American suburbs can be developed into more walkable, sustainable places to rival urban ones and potentially satisfy the changing needs of all generations, panelists said at the 2016 ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas.
“Suburb does not have to be viewed as a dirty word, because it’s not,” said Adam F. Ducker, managing director of urban real estate at RCLCO, a real estate advisory firm based in Washington, D.C.
Ducker noted that a significant portion of the nation’s job and population growth in recent years has been centered in suburban locations rather than in downtown districts.
The challenge of creating high-quality development in the greenfields on the edge of metropolitan areas offers the opportunity to work and plan with a clean canvas, the panelists said.
Too often, developers and homebuilders who want to achieve a low price point for single-family homes cut corners by building communities without sidewalks, streetlights, or adequate shade trees, said Texas-based developer Frank Bliss, president of Cooper & Stebbins. Municipal governments must be involved at the beginning to ensure that new communities have the basic infrastructure of walkable environments, said Bliss, whose firm developed the 130-acre (53 ha) Southlake Town Square in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
At the same time, greenfield development in distant suburbs produces transportation issues, which are costly to address, said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, an affordable housing organization in Hayward, California.
“You can’t have greenfield development without thinking about transportation,” Mandolini said. Long daily commutes taking more than an hour are commonplace in California as suburban dwellers move farther out to secure affordable housing.
Change is also filtering into the housing stock of suburbs, where the monolithic presence of single-family units has dominated for decades.
Baby-boomer suburbanites are relocating their aging parents to suburbs in order to provide oversight and care for them, Mandolini says. In many places, homebuilders have been slow to create housing designed to accommodate multigenerational households, although the practice of multigenerational living is centuries old. “I don’t know why we are allergic to it all of a sudden,” Mandolini said.
Suburban growth is counterbalanced by a trend that is bringing people back to urban communities. Some of the aging suburban baby boomers are moving back to urban areas after they become empty nesters and find that their large suburban homes are no longer appealing or affordable.
“There is a big move-down demand,” said multifamily developer Anthony Greenberg of JBG Companies in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He noted that his firm recently adjusted the mix of units in a new infill multifamily community, adding more two-bedroom units to appeal to this baby-boomer move-down market.
Many developers are seeking the housing product that appeals in particular to millennials, Greenberg said. Accumulating enough cash for a downpayment to buy a home remains a hurdle for them, even though their income may be sufficient to handle the monthly payments.
Jobs, office space, and urban-like density have arisen in the “suburban downtown” communities in places such as Tysons Corner in northern Virginia and Walnut Creek, California, panelists noted. Office buildings in the suburban downtowns—walkable places with retailers, restaurants, and transit offerings—have attracted the attention of institutional investors. Suburban office buildings not located in a walkable suburban downtown are not favored by major investors, according to the Emerging Trends in Real Estate® 2017 report released at the Fall Meeting by ULI and PwC.
Although they may have a certain amount of density and may be walkable, the nation’s new suburban downtowns will not completely mirror the urban core of older cities, Bliss said. Different development patterns arose following creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, he noted, which led to expansion of automobile use and suburban growth. The new suburban downtowns will exude an urban feel, however, even though they may lack many qualities of established cities.
The suburbs are evolving, according to the panelists. Whether it is through new product types, demographic patterns, or the nation’s solutions to sustainability questions, U.S. suburbs will gradually look more like urban cores in the decades to come, the speakers agreed.