Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hausmann in the American desert: A visit to the latest installment of exurban urbanism

It appears that exurban urbanism has finally been commoditized.  A model of development once hailed as "new urbanism" has been remodeled to fit market conditions and it is wildly successful all across the country.  

Here is the formula:  a developer buys a massive, far-removed piece of land, builds an outdoor mall with intervening streets and an urban feel but otherwise surrounded by massive parking lots, and puts some housing in the development to boot.  In other words, it is exurban mixed-use development built without strict zoning codes, but under the strict guise of a developer's contractual restrictions on use and CC&Rs that read like a book.  

The forerunners of this development scheme were places like Reston (tagline:  "where outside is in") and Kentlands (DPZ's masterpiece).  Now, this new version is dime-a-dozen.  Witness, a faux-Hausmann era French boulevard development that has sprung up here in a far suburb of Boise, called Eagle, where sage-brush desert can still be found on the horizon.  Dubbed "The Village," the new development boasts all of the hallmarks of this new development scheme I laid out previously plus, for the Christmas season, Frank Sinatra crooning holiday tunes from outdoor speakers.  I have also seen a similar development in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, dubbed "The Greene" and in other exurbs across the country.    

These developments remind me of a passage that stuck with me from a 2010 ULI report called "Housing in America:  The Next Decade."  Here is the passage from that report that, to me, is spot on as to why this new exurban urbanism is flourishing:

Generation Y. There is no precise definition of generation Y, but generally it is made up of people in their late teens to early 30s and accounts for some 83 million people....

They say they want to live in urban areas: a 2008 survey by RCLCO found that 77 percent of generation Y reports wanting to live in an urban core, not in the suburbs where they grew up. They want to be close to each other, to services, to places to meet, and to work, and they would rather walk than drive. They say they are willing to live in a smaller space in order to be able to afford this lifestyle.

The ability of most of this generation to afford urban living will be limited, however, and once they have school-aged children, they will look for good public schools. To find them, they will either work to improve the schools in the cities in which they live, which will make a great contribution to those cities, or they will move to the suburbs, as generations before them have. However, they may move to the older, closer-in, and less expensive suburbs or to compact suburban town centers rather than to low-density culs-de-sac of the outer suburbs.

To get members of generation Y to buy their first home, builders will need to offer starter homes in large numbers at low prices—meaning homes that are small, simple, and on small lots, but that are well designed and built to green energy standards. This is hard to do, except in the outer-edge suburbs. For this reason, many young families will look to live in the older, close-in suburbs where prices have fallen or be forced to move to the outer-edge suburbs where home prices are lowest, regardless of the higher cost in dollars and time of long commutes.

This will be a big change from the past, when people moved to the outer suburbs by choice in order to find a newer, bigger home. Over the coming decade, many of those who move to the outer suburbs will do so reluctantly and will miss the sense of community and the amenities they value. In addition, their suburban homes will appreciate in value slowly, if at all, because their major appeal will be their low price.

This provides a major opportunity for developers to create new outer-edge communities with real town centers and urban amenities. Even on the outer edges, a compact, walkable lifestyle that is affordable will be attractive to income-constrained young families, especially if it provides transportation alternatives.

Places like The Village and The Greene are emblematic of this new development scheme aimed at Gen Y that the ULI report so presciently documented.  Today's Gen Y want to live in urban areas, but urban areas are either expensive or require a degree of homesteading most suburban-raised Gen Y'ers find exhausting or intimidating.  Suburbs are unwilling to impose strict mixed-use development codes in many parts of the country because developers tell them they will never work.  Ironically, developers are going to far-flung exurbs to build, from the ground up, exurban cities subject to private regulations.  Go figure!  

Many questions remain.  Can this type of urbanism flourish only with one developer holding all the cards?  Could a public entity ever hope to impose this kind of regulation--or reap this kind of success--at the urban fringe without a single property owner?  And will the Gen Yers that are flocking to these areas feel satisfied with the experience, or will they ultimately feel that this sanitized, distant-from-the-city city, with all its Hausmann-era street lights and faux Parisian grandeur, is lacking something?  Time, and the market, will tell.

For contemplation of exurban urbanism, here are several pictures I took of The Village, here in an exurb of Boise, on a recent foggy day:








Stephen R. Miller


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Great article and insight Steven. As a Millennial whose first home was an small, energy-inefficient, architecturally-boring box in a historic downtown neighborhood, I 100% associate with comments that GEN-Y’ers desire compact, walkable communities. I would never think to live in the suburbs where motorized mobility is a necessity. Which is all the more reason that exurban urbanism is a fascinating development model.

Considering the new-urbanist, walkable elements of The Village however, or of similar, Gen-Y targeted development projects elsewhere such as the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, or Ørestad in Copenhagen, I can’t help but think developers may be missing the mark if they fail to generate authentic street-life in their projects. In these developments in Vegas, Copenhagen and Meridian, developers are providing what they assume the market is demanding: trendy, avant-garde, consumerist living. But what if consumers want the truly authentic urban experience, replete with dirty streets, homeless people and edgy neighborhoods? After all, these are the truly urban places of Seinfeld and Friends where locals hangout, spontaneously interact and where street-life happens.

If one has to drive or take transit to the city fringe to participate in this “walkable” model of development, it severely reduces the ability to be spontaneous there because getting there requires planning and time-budgeting. If there are no mom & pop boutiques and dive bars for hipsters and artists to gentrify, there will be less art and street life. If spontaneity and artistic elements are missing, I see these development ultimately aging into typical, auto-centric suburban living. Which is still a lot better than them aging into abandoned exurban theme parks.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but reflect on how similar your foggy pictures of the Village were to those of an abandoned theme park in China: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/see-chinas-wonderland-an-abandoned-fake-disneyland-photos/2011/12/13/gIQA5vDAsO_blog.html


Posted by: Remington | Dec 18, 2013 9:15:51 AM