This article appeared in the Fall issue of Urban Land on page 108.

Members of ULI’s Suburban Development and Redevelopment Council (SDRC) discuss the opportunities of suburban development and redevelopment, innovative models for housing, the challenges of integrating a mix of uses, how suburban jurisdictions can foster more development, and other trends.

What makes this a particularly good time to create this council?

Walter Ploskon: The drive to live in urban centers over the past 10 or 15 years has created a great opportunity to reinvent the suburban market to provide a better quality of life. Young people move to the city to find opportunity, get accustomed to urban living, and then start to build their families and look for access, convenience, and educational opportunities that they can’t get in urban cores. There is an enormous opportunity to take everything that we’ve learned from redeveloping urban cores and bring that back to the suburbs.

Richard Gollis: In the last several years, there has been growing interest in development patterns in the inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs of our metro areas. Housing affordability, access to employment, the jobs/housing balance, and transportation issues are at the forefront of discussion and debate. For example, there have been major changes in the role and format of retail space: the obsolescence of aging commercial corridors, the over-retailing of traditional retail centers, and the closure of major department store chains. All these trends point to opportunities for exploring the issues and implications of development in the suburbs.

Steven Kellenberg: Most of us who joined the council found ourselves getting involved in projects that were smaller than a typical master-planned community—500 acres [200 ha] instead of 5,000 acres (2,000 ha), for example—and that were part of the existing infrastructure of a city or metropolitan area, rather than in a greenfield. And some of us were getting involved in large redevelopment projects, 40 to 100 acres [16 to 41 ha], that had a mix of uses. We wanted to be able to talk about the issues of these “mini master-planned communities” and learn from each other. There’s a huge opportunity over the next 20 years to reshape our suburbs and redevelop under-producing retail centers, business parks, and obsolete apartment projects as higher-density communities.

What are today’s homebuyers and renters looking for in suburban living?

(Istockphoto)

Matthew Hopkins: People want the same thing from suburban communities as they do from urban ones: convenience, convenience, convenience. If there’s a daycare place within walking distance of home, that could be more important to a commuting dual-income family than price point, or aesthetics, or even—to some extent—placemaking. If there’s a beautiful park next door, but the residents don’t have a need for that park, then it’s not convenient. The neighborhood goods and services have to meet their actual needs.

Gollis: Affordability is critical, as is access to transportation and walkability to recreation, parks, entertainment, and everyday retail. Ideally, there will be proximity to major employment, but not necessarily. People want an “urban core light” kind of environment—a place that offers a compact mix of uses so they don’t have to rely on the car in the same way that they do in typical suburban environments. Quality schools are always very important as we plan for the next generation of households having kids.

Ploskon: There are the traditional reasons, such as affordability, to move to the suburbs. But there are things that people have gotten accustomed to in city life, like pedestrian access, social opportunities, and athletic amenities. It can be summed up as “convenience and connection”—connection to each other and to the community, including open space and transportation. I think we’ll always have horizontal planned-community environments where the uses are singular. But in some of the closer-in suburbs and competing markets, the density is going vertical. People are more accustomed to sharing amenity spaces. People are more accustomed to different types of architecture—contemporary lifestyle versus a traditional lifestyle. They’re now looking at different housing types from the 1950s and 1960s, like cottage-style housing and small multifamily products organized around courtyards.

What innovative or new housing models in the suburbs are you most excited about?

Kellenberg: High-density detached housing. A large portion of people would still prefer to live in a detached house versus an attached house, and with detached housing, monthly homeowner association dues are much lower. That can make a difference in the price of the home, because when you qualify for a mortgage, you have to take homeowner association fees into account. The question is, how can we achieve levels of density of 18 to 25 dwelling units per acre with detached housing? One answer is townhouses with air gaps of only six inches [15 cm] between each townhouse. Another product is two-story prefabricated housing that can use mobile-home zoning codes and setbacks to allow for an increase in density. The result is a two-story detached home look.

Hopkins: I’m excited about courtyard two-over-two units—they’re going to be the new townhouses. They’re still a nice size for families, but at double the density of townhouses. I like small cottages, including one-and-a-half- or two-acre [0.6 to 0.8 ha] clusters of cottages around green space, with parking at the perimeter, which means the developer doesn’t have to put a lot of dollars into creating alleys. I like large four-bedroom units in garden apartments and podium buildings, where we’re able to provide bedroom-by-bedroom leases for mobile professionals in inner-ring suburbs of places like Washington, D.C., that have a lot of innovation centers and that are lacking cool, affordable, all-inclusive shared housing. Residents get a lockable bathroom and a furnished bedroom, and they can work at Amazon for a few years and not have to buy a bed and a vacuum cleaner. They get a built-in community and share common spaces.

Gollis: What’s most intriguing to me about the suburbs is figuring out how to maintain attainability in pricing while containing development costs. One of the big challenges that we have right now as costs increase is that new developments are delivering smaller units targeted to one- and two-person households. So where do families go? We need to figure out how to create solutions that let families stay in inner-ring suburbs close to employment and along transit corridors so they don’t have to commute an hour or more to work.

What are some of the challenges of integrating a mix of uses into smaller-scale master-planned suburban developments?

Gollis: Public agencies typically require certain levels of density and parking requirements—either too much or not enough of each. Policies ought to consider appropriately scaled and flexible regulation so that projects can get built. In every city where we hold our ULI meetings, the SDRC invites a public-sector official to participate as our guest. We are also actively looking to add council members who are elected officials and professionals in planning, zoning, and entitlement from suburban areas. We need more dialogue with the public sector within these topics.

Hopkins: With mixed-use environments, all the asphalt required for parking becomes a burden. Asphalt is a cost to the developer’s pro forma, but maybe more importantly, it has a real cost to connectivity, walkability, and visual continuity. It is a combination of asphalt and inward-looking architecture that reduces a neighborhood’s ability to synergize its lower-density mix of uses. The challenge is how to knit together a series of small properties in order to create place, whether it’s a suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood, or an office park, or a strip center, or a retail center—how do you make it fun to walk from one use to the next?

Ploskon: It’s hard to find affordable housing, and we need to look for creative ways to solve that—not just at the lowest income levels, but also for the average middle-income individual or family. The average community isn’t comfortable with things that they haven’t seen before, like accessory dwelling units [ADUs] on single lots. But ADUs allow us to densify and make a traditional housing model more affordable. Another challenge is land cost. Everybody has become so accustomed to the potential wealth that land can provide that there are unrealistic expectations about land values. There is an opportunity for a correction to happen, especially in markets with high barriers to entry.

Kellenberg: In a lot of jurisdictions, the planning staff sees higher-density mixed-use development as a panacea that would solve traffic congestion and contribute to placemaking. There is value in high-density mixed use, but it needs to be applied at a surgical level. A single block or two of mixed uses can make a difference, and it can be more manageable. The retail may be a very small percentage of the overall development, but it can have a disproportionately positive impact on placemaking and character creation. One example of this approach is Verrado, a master-planned community in Buckeye, Arizona. The developer, DMB Associates, created just one block of mixed use, with 40 apartments over 30,000 square feet [2,800 sq m] of retail, but it completely changed the character of the community.

What best practices should suburban jurisdictions follow to successfully encourage development and redevelopment?

Ploskon: A lot of jurisdictions put together a formula that forces retail and commercial uses into new higher-density developments. But there isn’t the same high demand for brick-and-mortar retail as there used to be. Forcing commercial uses into buildings or communities that will struggle to support them will only result in vacancies that detract from the overall development. Also, what makes sense in suburban Washington, D.C., doesn’t necessarily make sense in suburban Nashville. You have to be designing for the market and for the type of community that you’re going into.

Hopkins: Gaithersburg, Maryland, has begun to modify corridor zoning along Route 355, which has a series of small landowners, with uses ranging from industrial to offices to residential to retail. The municipality is trying to incentivize redevelopment there at a higher density and create easements along the back of the properties in order to create a secondary street, or at least provide access from one use to the next, and reclaim the streetfront for pedestrians. Another best practice is for planning codes to require developers to build the bones of a building in a way that allows for different uses and meets the building code for other potential future uses. They could be prescriptive enough that the developer has something predictable to work with, but loose enough to meet the needs of a particular site.

Gollis: A starting point may be updating the way the codes define land use and parking requirements. These categories affect the way buildings touch the street and the way cars are dealt with along transit corridors. Every site is different, and every city or jurisdiction has its own scale and design aesthetic. How can we have a more powerful dialogue so that we can have feasible rules and guidance from the public agencies? Often there’s an overlay of cost, or a design requirement, that isn’t adding to quality or marketability, yet is burdening the project such that it’s not going to get built. In SDRC, we are looking for actionable solutions to these challenges.

What other trends are you seeing in the suburbs?

Hopkins: In my projects, I’m pushing high-quality on-demand digital concierge services—“Uber for everything.” If a resident wants the services of a physical trainer, dog walker, or babysitter, he or she can use an app to find someone who has already been vetted. Digital concierge services don’t have to be just for urban locations. They’re even more important for suburban commuters, who have less time in their day.

Kellenberg: The opportunity to redevelop underperforming retail centers is great. They often have 10 to 30 acres [4 to 12 ha] of land, mostly surface parking. The rents are low, and half of them are vacant. But the reality is that these projects are very complicated, because they’re often directly adjacent to low-density suburban neighborhoods that don’t want density to increase. To make redevelopment pencil out, you have to have a lot of density, with more vertical construction. So developers run into issues of infrastructure capacity, traffic congestion, and NIMBYism. We have to figure out how to make these opportunities work, because these projects put housing in the right places, get rid of eyesores, and help elevate the quality of our suburban fabric.

Ploskon: In the majority of the communities that we work in across the country, from major gateway cities to smaller, more rural communities, I’m excited to see so much design awareness. People are becoming rightfully aware that they deserve good buildings, good open spaces, good communities—because these things not only enrich their lives, but also enrich the lives of everyone around them.

Contributing Their Insights:

  • Richard Gollis, principal, the Concord Group, Newport Beach, California; chair, Suburban Development and Redevelopment Council
  • Matthew Hopkins, senior director of development, Aimco, Gaithersburg, Maryland; vice chair, Suburban Development and Redevelopment Council
  • Steven Kellenberg, principal, Kellenberg Studio, Laguna Beach, California; member, Suburban Development and Redevelopment Council
  • Walter Ploskon, principal and managing director, Niles Bolton Associates, Atlanta; member, Suburban Development and Redevelopment Council

RON NYREN is a freelance architecture and urban planning writer. based in the San Francisco Bay area.