Monday, July 14, 2008

Why there aren't more New Urbanist developments

A while back, the Austin Contrarian asked why there aren't more New Urbanist mixed-use developments. He articulates several possible barriers and potential solutions, but I wanted to pass along my own theory I posted in the comments.

From his link:

"The problem is that, despite their often stated preference for walking, Americans have developed a taste for low prices and variety, and they don't mind driving great distances to get them."(although that might be changing)
Big boxes serve most of our retail needs very well: groceries + hardware (Lowe's or Home Depot) + misc stuff (Wal-Mart or Target). Many other retail needs fall in the "errand" category - done from the car while going to/from somewhere else, like work: banking, dry cleaning, Starbucks, etc. So start by taking most of that slice of shopping away from new urbanism in a historically car-based city. Here's the problem with supporting NU/mixed-use developments with "the rest" of our retail needs:

Stores need a pretty high volume of customer traffic to be viable. Foot traffic from a few stories of apartments or condos on top are nowhere near enough, so that means people have to be drawn there in a car from the surrounding city. Little or no frontside parking means people have to park a bit farther away and walk (like maybe a backside garage). People are only going to do that if there are a variety of stores/restaurants they are interested in after they get out of their car (if they're only going to one specific place, a strip mall or "lifestyle center" is far more convenient). That is essentially the definition of a "mall" - a collection of retail compelling enough people are willing to park at some inconvenience and walk around for a while.

To succeed, these developments essentially must become an open-air mall with apartments/condos on top (think of the Sugar Land and Woodlands town centers). That's fine, but realistically, a city can only support one mall every few square miles - putting a pretty low limit on how much new urbanist development a city can support. That, and, of course, in any existing city, those malls already exist somewhere, and so a new development must displace an existing one that already has critical mass and has probably cornered most of the premium retailers (how many Banana Republics can a city support? ;). Doable, and some clearly do it and succeed, but that doesn't mean it's not very challenging.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the major headwinds on more mixed-use new urbanist developments: they are essentially malls, there's a limit to how many a city can support, and they have to displace the existing entrenched retail districts/malls that are already there. Note that those headwinds come from the retail side. As he points out, clearly there is plenty of demand on the residential side - it's getting the matching retail to work that's tricky.



At 9:29 PM, July 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some want the entire first floor of mid- and high-rises to be retail. IMO, in a denser area, it's possible for retail to be supported if one one or maybe two stores are placed there. but not necessarily packed out.

Stores need to be more practical, too. Right now in places like BLVD Place and West Ave only have high end stores. As it gets more dense, places like dry cleaners can be added to the mix.

At 11:40 PM, July 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Austin Contrarian does have some items correct. I have Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's Suburban Nation in my library and they speak to the issue of the difficulties and complexities of trying to assemble the "correct" mix of retail in a mixed use development. Largely speaking, after securing an anchor store or two, a modern day strip center or shopping mall does not really have to worry too much about facing the same problem.

All shopping centers, grocery stores, and big box stores exhibit agglomerated economies of scale, whereby merchants either share costs of parking (as in a strip center or shopping mall) or via showcasing a huge number of products on the shelves as a modern day grocery store does.

One idea that might be of interest is to see if modern day suburban shopping malls would be interested in redeveloping in the future such that they would rebuild their structures to include housing nearby their shops. I would agree that there may be code related issues that act as a barrier to entry to some New Urbanist development.

Having walked around at street level pedestrian centered developments in Asia, Europe, and in places like Manhattan, it seems to me that in order for the ideal New Urbanist dream of pedestrian oriented shopping developments to occur as a normal circumstance (and not as an aberration), you probably have to have population densities of at least 25,000 per square mile, whereby an enormous mass of would be shoppers are within walking distance of ground floor shops. However, many such shops in those cities often do not exhibit economies of scale because of their small size, but prices may be partially held down by monopolistic competition from similar competing shops nearby.

Strangely, I think that it has occurred to very few people that old fashioned pedestrian oriented ground level shopping development, with housing on upper floors, as you see in historical City cores of Old World cities is in fact its own form of strip development. It just isn't seen that way.

At 7:24 AM, July 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the retail is often overdone in these places, so that they are essentially malls - and as you say, an area can only support so many malls.

It's instructive to take a look at functioning "old urbanist" districts and see what kind of retail is there with nobody planning it. It's much more weighted toward services for people who are already there: grocery store, dry cleaner, convenience stores, fast food, some restaurants and bars, drugstores, a vet. some medical offices, etc. All of which has people walking around during the day, and is highly convenient for residents at night.

I remember a comment a friend made when he lived in DC's Adams Morgan district when it first gentrified a bit (& became a destination for suburbanite): "Great, there's lots of eat and drink, but I now I have to drive somewhere to buy underwear."

Highly functional businesses that serve people nearby (whether residents or workers) and which are what work. Building a mini-galleria with apartments is unlikely to succeed.

At 9:10 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Good points, everybody. I think Neal is on about the need for very high densities to support shops with walk-ins only. What I think you're describing, John, really only works at very high densities where cars are an extreme hassle to drive and park at either end. As long as it's convenient to hop in your car and go to a shop a little bit farther away with better selection and lower prices, people will do that. When the car has a high hassle factor associated with it, people will narrow their options to walking distance (i.e. old urbanism).

And this is why New Urbanism faces so many headwinds: it's trying to plant mixed-use retail in cities where car driving is relatively easy. Under that scenario, a lot of the "basic" retail you describe doesn't really work - so developers are forced into the "mall" scenario. Why doesn't the basic retail work in New Urbanism?: not enough density to support the stores with local walk-ins, the locals can drive easily to other options (all these developments make space for residents' cars), and people from outside the neighborhood will not come visit those stores when equivalents are available elsewhere with far easier parking and access.

This is what happened to a lot of traditional retail downtowns in towns across America. Why deal with the parking hassles and shlepping your purchases between stores with smaller selections and higher prices when you could go to one Wal-Mart (or other big box) a little farther out of the core with easy parking, more selection, and lower prices.

At 9:30 AM, July 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He asks why there aren't more New Urbanist developments?

Two obvious reasons I think:

1) Affordability. Only the rich can afford them, which greatly shrinks the market in the first place. And if you have all that money, many people would like more space, not less.

2) It's not what we're used to. Sure Houston has many transplants, but just b/c they come from NYC or Chicago doesn't mean they live IN the city. They have suburbs there, too, so when they come here, they move to the 'burbs. But Houston still has many home grown citizens, and they're just not used to it.

The people who could probably benefit most by new urbanism are the poor. But they don't really want it either. And even if they did, it's not made for them, so they don't even have a choice.

At 9:39 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Andrew said...

It's critical to understand that New Urbanism is not equal to mixed-use. Certainly New Urbanism promotes mixed-use, but it is not the same thing.

New Urbanism is a design philosophy, a choice to organize space in such a way that it is EQUALLY accessible by as many transportation modes as possible. The primary difference between New Urban development and Conventional Suburban development is the priority on pedestrians. If, and only if, a design compromise must be made in favor of cars or pedestrians, New Urban developments would favor pedestrians, and Conventional Suburban development would favor cars.

You don't need density or vertical mixed-use to be New Urban. Case in point, the original New Urban development, Seaside, FL, is essentially a garden neighborhood with a little retail center on the front.

I've been there, and it's phenomenal. It's the American dream. Even people like Tory would like it. A house, a yard, great quiet streets, a very beautiful neighborhood, good school squarely in the center. The big selling point is that at the NEIGHBORHOOD level it is walkable, in particular to get to the school, the church, the park, and some convenience shopping.

This is good New Urbanism.

I'll offer a more local case in point. The only true New Urban building in Houston (unless there's something new I haven't seen yet) is Post Midtown Square, at Gray St. and Bagby.

Now, in the development, which encompasses four entire city blocks, only four block faces have any kind of commercial. Only two block faces are retail, one corner has a bar and one mid-block has a convenience store.

Those stores work, and the structures are entirely New Urban, including all the various faces of the the buildings that have no commercial component (12 out of the 16 block faces).

Now, the best comparison for Midtown Square to illustrate what New Urbanism is NOT, is Camden Midtown.

Camden is a suburban garden apartment complex squeezed into Midtown.

Does it have density? Yes. Is it oriented to the pedestrian? No. Why not? Well, the gigantic wall and garden that separate the building from the street (to keep the delicate folks inside safe from the undesirables outside) relegates pedestrian traffic to necessity status. IE, nobody is walking around that block if they don't HAVE to.

Ironically, this 'walling off' of the residences has the opposite of the intended effect. As someone who lives in the neighborhood, I can tell you, Camden has more vagrants loitering outside than Post does, despite much better panhandling opportunities (due to much higher pedestrian traffic) at Post.

The reason is simple, there's too much critical mass at Post, and most vagrants aren't really looking to panhandle anyone, they just want a quiet place to sit. At Camden there are no entries to the building for 6 block faces, so plenty of shaded walkway to sit on and not be bothered. At post there are on average four entries per block face. Thus, there is constant pedestrian traffic around those blocks.

Fundamentally, New Urbanism comes down to a decision about how you integrate your transportation networks. Compare Downtown / Midtown to the Galleria. Traffic in Downtown / Midtown is a tiny fraction of the Galleria area, despite being at least as dense on aggregate and MUCH denser in the core. Why? The grid. Because you have so many streets to choose from you can get around traffic.

Moreover, Midtown is a much better place to live than the Galleria, because that same grid of streets offers great livable neighborhood options as well. The cross streets (like Hadley, McGowen, and Dennis) offer quiet fronts for residences with ample on-street parking for guests (even if they have to walk a block), while the main streets (like Bagby or Louisiana) offer long haul circulation.

So, when evaluating new developments, don't be fooled by the marketing ploy. Sawyer Heights lofts or Camden Midtown are NOT New Urban developments, no matter how much they pretend. In Houston the one and only is Midtown Square. The rest is old urban development, or suburban development dressed in neo-traditional architectural styles.

What makes something New Urban is the integrated, connected transportation network linking all sorts of uses with appropriate multi-modal infrastructure. Mixed-use is the preferred configuration of the commercial zone, but not a prerequisite.

At 9:41 AM, July 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I think it's a process.

It's very hard to plop a NU development in the middle of sprawl. It takes time.

I believe all these dense apartments going up is just the beginning. So what if they don't have ground floor amenities? As long as they're urban apts and not garden style, we're on our way. As more of the townhomes, condos and apts are built, the ground level retail will come and we'll be NUs without even trying.

I believe in NU developments, the chicken and the egg is clear. Residential needs to come first, but urban parks help too ;)

At 9:45 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger John said...

I don't think it's that clear cut, Tory. I think the Heights is a good example of Houston-style old urbanism; I, like most residents, drive to most things, but there are still plenty of pedestrians and one always has the option of not driving for a lot of basic needs - something not true in the burbs.

The result is an environment that's really good for those who can't or prefer not to drive, and less need for multiple vehicles or spending money on gas for everything.

It might not match what people call "new urbanism" in design details, but it works very well. My point is just that rather than pay homage to a concept, it's useful to see what actually works with desirable results in the local environment.

We're getting some much-higher density housing in, especially around my corner of the neighborhood (Sunset Heights), and it'll be interesting to see if there's a corresponding change in pedestrian traffic.

At 9:48 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger John said...

Those Post apartments in Midtown may indeed be good new urbanist development, but the neighborhood overall? Not really. I lived there when I first came to town (and the Post thing was up & fully functional; I lived 1 block from it) and while it's a nice little pedestrian island, Midtown is completely dysfunctional for pedestrians.

One of the main reasons I moved to the Heights was that in terms of how my life actually functions, it's much closer to what my life in a very dense neighborhood in DC was like.

At 9:50 AM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Andrew said...

I agree that it's a process, but what's critical is that INFRASTRUCTURE come first. That's why New Urbanism is hard to pull off in the suburbs, it's the wrong infrastructure.

Consider for a moment the Edwards Marq*E center at I-10 and 610.

There's plenty of demand for all kinds of development there.

If you filled their surface parking lot (to the west) with offices, and extended some kind of street north to develop apartments, the linkage of the three *could form a classic new urban development. The entertainment/lifestyle stuff at Edwards would benefit from the foot traffic of people walking from the apartments to the offices (which some certainly would do) and the offices would certainly help the restaurants etc. in the center.

But that will never happen, because there isn't a street pattern in the area to allow it, and adjacent developers can't reconfigure the MarqE property to connect to it - it's all private property. Had the MarqE been designed with private or public streets to connect its center to its edges, this type of development could have spread.

So really, it doesn't matter what is built first, so long as whatever is built is designed in such a way to allow adjacent development to connect and grow and synergize.

Instead, suburban development deliberately is walled-off. Garden apartments and shopping malls are all the same, they deliberately create an inward focused island development, so that you won't use their parking lot and walk someplace else, and so that you'll stay on their property once you get there.

That's why most of the best New Urban development that WORK use a combination of free on-street parking for convenience and off peak times, and some sort of paid parking garage with vouchers from businesses that are on that block.

The development in Rice Village with Two Rows and Black Walnut... whatever the name of that is, is a great example of this parking management theory. It's not sufficiently pedestrian friendly to really qualify as New Urban, but it's close.

At 7:48 PM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Chris Bradford said...

Thanks for the link, Tory.

I was mainly talking about greenfield NU developments (and I think you were too). Neither analysis really applies to dense urban infill.

I think you've got a pretty good hypothesis to explain the lack of greenfield/suburban NU. I'm surprised that developers can't figure out how to integrate some light retail/dry cleaners/vets/restaurants into these.

Maybe they really can't work because of parking/convenience. It's ultimately an empirical question. I haven't figured out how to test it yet.

At 9:36 PM, July 15, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You're welcome. And I liked your articulations of other barriers and potential solutions.

Actually, restaurants seem to work fine, judging from places like Sugar Land and The Woodlands town centers. People like a dinner place where they can walk around a bit before and after. But "basics" - dry cleaners, banks, convenience stores, groceries, etc. - don't work. And that even seems to apply to the NU developments happening in Houston's core.

At 2:44 PM, July 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a junior partner at a respectable development firm in the houston/katy area. While NU is somewhat difficult in the houston area there is similar development called "Traditional Neighborhood Development, (TND)" It is done on smaller scales and has several multi-faceted living areas within the TND. Ie, assisted living, age restricted, row houses, etc.. There are retail in the front of the TND, which will support local small entrepreneuers. There are some exciting things happening in the houston area and we are on our way to the New Urbanism idea in Houston.


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