Constrained by an existing infrastructure of arterials and freeways, suburban municipalities are turning to private developers to create Main Street–style developments that emulate the qualities of traditional cities, mixing shops, housing, and offices along a pedestrian-oriented street. But while many of these developments capture the look of Main Street, they lack the larger connection to the city that makes traditional main streets feel authentic and naturally draw a wide variety of people to spend time there.
The popularity of urban living, the rise of car sharing, lower parking ratios, the demand for walkable urbanism, and millennials’ preference for places that offer a local and idiosyncratic feel all suggest that demand exists for developments that take their cues from classic, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use downtown streets. While this can be accomplished by incorporating urban materials and by providing architectural and programmatic variety, it is the connectivity to the surrounding urban fabric that really determines the difference between an outdoor shopping center and an urban core.
Why Traditional Main Streets Work
Traditional downtowns arose during a time when people lived, worked, and played in a tighter radius than they do now. Main streets were busy because they contained or connected everything that people needed in daily life close by, from the post office to the town hall, from churches to banks, from restaurants to apartments. Beyond providing local connections, main streets often became, or became connected to, highways that further reinforced their role as the primary place where both the immediate and the greater community gathered.
Main streets were often a major, albeit slower-moving, arterial lined with a mix of uses, services, and transit, serving both leisure and necessity. Colorado Boulevard, the historic Route 66 in Pasadena, California, enjoys a vitality supported both by the nature of its attractions and by its ability to get people where they need to go. This ability to combine a sense of place with a primary path expands the relevance of that place to a larger population. Because of this, traditional main streets like Colorado Boulevard became sources of identity for their communities.
With the rise of freeways in the 1950s, housing moved farther from downtowns, shopping malls sprang up at freeway nodes, and suburban governments placed greater emphasis on building wide roadways that allow people to drive long distances quickly. The arterial became anonymous and speed-driven and lacked a sense of place.
In 1967, Kevin Lynch, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published his seminal work, The Image of the City. In it, Lynch says, “Where major paths lacked identity or were easily confused one for the other, the entire city image was in difficulty.” This captures perhaps the greatest obstacle facing our suburbs: the inability of the modern arterial to create a memorable, city-scaled, shared sense of place.
As suburbs densify, developers and planners have to contend with infrastructure designed for speed when they are inserting Main Street–style projects. In the absence of pedestrian-scaled thoroughfares, these projects are typically placed on a large site bounded by the arterials, which means they tend to draw only those shoppers who make the deliberate decision to turn off the boulevard and into the complex.
With traditional main streets, which are full of a variety of uses, everyone walking by the shops is a potential customer. When a Main Street–style project is placed off a major arterial, however, people on their way to their planned destination at 40 miles (64 km) an hour are less likely to make an unplanned stop at the coffee shop or shoe store. So, even if the architects re-create the look and feel of a traditional downtown, a Main Street–style street that is not part of a routine path cannot truly emulate the spontaneity, vitality, and diversity of a traditional main street.
Suburban development often needs to serve a large trade area to succeed, which means that efficient arterials are going to remain a crucial component of the suburbs. In both the private and public sectors, however, efforts are underway to find meaningful ways to make these arterials more of a place, or at least more integral to the parcels that front them.
Complete the Street
Transforming anonymous arterials into urban boulevards at strategic locations can create gathering places for the community and a better address for commercial activity. A big part of the solution is to put arterials on a “road diet” by reducing the number of lanes and narrowing the streets to free up room for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaped median strips, and other public amenities that enhance the overall environment. Decreasing the width of lanes slows traffic, making streets easier to cross and safer for pedestrians. Often called “complete streets,” such streets give priority to multimodal transportation rather than vehicular speed and volume.
Once a hurdle, state and federal agencies are now behind legislation that requires a more progressive view of arterials. “The design of street sections for all users has moved from the special corridor and downtown studies to one that is expected and even required,” says Michael Mowery, vice president at the Pleasanton, California, office of Kimley-Horn and Associates, a multidisciplinary design firm responsible for many complete-streets projects across the United States. “Policies including the Federal Complete Streets Act of 2009 and the California Complete Streets Act [A.B. 1358] have set national- and state-level requirements to assess circulation for all user groups—vehicular, transit, bike, and walk. Analysis standards such as intersection level-of-service [level-of-service is a standard measurement of the ease of traffic flow] are changing to multimodal level-of-service. Design standards have evolved, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Context Sensitive Solutions and the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ publication of the Urban Street Design Guide, which ‘involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility.’”
Slowing traffic while building public amenities closer to where people live is a recipe for creating walkable urbanism. Cities are implementing narrower traffic lanes, dedicated bike lanes, and pedestrian safety measures to encourage and expand their use. These enhancements in connectivity form a more coherent district and a stronger address for tenants and residents alike.
The awareness of multimodal integration also has increased. “Creating a safe and welcoming design for all modes of mobility is no longer an added piece of a development, but rather a core part of the project,” Mowery says. “Placemaking was often the sphere of architects and landscape architects alone, but now it is the focus of all designers to create safe and functional spaces for all.”
In 2015, Salt Lake City transformed a major downtown arterial, 300 South Broadway, by adding a protected bike lane, median islands, pedestrian crossings, planters, artwork, and colored pavement. Shops, restaurants, and services along the corridor reported an uptick in business since the project’s implementation, and bicycle use has increased significantly. On Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, bus rapid transit, widened sidewalks, and bike lanes where possible expanded the use of the corridor and brought more pedestrians to the core. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, bus rapid transit is being implemented on Central Avenue, another section of Route 66, to improve pedestrian use of the corridor, support density, and create an enhanced sense of place. With both Euclid Avenue and Central Avenue, as the streets widen in the suburban fabric, the transit amenities are expanded as well. The wider arterials in the suburbs can better accommodate bus rapid transit, protected bike lanes, landscaping, pedestrian crossing islands, and widened sidewalks if the priority is not entirely focused on the car.
Changing this priority is no small task, however. “It’s hard and it takes a huge amount of education,” says Anthony Bruzzone, associate principal in transportation planning at Arup in San Francisco. “A lot of what’s happening is that the cost to garage cars is so incredibly expensive [that] people are slowly coming around when we say we can put a bike lane in for the cost of a single structured parking space . . . and they say, ‘Maybe we should try that.’”
Lessons to be learned exist at the smaller end of the scale, too. Burlingame Avenue in Burlingame, California, is a true main street with a historic train station at one end—still in use as a station for the Caltrain commuter line—and the well-traveled El Camino Real at the other. The city recognized the value of having a beautiful street that could be at least as attractive as the best shopping centers, if not more attractive. This attention to the city’s “customers” has created a rejuvenated commercial core, home to both national and local retailers and restaurants.
In all these instances, large or small, the streets fulfill a variety of needs and are activated by both necessity and leisure. They are part of routine life and the larger city.
A number of densifying suburbs are experimenting with Main Street–style developments that draw on the lessons of the historic models with streets that connect beyond their immediate site into the larger community. Unlike their traditional counterparts, however, their development hinges on the availability of a large parcel of land positioned to capture a large trade area, often necessitating adjacency to freeways.
This is a fundamental challenge to creating a mixed-use retail center in the suburbs. “The realities of viable retail suggest that location, which is always dominant, is driven by identity, visibility, access, and convenience that causes [the retail] to be placed close to major vehicular arteries to get that access and visibility to a larger trade area, which means it is not located where main streets used to be, at the center of the community,” says architect Ronald Altoon, former chairman of ULI Los Angeles and president and chief executive officer of Encino, California–based Altoon Strategic.
Working within these constraints, the Howard Hughes Corporation created Downtown Summerlin, an urban core for the rapidly growing suburb of Summerlin, Nevada. The project, bounded by a freeway to the west, involved integrating a network of connected streets, landscaped boulevards, and public open spaces that link in numerous ways to the larger urban grid of the master-planned community. Streets are defined by a variety of distinct districts and amenities that extend the core’s identity beyond its borders and conversely share the value of the core’s amenity with the neighboring residential neighborhoods. Surface parking has been organized so that it is ready to accommodate future infill development and expansion, allowing for an evolution of the project over time.
Oakland, California–based developer Catellus, in a public/private partnership with the city of Austin, Texas, is in the process of developing Austin’s former Robert Mueller Airport into a walkable, mixed-use community. At the heart of the mixed-use commercial district is Aldrich Street, which is both a destination and a connector to other uses such as parks, regional transportation corridors, offices, shops, entertainment, and housing. This street’s multi-aspirational character is furthered with the introduction of vertical mixed-use buildings.
The Shops Buckhead Atlanta, developed by the local office of OliverMcMillan, includes upscale shops, restaurants, luxury office space, and residential high-rises along several city blocks. It represents a model of a large-scale mixed-use development that integrates into the city streets, rather than being separate from them. As the project developed, it catalyzed the redevelopment of other properties that share the street.
Incorporating a vertical mixed-use component is a significant challenge, but also a great opportunity to enrich the culture of the place. A mix of uses, such as medical, educational, office, residential, and cultural facilities, can influence who is on the street, why they are there, and what their activities might be. “Now, all of a sudden, above these retail buildings is a place where someone is giving music lessons, or taking a continuing education course in art history, or language, etc., and in that coffee shop you are talking to someone you talked to last week, who just had their weekly violin lesson, and another one who got back from their yoga session, and the conversation around the table is about what you or they are doing and not just watching people idly shop, and that becomes very city-like,” Altoon says.
Older urban areas tend to have streets that bring the community together and create a larger shared identity for residents, something that many suburbs lack. Streets set the stage for how we interact and the people we interact with. Density offers significant environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits if its energy can be focused in ways that support the community and deliver culturally vibrant, meaningful public spaces.
More densifying suburbs could consider transforming short stretches of major arterials by narrowing them and making other pedestrian-friendly improvements. This is possible by partnering with private sector developers to create attractive, walkable environments with a mix of uses. Increasing the number of connections to nearby arterials and placing entrances to housing, offices, and other uses directly on the arterials will make these streets more convenient to pedestrians and bicyclists. Accommodating more modes of transportation on these streets—biking, walking, driving, and riding public transit—will make them relevant to a larger population.
Density, accompanied by an urban design that embraces connectivity, multiple modes of transit, and human-scaled design, can bring the very best of urbanity to the suburbs. It can bring people and their needs closer together, adding value and creating more time for the things they wish to be doing, rather than commuting. In addition, if the streets are designed as public spaces and are part of the natural flow of the larger city, they can create a communal identity, foster a more inclusive environment, and capture a spontaneity that can make life and places feel more authentic.
Ryan Call is an associate principal and director of urban design at ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, California.