A panel of experts speaking at a ULI Washington event said that thriving suburbs will continue to become more walkable and dense where appropriate, with fewer big-box stores surrounded by parking lots.
Larry Hentz is a business development specialist with the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation (EDC). He noted that the county has selected five areas around five Metro stops in the county to densify—a plan that has been in the works for years but one which seems to finally be moving forward. Hentz added that he is hoping to see more sidewalks and bike trails included in redevelopment plans, and that the county parks and planning agency is “committed to having walkable, sustainable communities.” He added that the EDC has gotten creative with incentives to encourage sustainable, walkable development.
For example, the county found that the multifamily buildings sprouting up around the five Metro stations were being filled by empty nesters, not millennials. This tracks with what trendwatchers are seeing nationally—said co-panelist Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of Georgia Tech’s master’s program in urban design. “Two-thirds of suburban households don’t have kids in them.” The EDC worked with the county to eliminate the county’s schools tax on new multifamily development in certain areas. The EDC has also made sure the county is an anchor tenant in multiple new office developments, like the renovated Iverson Mall, which was rebuilt to include 100,000 square feet (9,300 sq m) of office space (15,000 square feet [1,400 sq m] of which were taken up by the county’s workforce services office).
Panelists also addressed converting office to residential, which is often harder than it sounds. Office buildings are typically built to different dimensions than residential, so converting them costs a lot of money and often is not feasible. Instead, Dunham-Jones said, office parks are trying to reinvent themselves while retaining the office use. She cited the example of Technology Park in Atlanta, which transformed from a car-centric office park to a walkable, connected office neighborhood. The park already had existing trails for office workers to use during lunch, but it recently opened its trails to the public and is working to connect them to the city of Atlanta’s bike network.
Dunham-Jones also spoke to the trend of “anticipatory retrofitting” in the burbs or building suburban sprawl with the idea of being able to later urbanize it without hassle. For example, she said, one could build a big-box store with a parking lot, but “don’t let them put the sewer hookup diagonally under the parking lot” so the lot can later become housing. “I’m seeing that . . . in those markets where there isn’t yet a strong enough market for the critical mass of walkable urbanism, but there’s an expectation that it’s going to continue to grow.”
While none of the panelists has a crystal ball, they did speak to other expectations of the future. Mike Majestic, partner at Willard Retail, said that suburbs may benefit from the self-driving-car revolution. “People may want to have more space, and now they can get out farther without additional downtime,” he said.
Self-driving cars also have the potential to double the capacity of existing parking garages, which could be a boon for urban areas. Dunham-Jones explains that if a car can park itself, it doesn’t need space for the driver to be able to open the door and get in. It doesn’t need room for a human to be able to open the trunk, either. “You can pack twice as many cars into existing garages,” she says.
Self-driving cars, of course, could also enable sprawl. “I would love to see more zoning . . . at the edges of metro areas that did not allow us to continue to build more sprawl,” Dunham-Jones said. Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, are experimenting with this, but to approach the sprawl issue regionally is more difficult, she added.