Four developers working in Houston; London; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; and Seattle share their experiences with the market for walkable and bicycle-friendly development.
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Russell (Rusty) Bloodworth is with Boyle Investment Company, active in Memphis and Nashville; Matt Griffin is managing partner at the Pine Street Group in Seattle; Nick Searl is a partner at Argent LLP in London; and Matthew Stovall is president of SD+A in Houston.
We hear a lot about growing demand for communities where people can safely walk and bike. How do you see this playing out in your markets?
Russell Bloodworth: There is a much greater understanding today in Nashville and Memphis that walkable communities are desirable. Part of the reason is the clear success of neighborhoods designed for the pedestrian. Recent attention to healthier lifestyles is part of the story, but I feel another important component is the existence of successful new communities built since 1980 that the market has come to appreciate.
Matt Griffin: Walkability is everything for us. A great apartment site has to be in a walkable neighborhood and near good mass transit. Our Via6, in Seattle, has a “walkability score” of 100 out of 100. Walkability is about more than being healthy; getting out of the car makes life simpler and better. But it’s also about economics. Amazon’s decision to locate in downtown Seattle was huge; they realized that walkable, vibrant urban neighborhoods help recruit talent.
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Nick Searl: These issues are increasingly becoming more important to the thought process behind developments and communities—not only in London, but in the U.K.’s other cities, suburbs, and rural communities as well. There is a growing awareness that walking and cycling, whether for recreation or commuting, forms a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. London, in particular, is looking to discourage the use of private vehicles in the city. The new and improved cycle routes through the city, bicycle hire schemes, and the increased cycle parking at the main transport nodes are significant contributors to this effort. Although London is still early in the process, travel trends, the political will to do more, and a commitment to the necessary investments are undeniable.
Matthew Stovall: The communities in the Houston region whose home values have remained stable over the years have walking/biking trails and easy access to amenities like coffee shops, service retail, and restaurants, as well as safe access to schools, churches, and community centers. Houston’s inner city has seen a huge wave of young professionals, empty nesters, and families move into redeveloping communities that, through the help of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZs), have improved the pedestrian realm. For my houses in the inner city, I have buyers who work in the suburbs, but they would rather live closer to restaurants, parks, and culture.
How have you seen taking walking and biking into account helping a development project to succeed?
Bloodworth: We have found a strong correlation in Memphis and Nashville between pedestrian and bike amenities and demand. We are retrofitting some of our older projects to overcome hurdles to easy pedestrian and bike movement, and have gotten great traction in the market with our newer, more pedestrian-scaled developments. Our recent projects in the Nashville market—Meridian and Berry Farms—have doubled the absorption pace we expected, and a good part of the reason is that they both offer something the older developments didn’t offer. They are intentionally permeable and cater to the pedestrian above all.
Griffin: Our Via6 project combines walkability, good mass transit, and top-quality bicycle amenities. Our market niche is urban workers who don’t necessarily want to own a car. Via6 has been open a year and is 90 percent leased, six to nine months ahead of expectations. It has 654 apartments and 15,000 square feet of community-oriented retail, but only 430 parking stalls for cars. Bike amenities for residents include special entrances off the alley that connect to about 240 bike stalls and a bike wash with stands and tools for maintenance. For the community, a bike shop holds classes and lends bicycles for residents’ short-term use. For commuters, a bicycle club provides storage for 100 to 150 bikes, a drop-off service for maintenance, and locker rooms with showers. The club costs only $15 a month. The Velo Bike Shop and ViaBike Club make Via6 a bike-friendly hub for the neighborhood.
Searl: We are developing 8 million square feet of mixed use at King’s Cross in London: offices, residential, retail, university, school, and leisure facilities. Fundamental to the project is connecting into the fabric of the city and encouraging free flow for cyclists and pedestrians. For example, the main north–south route into the development prohibits private vehicles. Our experience shows that buildings are more marketable in genuinely sustainable places.
Stovall: Our projects have mainly been urban infill development in midtown and the Museum District of Houston. Most of the submarket is connected to downtown and the Texas Medical Center via the city grid. We recognize that Houstonians love their cars and don’t intend on giving them up. However, because parking is expensive and limited at many inner-city locations, we’re seeing more people walking and riding bikes over the past five years. Local residents and patrons are taking advantage of the bike-share program the city recently initiated. The sidewalks have improved so much that it’s common to see joggers running around the community. Not only does pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure make it easier to market, it’s imperative to have the infrastructure in place before development can really take off, particularly in the urban core
Do you see investors starting to consider pedestrian and bicycle access and safety?
Bloodworth: We are doing a major urban project with Northwestern Life Insurance Company in downtown Nashville called Capital View. Northwestern has been very tuned into the issues, partially from their experience in our Meridian project and other well-conceived projects nationwide. We may owe part of our participation to that fact.
Griffin: We developed the largest apartment project ever built in one phase in downtown Seattle. We picked the site because of the walkability and access to the Westlake Transit hub. We built Via6 with 100 percent equity. The investment community clearly wants to be in walkable, vibrant neighborhoods that attract the knowledge workers who allow Seattle to compete on a global scale.
Searl: Investors and funding institutions in the U.K. now have a general appreciation that reasonable expenditures on provisions for cycling, walking, and running add significant value and marketability to investments and reduce the risk of vacant space.
Do you do something different to market your projects’ bicycle and walking amenities?
Bloodworth: We help sponsor Walks for Cancer, etc., in our communities, but to date we have not done as much as we could have done and should have done. It is a great idea. We’ve got in place literally miles of connected trails along a three-mile stretch of one of our Memphis projects (Humphreys Center). The trails are heavily used; they’ve changed the perception of the project and the surrounding area. We need to take more advantage of the trails from a marketing point of view.
Griffin: We did a lot of marketing around the Velo Bike Shop and ViaBike Club; they became part of our identity. We advertised with the Cascade Bicycle Club. We teamed up with the Downtown Seattle Association and Commute Seattle during Bike to Work Month, which they hold every May. We took a high-visibility role in sponsoring activities, including offering the services of our bike mechanics. We want bicyclists coming into downtown to see us as a bicycling hub.
Searl: The whole London market is becoming more and more sophisticated in catering to cyclists, pedestrians, and runners. Developers compete by providing more cycle parking spaces than regulations require and providing locker, shower, and secure drying rooms on par with the quality found in a health club. They provide for bicycle maintenance and offer cycle safety training.
So much about walking and biking depends on what happens in the neighborhood or community; how can developers address these issues?
Bloodworth: The mayor of Memphis last year signed an executive ordering really pushing forward a complete-streets initiative stimulated in part by our local ULI district [council]. We also pushed for a $2.6 million HUD sustainability grant to create a plan for knitting together over 400 miles of trails and greenways in our region. That plan will be completed later in 2014. Getting the smaller municipalities and the larger ones on the same page is an effort that takes time, talent, and money. Until then, the “network” will remain fragmented. Our firm has given over six miles of greenways along our major tributaries to help accelerate the creation of a connected network, but getting the pieces tied together is still a difficulty.
Stovall: We make the connection between biking, walking, and parking for cars in our work in Houston. When we have a project with a high parking demand, we promote shared parking with nearby properties, in addition to bike parking. When the project has more casual establishments, such as a fitness center or casual restaurants, we’ll add more bike parking to help relieve vehicle parking pressures.
Griffin: As I often ask, “Have you ever been in a great city that wasn’t a great city to walk in?” The city of Seattle is doing a lot to support walking and biking, and, while not every block in downtown Seattle is great, most are. Developers need to continue to create great streets where people want to walk. That’s our responsibility.
Searl: Connectivity, accessibility, and safety for pedestrians and cyclists all need citywide initiatives to be successful. Developers should not assume someone else is going to do it. In the U.K., developers often make financial contributions to wider-scale initiatives that are then implemented by local authorities. Get involved!
Interviews conducted and condensed by Sarah Jo Peterson.