At ULI’s 2016 Spring Meeting in Philadelphia, three developers explained how increasingly crowded downtown markets are driving denser waterfront projects at marginally built-out sites in inner-ring suburbs. As Jim Tinson, CEO of Hart Howerton, said, his company was honing innovative ways “to unlock the waterfront’s potential.”

Tinson’s company is working to transform a brownfield with sweeping views of the Tappan Zee Bridge into a mixed-use, urban development driven by transit access.

“We speak in terms of time and access as opposed to distance. We looked at public transit access speed to downtown Manhattan. This site is 25 miles [40 km] from midtown,” he said. “When you think that I can hop on a train there and get to midtown faster than some parts of Brooklyn, that helps you identify your market.”

In addition to proximity to urban centers, all three projects share a similar philosophy of building dense, mixed-use developments that incorporate significant public space and are aimed at a broad, multigenerational group of buyers.

“We thought about the grandparents [who] want to live near their families and their grandkids [who] want to walk to get an ice cream,” said Gonzalo Echeverria Hailey-Harris, principal at LRK Inc., which is redeveloping a 45-acre (18 ha) industrial site 15 miles (24 km) upriver from downtown Philadelphia, near local commuter train stations and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Echeverria said his company took thousands of photos of historically successful waterfront communities like Alexandria, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, and used three-dimensional modeling to lay out an innovative 605-unit, mixed-use site plan that includes an eight-acre (3.2 ha) public park and trail.

Public infrastructure is also key to a project in Long Beach, California, that will redevelop the site around the historic Queen Mary, a world-famous cruise ship moored not far from downtown Los Angeles, today mostly surrounded by parking. Steven Upchurch, principal at Gensier, which designed the new site plan, centered the development around a public boardwalk, a plaza, and new marina uses.

“Open space is key to any waterfront development,” Upchurch said. “We wanted to have uninterrupted views of the ship from any point on the site.”

The ship itself will be repurposed with new hotel uses. The dockside land, with double that space, will host even more hotel units and commercial uses that emphasize dining and entertainment, designed to play up the current site’s art deco architectural features. Traditional retail, however, has largely been eschewed, a reaction to the increasing glut of retail space nationally.

“The initial vision was that we were going to put 500,000 square feet [46, 500 sq m] of retail on a parking lot,” said Upchurch.

“But we started speaking with the developer . . . and looked at other opportunities and what might be missing in the community. There’s a tremendous amount of retail in downtown Long Beach and we didn’t want to compete with that.”

In each project, creating lively, “authentic” spaces that mimicked the positive qualities of urban areas took precedent over gated single-family waterfront communities of years past.

“You’re developing outside the core, but you want to have those urban qualities while you reclaim the river,” Tinson said.