The First Step of the Suburban Retrofit — Remaking Commercial Corridors

This development pattern could be on its last legs.  Source: geothetics.com

At some point, our nation’s ever-shifting demographics will force our typical suburban communities to adapt if they are to survive.  Instead of upzoning to allow more units in current residential areas — one of the last things I think most suburbs will do — I believe the easy and immediate solution is for suburbs to remake their commercial corridors mixed use corridors.

If there is anything that characterizes conventional suburbia beyond its acres and acres of single-family homes, it is its acres and acres of commercial development.  Shopping malls, strip centers, power centers, big boxes, outlot stores and fast food restaurants all fly by the windows of speeding cars on a daily basis.  Suburban residents, including myself, have become accustomed to the redundant development of suburban commercial arterial roads across the country.  Need evidence?  Here’s one I’m intimately familiar with — Route 59 in DuPage and Will counties, outside Chicago.

The stretch you see outlined here, in green, is a 22-mile long strip bounded by Interstate 88 on the north and Interstate 55 on the south.  It is almost uniformly commercial land use that passes through five communities — Aurora, Naperville, Plainfield, Joliet and Shorewood.

At ground level, this is how the corridor appears at the north end, near I-88:

A couple miles further south, next to Fox Valley Mall:

Here’s a shot in Plainfield:

And lastly, an image in Joliet:

All virtually the same.  The same kind of layout, the same kind of stores, the same kind of roadway, the same kind of parking lots, for 22 miles.  Save for a few areas where it appears floodplains prevented development, or residential subdivisions back up to the roadway, or where vacant lots stand because the Great Recession halted commercial development, this is how the strip looks.

Most of the parcels on route 59 are anywhere from 300 to 600 feet deep by my estimate, surrounded by parking.  And how many people live facing Route 59?

Absolutely none.

There’s an opportunity here for the communities that border Route 59 and other roads like it.  Since the mid-2000s commercial development on roads like these has plateaued, even fallen behind.  Malls are dying.  Major retailers are disappearing.  That puts incredible pressure on suburban communities, who have become heavily reliant on sales tax and property tax revenue generated by commercial development.  Sadly, they compete with each other, and often offer tax breaks and incentives that will likely never pay off for them.

Suburban communities face another pressure as well — changing tastes among younger people, and a lack of housing inventory to appeal to them.  There used to be a time when young twenty-somethings would grab suburban jobs, get married and start families in three-bedroom suburban homes, but now much of that is delayed.  Suburbs were not designed for this new demographic environment, and are slowly sliding back.

Suburban commercial corridors offer an opportunity to do several things.  First, they can re-introduce residential uses, either through directly allowing residential uses along the corridors, or mixed uses.  This can give suburbs a chance to broaden its housing types with little impact on existing single family residential areas.  This also provides an opportunity to create an influx of residents that can support nearby commercial uses that are currently supported exclusively by auto traffic.

Using these basic principles, it’s possible that roads like Route 59 could develop areas like this below, in Seattle’s South Lake Union district:

Source: naiop.org

Cities had to play to their strengths to be able to compete with suburbs over the last couple decades, and are beginning to reap the benefits.  If suburbs are going to remain relevant, they will have to do the same.

7 thoughts on “The First Step of the Suburban Retrofit — Remaking Commercial Corridors

  1. but South Lake Union is minutes and a short walk from many high-paying jobs and a beautiful waterfront. A suburban power center is very rarely proximate to the same amenities.

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  2. Very good point. I don't know much – anything – about Seattle so thanks for your input. I included this development more for illustrative purposes than to demonstrate possibilities for typical suburban commercial corridors, just as I included the Route 59 images above to show what the corridor is like and not where development potential lies.

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  3. Slowly but surely, I'd like to see most of our “stroads” either calmed down into boulevards or upgraded into full highways.

    As for malls dying, I think the primary reason for it is not that people are rejecting malls, but because the United States grossly overbuilt its commercial real estate. It wasn't just residential real estate that was speculative. As I've cited before, the Pittsburgh area was pretty much “ground zero” for dead and dying malls, but now that the commercial real estate market there has found its equilibrium, most of the malls that are left are doing fine. Ross Park Mall, South Hills Village and The Mall At Robinson are thriving too, and even Monroeville Mall is still steady as it goes with nearly full occupancy despite its worsening reputation. And though Century III Mall is moribund, the irony is that the fatal blow came from The Waterfront, which is a retail development closer to the city of Pittsburgh instead of farther out into the exurbs.

    I think another factor with dying malls that's often overlooked is that there are many malls built in areas with populations that are too small to support one. For smaller urban areas, I'd say you have to have at least 250,000 people in a 20-mile radius in order to support a mall, and many malls either don't have that anymore, or never had it in the first place. Those malls will probably die unless they're located in an area of high population growth.

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  4. I'm from Chicagoland (Schaumburg, Arlington Heights). The problem with your proposal is that those areas/developments are so stretched out from each other. One or a few areas might get dense mixed development, sure, but there would still just be a huge discontinuity in the form of Route 59 and mis-planned, sprawling development.

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  5. I wanted to chime in here with the exact same point. Oddly enough I grew up off 59 and recently lived in Seattle and there really is no comparing the two – SLU is not suburban in the least, its just a once-industrial area that now is now home to a little compony called Amazon, obviously a major economic player. It also sits in a very specific position in the city that its development was pretty much inevitable, situated between Belltown, Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne, it only makes sense that mixed-used development would seep in to this ripe population reservoir in the middle of the city. 59 doesn't really have a similar economic player or geographic incentive for development as its pretty much the western boundary line for metro Chicago. As millennial, I don't really know anyone that would want to live further away from the city center unless something crazy like Amazon pushed them out there. Just my two cents! Super interesting topic though! Thanks for sharing.

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  6. I have worked on a makeover of this type of road on behalf of Coon Rapids MN (Coon Rapids Blvd). This commercial corridor in this Minneapolis suburb was made obsolete by newer and larger malls built a few miles to the east. The efforts to revitalize the corridor have been underway for at least 15 years and have required $10's of millions of public funding for acquisition, demolition, and cleanup of blighted properties as well as construction of new public amenities including a community center and ice skating facility. The new amenities are needed to make it plausible for this corridor to be attractive for redevelopment focused on mostly residential use. The multi-decade time frame and magnitude of public investment required in a suburb of Minneapolis with good planning staff underscore the challenge for cities in implementing this type of conversion. I suspect that many if not most suburbs will not be up to the task.

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