Suburban Retrofit — As Easy As 1-2-3

View from downtown Silver Spring, MD. Source: (Note: thanks to jcortright for setting me straight on the earlier photo.)

Anybody who’s visited this blog has seen posts that speak to our nation being at a critical point in our development history.  I’ve said before that we’ve probably left the Auto Era that defined the way we’ve developed cities and suburbs over the last 60 years, and something new will emerge.  I’ve commented on how we could view the upcoming decades as the Great Congealing, as distinctions between city and suburb begin to disappear.  Certainly we’ve seen growing evidence that a growing number of people are expressing preferences for city living, and in places city growth is outpacing suburban growth for the first time in nearly a century.  But what I haven’t done is articulate a way that, a least on the suburban side of things, changes could be made that will begin to blur the current city/suburb distinction.  Here’s a simple prescription that could set suburbs on the retrofitting path.

First, let’s define some of the challenges that impact the burbs.  There are many, to be sure.  Here, however, I’ll outline three that have broad application to a great many suburbs:

  • Lack of housing diversity.  One of the outcomes of the housing crisis and the Great Recession is that communities that were reliant on large percentages of single-family detached housing, without much in the way of other types, were particularly hard-hit by foreclosures.  Many communities that had a balance of housing types have been quicker to recover, and more residents are looking at rental as an option instead of homeownership.  Most conventional suburbs have yet to limit their exposure on this front.
  • Jobs/housing imbalance.  For decades, few people cared how far their work was from their home, as long as gas was cheap and traffic was clear.  But now people are expressing greater interest in being closer to their place of work — and that puts many traditional “bedroom suburbs” at a distinct disadvantage.
  • Empty and underperforming commercial areas.  As homebuyers moved further out, retailers moved right along with them.  Suburban municipalities were happy to welcome them to town, with the promise of sales and property tax revenues.  However, we’ve since found that we’ve overbuilt for our commercial needs, and we’re stuck with half-empty strip malls, or completely empty greyfields.  They are becoming an increasing challenge for suburbs.
What could suburbs do that could address these challenges, and prepare them for more transformations in future decades?  I offer three immediate retrofit solutions.  Implementing them will require that suburban leaders begin to view their communities in a different way:
  • Allow an accessory housing unit within a suburb’s single-family detached zoning district.  Multigenerational housing is becoming the norm in nearly all communities, with adult children and aging seniors both moving in with previously empty nesters.  Allowing an accessory unit can add units without greatly altering the conventional suburban landscape.
  • Create mixed use districts along arterial commercial corridors.  Many suburbs are plagued with arterial roads that have waves of commercial development, often with vacancies.  In many cases, commercial uses simply aren’t going to come back.  Allowing residential uses to mix with commercial uses on the interior parts of such corridors can eliminate blight and also add to the supply of rental units.  A related benefit — concentrating commercial uses while adding residents will create vitality where none previously existed.  
  • Convert greyfields through residential redevelopment.  Related to the point above, it’s clear that many power centers or regional malls will never return.  Converting them to residential uses can introduce other housing types, such as townhouses or mid-rise condos, that were often missing in many suburbs.
How would the implementation of such strategies impact a typical suburb?
Let’s imagine a conventional, low-density suburb of 35,000.  Its housing profile might look something like this:
Nothing special about its profile; it’s typical of many suburbs around the country.  Now, if we employ the above strategies, and make some assumptions, here’s a possible scenario for changes in the profile:
And employing these modest estimates over a five-year timeframe might produce a suburb whose profile looks now like this, assuming no other development changes at all:
With just these simple changes we find that 1) overall density increases by 28 percent; 2) the number of dwelling units per acre increases by 36 percent; and 3) the percentage of single family detached units decreases by eight percent.
Again, this is just an illustrative example.  There are many factors that could effect possible future growth in the suburbs.
But what if a handful of suburbs in a given metro area take similar measures?  Doing so would go a long way toward preparing them for the way we think Americans will live in the future.  And suburban leaders have this kind of change totally within their grasp.

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