sections, or also, increasingly common today, land freed up by the teardown of existing freeway structures. This proposal for a freeway teardown and urban rebuild in Dallas, TX comes from the Texas Department of Transportation:

Only about 2% of a city’s land area can be rebuilt in any one year. That might not seem like much, but over ten years, 20% of a city’s land area can be rebuilt in a much more pleasing and productive pattern than today’s “suburbia.” The best way to access the resources necessary for such a rebuild – hundreds of billions of dollars – is to fully embrace the profit motive. Make redevelopment as profitable as possible, while also guiding the result toward urban forms that have been proven to produce wonderful and beloved places for human habitation and use.

(All photos from Google Maps or courtesy of Nathan Lewis. Top photo source: Blake Wheeler)

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About the Author

Nathan Lewis discusses the Traditional City, and other urban design issues, at newworldeconomics.com. His writing is can be viewed here