|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?
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:
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.