Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Are "lifestyle centers" real TOD?

A couple recent articles sparked me thinking about lifestyle centers and transit-oriented development (TOD), two independent trends that are getting a little confused because they happen to overlap in rare instances. The first is a Newsweek article on lifestyle centers, Disney-fied "downtowns in suburbia" like we have in The Woodlands or Sugar Land:
Like so many suburbs, Lakewood, Colo., near Denver, never had a downtown. Now it does. Well, actually, what it has is Belmar, a shopping center—only this isn't your basic strip mall. It's what's called a "lifestyle center," an idealized vision of an urban streetscape, with 22 open-air blocks of cafés, performance spaces, offices, housing, parks and, of course, chain stores familiar to anyone who's spent time in the Galleria (can you say Sharper Image and Victoria's Secret?).
The malling of America has taken a decidedly Disney-esque twist. Designed like elaborate outdoor movie sets, lifestyle centers are meant to look like real towns, with curbed streets, parking meters and themed architecture (think Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A.). They're cropping up on the fringes of cities from Washington, D.C., to San Diego: 150 so far, with 100 more in the pipeline. ..."It's a buzzword right now, the trendy thing to call your shopping development,"
Many mom-and-pop retailers, already wounded from the onslaught of big-box chains like Wal-Mart, worry these malls may finish the job. "We sort of resent the fact that these lifestyle centers are calling themselves 'downtowns' when we already have a downtown," says Jeanette Billings, a director of the Downtown Naples Association in Florida, formed recently by local merchants concerned about the opening of four lifestyle centers north of the city. Yet shoppers seem to love them.
The mall, built by General Growth Properties, likes to think of itself as a downtown, though the operators clearly don't want it to be too urban: The "code of conduct" prohibits spitting, swearing, skateboarding and congregating in large groups (unlike downtowns, lifestyle centers are mostly privately owned). Such manufactured civility is part of what convinced Chris Salderman, 32, to purchase a loft condominium at Belmar with his wife. "It gives you the feeling that you're in a city, but without all the chaos," he says. "You can walk around at night and there are things to do, but you don't worry about the drunks on the streets." Urban pioneers of suburbia might want to come up with lyrics of their own: "things will be great when you're not downtown."
Now combine those observations with these from a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Why Some Cities Think Developing At Rail Stops Is a Mighty Good Road":
Opened in 2000, CityCenter Englewood (inc. 438 apts on 55 acres) is one of a growing number of developments offering a mix of uses that have emerged around mass-transit rail lines, a trend that is particularly notable in the car-friendly West. In Dallas, Mockingbird Station on the city's light-rail system boasts an artsy Angelika Film Center, loft apartments that utilize a 1940s warehouse, and retail and office space. And the Del Mar stop in Pasadena, Calif., along Los Angeles's light rail includes 347 apartments stacked over ground floors intended for shops that will give the project a dense, urban feel amid its low-rise Southern California surroundings when it is completed early next year.

Such projects still have plenty of challenges, one of the reasons the Federal Transit Administration counts only about 100 of them nationwide. Because zoning often favors a single use, such as residential or commercial, developers must work with city officials to change the rules. Land can be difficult to assemble. And upfront costs for developers -- especially with demand to include features such as plazas and parks -- are high with financial returns often slow in coming.

In Houston, about half the land along the city's 7.5-mile light-rail line -- which connects a medical center, sports venues and downtown -- is vacant and developers who have locked up parcels are hanging back. "There hasn't been a rush to build," says Kimberly Callahan, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Camden Property Trust, a real-estate investment trust which eventually hopes to build a residential and retail project on several acres it owns along the city's Main Street rail corridor.

Here are my observations:
  • Lifestyle centers are simply the new malls with the roof removed and a few apartments and/or condos on top. They rely just as heavily on drawing in car drivers from a multi-mile radius as a normal mall (with similar parking requirements), and their retail profile is essentially the same as a mall rather true TOD: more Gap/Banana Republic than everyday needs.
  • Notice the small numbers of apartments in these projects. 438 apartments in 55 acres? That's about 8 units/acre - far less dense than normal apartment projects in Houston or most other cities - and of course far too low to come anywhere close to supporting the street retail by itself. And any implication that these developments are meaningfully "taking cars off the road" by allowing people to walk or take transit for errands, shopping, and work is, well, laughable - mainly because a few hundred apartments is a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket of any city large enough to build rail transit.
  • Because lifestyle centers have the same economics as a mall, it takes a lot of population to support one, so cities will be lucky if even one in a couple dozen rail stops gets one. In Houston, most spoke freeways support one or two major malls - I would imagine that ratio would hold about the same for lifestyle centers on long rail lines. Notice how even cities with dozens of miles of rail like Dallas, Denver, and LA can usually only point to one notable lifestyle center TOD.
  • Developers are leveraging cities' and transit agencies' desperation for TOD (because it was promised as part of the package with the rail line) to get public help for what would otherwise be very difficult projects, whether through easier approvals, zoning changes, or eminent domain for land assembly.
  • Non-lifestyle-center TOD (i.e. everyday street retail mixed use) still seems to be a rarity along the newer rail transit lines of the last couple dozen years.
I'm not saying these developments are bad. Far from it. They're actually kind of cool. But people need to be careful not to confuse lifestyle-center malls that happen to be near a transit stop with the real viability (or possible lack thereof) of true transit-oriented mixed use development with everyday street retail in suburban-model cities like Houston, something I've discussed before in my "Challenges to urbanism in Houston" posts (mainly the last few paragraphs of part 2, but also parts 1 and 3). There don't seem to be many examples of successful "plain-old TOD" in newer cities, which is a little worrisome as Houston works on new urban corridor planning and development regulations.


At 8:20 AM, December 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments are very interesting. I'd read of these life style centers before and wondered how they would work out. I believe the Woodlands has built one of these or is in the process of doing so. After reading your comments for the last 6 months or so, I'd have to ask if you've ever addressed the most glaring "development" anomaly I've noted in "Houston" (as opposed to the unincorporated areas of Harris County) and that is the appalling lack of appropriate and affordable "family" housing. Houston's a great place to live if you are very wealthy or very poor and tough enough to live in a high crime neighborhood, but all the re-devlopment I've noted in places like Mid-Town and now Greenway are extremely expensive apartments, or high rise condo's. Gone the single family home and precious few affordable Townhome projects. Thus, Sugarland, Cypress, the Woodlands/Kingwood/Humble/Spring/Katy and Tomball/Magnolia seem the only available destinations for young families with kids. The truth is that eventually as gridlock worsens, employers are going to note this and move further out! It's really just a matter of time. Has no one else looked at this?

At 8:41 AM, December 14, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


That's not quite true. Perry homes and a few other builders are constructing new townhomes like gangbusters in midtown, and they're fairly affordable (around 200k for a fair-sized new townhome).

At 9:55 AM, December 14, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'll have to agree with Owen that many of the townhomes are very affordable, especially compared to other cities. Many are around $200K. I think there are still a few affordable suburban-style neighborhoods with good schools too, like Meyerland, where I live.

The problem you describe does exist, but it is really a supply-demand issue. HISD schools are good compared to other urban core districts, but most families prefer suburban school districts, so the demand for middle-class or higher family housing inside HISD is not that high - and if the demand isn't there, the builders aren't going to build.

Brookings has a recent study out on this that I want to blog about at some point. It looks like what happens is middle-income neighborhoods in city cores tip one way or the other. If their crime is low enough and schools good enough, they tip up, gentrify, and go upscale. If not, they tip down as people leave, and go downscale. The middle is an unstable place to be, and therefore they seem to be shrinking.

At 9:48 AM, December 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If not, they tip down as people leave, and go downscale. The middle is an unstable place to be, and therefore they seem to be shrinking."

Hmmmmmmmm, that's sort of profound isn't it? Could be a commentary about the country's population as a whole.

At 11:18 AM, December 16, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not sure it applies nationally - at least not in the same way. I was specifically talking about neighborhoods tipping up or down. When it comes to people and their incomes, the broad majority is always moving up - just some move up faster than others. And, of course, there's always a strong flow of very low income immigrants arriving at the bottom.

At 8:48 PM, February 21, 2007, Blogger The Butler said...

Could the problem be that there's a lack of urban context in life style centers, etc? Our eyes may glaze over when someone brings up Alexander's old "Pattern Language" book. Yet to moderate the "tipping" trend you mention, and/or the artificiality of an average, poorly thought out development project, perhaps we need planning that reflects Jane Jacobs' evolutionary view of city growth rather than the Disney-like model that's really closer to a marketing campaign than to any kind of city development.

BTW, I'm moving to Houston in two weeks with a Russian wife and step-daughter and would appreciate any thoughts on a good neighborhood, preferably in the west of the city. Thanks.

At 8:31 AM, February 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Butler, my recommendation for best value in the city is Meyerland, near Bellaire. Housing is more affordable outside the loop, yet you still have easy access to what I consider the core/backbone of Houston along 59 between Uptown and Downtown, plus TMC and Rice. Schools can be pretty good (but you'll have to do specific research - Bellaire High School is great, and specializes in languages, including Russian, I believe). Along Beechnut, I can be on 610 in 5 mins, 59 in 5 mins, Beltway 8 in 10 mins, and Sugar Land in 15 mins (some good shopping and restaurants). If you want the farther suburbs, probably Sugar Land is the way to go - nice but still with pretty quick access into the city.

At 8:32 AM, February 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Butler: also, there is a substantial Russian Jewish population around Meyerland, so there are some Russian specialty stores, if that's a factor, inc. one not far from Chimney Rock and N. Braeswood, and another at Hillcroft and S. Braeswood.


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