Retrofitting Suburbia

EDunham-Jones's picture

Retrofitting anyone?
Retrofitting Suburbia (Wiley & Sons, 2008) has just been released with case studies of redeveloped dead malls, office parks, garden apartment complexes, etc. The book presents the drivers, techniques, and potential pitfalls involved in retrofitting our least sustainable landscapes into more urban and more sustainable places. Just as the big development project for the last fifty years has been the construction of sprawl, the big project of the next fifty years is in retrofitting it.

This book is only the beginning. What are the next steps that CNU and CNUers can take? Where do you see the best opportunities? The biggest hurdles? Suburban retrofits are hybrids - urban streetscapes with suburban parking ratios and populations that are neither as diverse as cities nor as homogenous as suburbs. How do you think they're likely to evolve and what design strategies can accelerate more sustainable patterns of evolution?

For further info, June Williamson and I have set up a Facebook page on Retrofitting Suburbia with details on the lectures and workshops we're offering on the topic.

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For your ears: Retrofitting Suburbia, the MP3

Listen to Ellen Dunham-Jones present findings on suburban retrofits at the September 2007 meeting of CNU Illinois. When she made the presentation, Ellen was well into her research for the book that's now out and showing people that efforts to urbanize suburbia are becoming a major development genre.

And what about Ellen's questions? As she says, most retrofits are hybrids -- tantalizing steps forward but still often flawed and disappointing in places. My local retrofit is the Bayshore Town Center, where I was cheered recently to see the streets and main square serve as the homecoming parade and pep rally site for Nicolet High School. It's in formerly centerless Glendale, WI. But while the interior streets of Bayshore are pleasant enough -- with a local Alterra coffee shop plus Caribou, a number of restaurants with outdoor seating, and an Apple store! -- the perimeter is dominated by parking decks (with a Trader Joe's blessedly holding a main corner of the property). Signs with up-to-the-minute counts of available spaces remind visitors that parking will never ever not-be available, even on the busiest days of the holiday season. Look at these numbers one Saturday morning!

So when and where are we going to see the second-generation retrofits? The projects that increase residential density and use-mix so that more customers arrive on foot and parking becomes less of an obsession? A virtue Kentlands is that the surface parking lot across from the Whole Foods store is designed as an urban block with sidewalks along the edge. Fans of the project say the plan calls for developing this block, probably with a mixed-use building that includes parking. But when will this happen?

By the way, Charter Award winning retrofits Belmar in Lakewood, CO and Rockville Town Square are good enough that they don't cry out for re-retrofits. And Belmar seems to keep extending its reach as more townhomes and condos are added just beyond its edges.

Trying in Tyson's Corner

Speaking of retrofitting suburbia, I awoke on Dec. 11 to this National Public Radio story on "Morning Edition": a discussion of how Tyson's Corner, Va., the prototypical exurb, plans to transform itself into an actual urban place, and a tour of the current version with Christopher Leinberger, who offers this choice sound bite:

This is going to be the model of how we transform King of Prussia, Perimeter Center, Costa Mesa down in Orange County, Calif. ... All of these places are going to be transforming just as you are. But you're going first, which means that you get to pay the dumb tax."

I'm very glad to see this meme spreading into the mainstream.

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