The Next Slum?

Monday, March 17th, 2008

The old slum was the inner city. Are our sprawling suburbs the next slum?

Sprawling, large-lot suburbs become less attractive as they become more densely built, but urban areas — especially those well served by public transit — become more appealing as they are filled in and built up. Crowded sidewalks tend to be safe and lively, and bigger crowds can support more shops, restaurants, art galleries.

Of course, developers are trying to produce the best of both worlds:

But developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to newer suburbs — and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life. “Lifestyle centers” — walkable developments that create an urban feel, even when built in previously undeveloped places — are becoming popular with some builders. They feature narrow streets and small storefronts that come up to the sidewalk, mixed in with housing and office space. Parking is mostly hidden underground or in the interior of faux city blocks.

The granddaddy of all lifestyle centers is the Reston Town Center, located between Virginia’s Dulles International Airport and Washington, D.C. Since it opened in 1990, it has become the “downtown” for western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun counties; a place for the kids to see Santa and for teenagers to ice skate. People living in the town can stroll from the movie theater to restaurants and then back home. A 2006 study by the Brookings Institution showed that Reston’s apartments, condominiums, and office and retail space were all commanding about a 50 percent rent or price premium over the typically suburban houses, office parks, and strip malls nearby.

Housing at Belmar, the new “downtown” in Lakewood, Colorado, a middle-income inner suburb of Denver, commands a 60 percent premium per square foot over the single-family homes in the neighborhoods around it. The development covers about 20 small blocks in all. What’s most noteworthy is its history: it was built on the site of a razed mall.

Building lifestyle centers is far more complex than building McMansion developments (or malls). These new, faux-urban centers have many moving parts, and they need to achieve critical mass quickly to attract buyers and retailers. As a result, during the 1990s, lifestyle centers spread slowly. But real-estate developers are gaining more experience with this sort of building, and it is proliferating. Very few, if any, regional malls are being built these days — lifestyle centers are going up instead.

Lifestyle center may be an even worse term than sport utility vehicle.

Perhaps subtle zoning changes and the popularity of such lifestyle centers can sidestep the significant problem that “once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild”:

As conventional suburban lifestyles fall out of fashion and walkable urban alternatives proliferate, what will happen to obsolete large-lot houses? One might imagine culs-de-sac being converted to faux Main Streets, or McMansion developments being bulldozed and reforested or turned into parks. But these sorts of transformations are likely to be rare. Suburbia’s many small parcels of land, held by different owners with different motivations, make the purchase of whole neighborhoods almost unheard-of. Condemnation of single-family housing for “higher and better use” is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years. In any case, the infrastructure supporting large-lot suburban residential areas — roads, sewer and water lines — cannot support the dense development that urbanization would require, and is not easy to upgrade.

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