Making Downtowns What They Used to Be
Published on July 14th, 2015
Vibrant centers are work environments that also offer places to live, shop, dine, play, convene, rest, and learn. The most vibrant centers are diverse, connected public places served by rail transit; if people have to drive there, they can park and comfortably complete the internal trips on foot.
Vibrant centers afford social interaction, communication, economic activity, and innovation. Arizona State University professor Emily Talen, in her 2012 book City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, provides a definition of “good urbanism” that covers generic features of vibrant places quite well: “compact urban form that encourages pedestrian activity and minimizes environmental degradation; encourages social, economic, and land use diversity; . . . connects uses and functions; has a quality public realm that provides opportunities for interaction and exchange; offers equitable access to goods, services, and facilities; and protects environmental and human health.”
In spring 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out its Smart Location Database, which focuses on the five Ds popularized by professors Reid Ewing of the University of Utah and Robert Cervero of the University of California, Berkeley—density, diversity, design, distance to transit, and destination accessibility. It includes more than 60 measures of location efficiency, detailed at the level of census block group for those five factors. This database is likely to accelerate future work on both employment-oriented vibrant centers and vibrant communities—residential neighborhoods with urban amenities and services.
The characteristics of urban or suburban vibrant centers differ dramatically from those of a typical suburban commercial development (see table).
Vibrant centers could be described simply as walkable live/work/play environments. As Jeff Speck notes in his 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, anything that increases walkability almost always increases vibrancy.
Suburban vibrant centers were examined in Preferred Office Locations, a 2014 report from the commercial real estate development association NAIOP that involved a national survey of local real estate brokers and analysis of property-level data.
One type represented in the report was well-publicized redevelopment of suburban shopping malls or office parks—for example, Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, near Denver.
But the more prominent type turned out to be smaller city centers and town centers that had remained viable despite the onslaught of highway-oriented suburban development over the past 60 years. Centers in larger metropolitan areas with strong commuter-rail systems dominated this list: for example, Somerville near Boston, Evanston near Chicago, Walnut Creek in the San Francisco Bay area, and the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.
Vibrant centers have other important features. Parks—from the classic spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons to such notable recent facilities as Millennium Park in Chicago and the High Line in New York City—are magnets for people and investment in nearby properties. Waterfronts have a similar impact. Urban and suburban centers cannot be vibrant unless they also function as places for play: cultural and arts districts, sports and entertainment venues, and associated hospitality facilities add this dimension. In Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. has demonstrated how to use historic preservation and authenticity to spur vibrancy. The Mayors’ Institute on City Design—a National Endowment for the Arts leadership initiative in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and the U.S. Conference of Mayors—has helped many cities follow his lead.
Why Vibrancy Matters
Empirical evidence on vibrant center performance now exists. In the May 2013 article “Twenty-four Hour Cities and Commercial Office Performance,” published in the Journal of Real Estate Portfolio Management, Hugh Kelly and his coauthors provide in-depth analyses showing the superior performance of 24-hour cities. Metropolitan land use strategist Chris Leinberger, who is tracking walkable urban places in the 30 largest metro areas, shows the superior performance of such places in Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros, cowritten with Patrick Lynch in June 2014.
In NAIOP’s Preferred Office Locations, Emil Malizia (coauthor of this article) found that prospective office tenants strongly prefer vibrant suburban centers to typical suburban office parks. Vibrant suburban centers also perform far better than nearby suburban office areas in terms of higher rents, lower vacancy rates, and greater absorption, the report found.
The NAIOP study also examined the preference for and performance of downtowns compared with their suburban areas in markets with more than 60 million square feet (5.6 million sq m) of rentable building area, but the results were inconclusive. In Malizia’s ongoing research on office performance, the degree of vibrancy has been measured for 65 central business districts (CBDs) located in large metro areas. Compared with those that are less vibrant, the more vibrant CBDs tend to have higher office rents and lower cap rates, as well as provide societal benefits such as fewer automobile-accident fatalities and less physical inactivity.
For this latest research on CBD vibrancy, a vibrancy index was constructed with measures of compactness, density, external connectivity, internal destination accessibility, land use mix, and street design for walkability. In addition to census data, the major sources for the measures are CoStar’s property analytics database and the 2013 report Downtown Rebirth, prepared for the International Downtown Association by Paul Levy and Lauren Gilchrist.
This vibrancy index emphasizes the features related to built environment and urban form. Vibrant centers are expected to attract certain demographic groups, including young, educated members of generation Y and millennials, and empty nesters—as well as the economic activity they support.
These residents could be considered actors on the urban stage. The center’s largest employers are often anchor institutions, such as medical centers, universities, and major government offices or facilities. Young, growing companies likely will be attracted to such centers, but almost all companies will become more interested in live/work/play environments when they need young talent to replace older employees as they retire.
How to Promote Vibrancy
Real estate is local, and each place needs to find its own path to greater vibrancy. That said, we propose eight rules to provide guidance.
1. Encourage higher-density housing of all types. Successful, urban and suburban vibrant centers become expensive because they are desirable places in which to work, live, and play. Higher rents, rising property values, and deeper tax bases should be celebrated instead of vilified as the path to gentrification. However, vibrancy cannot be sustained without social and economic diversity.
Vibrant centers need housing for middle- to lower-income people who work in the retail, personal services, and entertainment sectors, as well as empty nesters, students, and young people with entrepreneurial ambitions. The market will provide all the higher-income housing needed. Lower-income households should be retained through use of inclusionary zoning, density bonuses, and the array of state and federal affordable housing programs. (See also rule 6.)
2. Remember the rule of pi. A hypothetical circular urban area that is 20 miles (32 km) across has an area of 314.16 square miles (814 sq km). If its downtown has a radius of one mile (1.6 km), its area is 3.14 square miles (8.1 sq km)—pi, or 1 percent of the urban area—and many downtown areas in the United States are smaller than pi. Downtowns are truly special places because they have so much development in such a small area. Keep it tight.
3. Take full advantage of policies and regulations that treat downtowns as special places. CBDs are usually zoned with high floor/area ratios. Often, mixed use is allowed or even encouraged; parking requirements are minimal. CBDs may contain unique historic properties or historic districts. These special conditions enable real estate developers to create financially feasible projects in spite of longer entitlement periods, more difficult construction staging, higher land prices, and other constraints.
4. Reject suburban development prototypes at all costs. Suburban prototypes imposed on urban centers reduce density, compactness, connectivity, and walkability and often destroy urban fabric. Features such as adjacent surface parking, drive-through lanes, lack of sidewalks, front entrances from parking areas, and the like have no place in centers that want to become more walkable.
5. Provide public space and multimodal infrastructure to support downtown redevelopment. Vibrant urban centers need transit of all kinds to reduce auto use and encourage walking. Transit includes car sharing, taxis, bike lanes, bike sharing, trolleys, buses, and, when feasible, rail. The public realm is enhanced by small public parks and hardscape areas where people can gather to celebrate, engage with one another, or rest.
6. Consider housing for downtown workers as necessary infrastructure. Most jurisdictions recognize that structured parking is infrastructure necessary to achieve vibrancy. Workforce housing should be put in the same category. Public/private partnerships may be needed to serve this market segment. One approach to provide small apartments and micro units is to attach liner buildings to parking decks above the ground floor and on all sides that have street frontage.
7. Seek ideas about redevelopment selectively. In many automobile-oriented, highway-dominated areas, the vast majority of households live, work, and play in three separate suburban locations and devote considerable time each day to driving from one activity to another. Central city workers rarely live or play there. Suburbia is the only environment many Americans know. Therefore, it is better to gather ideas on downtown redevelopment by convening small focus groups of people with high “urban IQs” than by holding large meetings open to the general public.
8. Prequalify real estate developers who are interested in urban redevelopment. Many capable suburban developers have never built urban product and do not know how to create urban character. In order to provide good precedents for future development, developers that have this know-how should be recruited to initiate downtown redevelopment. Requests for qualifications (RFQs) can be used to identify developers who can deliver urban projects that will increase vibrancy.
Real estate developers, urban designers, city planners, environmentalists, and downtown advocates who want to create live/work/play environments should keep these rules in mind. The results will not only be more vibrant urban centers, but also better-performing real estate products. Perhaps compact multiuse development will trump spread-out single-use development in the years ahead.
By Emil Malizia and David A. Stebbins
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