Suburban retrofit, a solution to sprawl

Jan 28, 2010

For decades we've watched cities grow outward - call it suburban sprawl. But in recent years there's been a movement among urban planners who are banking on a reversal of this trend. The planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk - or DPZ - is at the forefront of the New Urbanism movement, which designs ways to cut back on growing outward. DPZ is currently writing a book on how to fix sprawl for planners, architects and anyone else who's interested. WFAE's Simone Orendain reports: Tom Low is on a mission. He's an urban planner with DPZ Charlotte and he keeps what he calls his "sprawl repair handbook" close-by. Low knows the idea of minimizing sprawl is a tough sell. He says, "One of the reasons is there's still a psychological attitude and perception that suburbia is in tact and is going to remain a desirable place to live." But Low doesn't believe it. DPZ refers to research and surveys that show people are looking to trade their suburban car-centered lifestyles for conveniences right outside their door. Low is seeing this especially with the baby boomer generation. "That particular type of lifestyle doesn't necessarily work that well as you get older," explains Low. "It has to do with things like lawn care, simple things like that. Having access to medical services. As you age you become less interested in driving everywhere." In Charlotte, suburban subdivisions dominate. The city does have plans in place to control growth, but it also doesn't forbid developers from building outward. Charlotte city planners combat sprawl mostly with infilling. Think condo and retail development along the light rail line. The city's transportation plan plays a key role, with light rail and proposals to expand the streetcar system and extend bike access. Infill often pushes growth upward, not outward. It's a big component of the DPZ sprawl repair handbook. Developers take older pieces of land that have lived past their usefulness and retrofit them to suit the urban lifestyle. You can find examples of this in pockets like South Park and Dilworth I'm standing along-side one of Charlotte's oldest infill projects. 1315 East Boulevard is your classic mixed use development with retail- there's a dress shop here, services- a beauty salon and restaurants with outdoor seating. In this building there are offices on the second floor and condominiums on the five floors above that Grubb Properties developed this condo project in 2000. It represents a shift in philosophy for this company, which prior to the 1315 project, developed suburban subdivisions. Grubb's planning and development head Todd Williams says units here could be hundreds of dollars more per square foot than in a single family suburban home. Cheaper-to-do is one factor that drives suburban development, but the bad economy has put the breaks on a number of those projects. Williams says deliberate growth is the way to go. "Increasingly the way that we will have to think about the development of land and urban resources, is in a way that's responsible, good stewards of the land and sustainable, as much as possible," he says. Infill mixed use is good, but it's not for everyone, according to land acquisition expert Bill Daleure of Crosland Company. Crosland's development arm spearheaded a number of high end South Charlotte subdivisions. Daleure says, "In-fill is very expensive and so you're selling to one segment of the market that can afford it and ignoring a segment of the market that can't. I guess the simple terms of 'one size doesn't fit all' is what everyone should be cognizant of." But Low of DPZ is convinced a big segment of the population wants a walk-able lifestyle. The sprawl repair handbook emphasizes pedestrian friendly roads and throughways in subdivisions that replace single in and out entrances. There's also a strong focus on common gathering places like town squares, in place of spread-apart businesses. One North Carolina town in need of a square was Locust. It's a tiny town halfway between Charlotte and Albermarle. For the Locust project, three partners tapped DPZ's Charlotte office. DPZ has helped reshape downtowns in West Palm Beach, Florida, Providence, Rhode Island and hundreds of other US cities and towns. We take a drive to the town: "So we're right now headed to Locust," I say to Low. "Right it's kinda like we're going over the malls and through the sprawls," he laughs. Locust's downtown was basically bulldozed to make room for the expansion of Highway 24/27. DPZ retrofitted an old factory site to become the new town center. On Highway 24-27, there's a Wal-Mart supercenter right next door to the Stanly County Community College's Crutchfield campus, a fast food restaurant and a strip mall. Then about a mile east of this - the Locust town center, that Low has not visited in a while. "There's a little building that looks suspiciously like the old Reid's grocery store in Myers Park," he exclaims. He marvels at an open patch of green in front of a bank building bounded by on-street parking. "And look Andreas Bechtler! He did it, he brought a sculpture piece. I suggested this could be an art park" Bechtler of Charlotte's modern art museum fame along with two partners are investing more $100 million into this 120 acre development. Low is impressed with these partners' commitment to managing sprawl and having something long-lasting. He's seen more and more of this kind of developer. And he says now is the time to start tapping that talent so that Charlotte can have a good template for the predicted influx of suburbanites looking for an urban lifestyle.

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