Speakers say start with strip malls and superblocks when retrofitting suburbia
By Michael Burnham. Bylined writers are Metro staff. Stories with a byline do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council. Metro news is committed to transparency, fairness and accuracy. Learn more
What can be done with abandoned big box stores on a superblock? Try building streets lined with bioswales, retailers, apartments and municipal offices.
The solution for a moribund strip mall? Try clustering retail services at busy intersections and building a mix of housing types along street segments between the commercial centers.
Economic and environmental opportunities abound in a sea of suburban concrete, but creative policymaking and investments must come first, noted urban strategists Michael Freedman and Ellen Dunham Jones, who headlined a forum, titled "Retrofitting Suburbia," today at The Governor Hotel in Portland. The Annual Alliance Program, organized by the International Council of Shopping Centers, was aimed at building big ideas and relationships among local developers, public officials and retailers.
“Building on top of parking lots is a perfectly good place to start,” said Dunham Jones, a Princeton-educated architect and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. “But to really get a more sustainable suburban pattern, we’ve got to also change that fundamental structure of the lots, the blocks and the streets to get us back to more walkable street patterns.”
Freedman, a principal with the San Francisco-based architecture and planning firm FTS Urban Design, will join the Metro Policy Advisory Committee and members of the public this evening at the Metro Regional Center. Freedman's lecture, from 5 to 7 p.m., will focus on building vibrant commercial centers. He devoted much of this morning’s presentation to the oft-neglected segments in between.
Strip malls across the nation are experiencing record vacancy rates, as shops have closed amid the Great Recession or gravitated toward shopping centers at high-visibility intersections. The strip used to be hip, however.
As suburban home- and automobile-ownership and interstate construction exploded after World War II, downtown shops and shoppers gravitated toward auto-dependent strip malls with stores far from street edges.
“The standardized production of the physical world had never been seen before,” Freedman explained. “It started with the homes, and it moved to the strip.”
The strip is no longer the “new thing,” he added, and resultant mass-produced architecture and auto-dependent retail have lost their luster. Storefronts are vacant, and people take notice. They don’t walk; they drive, adding to road congestion and air pollution.
“It is the sticky, difficult, stuck-in, well-rooted crux of the suburban sustainability problem,” Freedman said of the modern strip.
So what are suburban planners and developers to do?
They could transform commercial corridors surrounded by neighborhoods into “centers” and “segments,” Freedman said. For example, supermarkets, banks and pharmacies could cluster around big intersections. Housing along the segments between the centers could vary in terms of setbacks, type and height, depending on their distance from the retail centers.
This pattern of development is nodal instead of linear, Freedman explained, and is based upon what he calls a regional “hierarchy of centers.” Larger intersections could support fashion department stores and entertainment venues with denser housing types along adjacent segments.
Dunham Jones said that such “nodes” of urbanity in the suburbs appeal especially to Baby Boomers who are retired and Millennials in their 20s and early 30s – the biggest population segments in the United States. Rising fuel prices will require connecting such nodes with alternative transportation options, she said.
“Transit-served boulevards really is … the alternative to the ‘drive-‘till-you-qualify’" residential development, she said. “Gas prices are not going down.”
So to make such new urbanism work, she added, regions such as Portland should conduct “greyfield” audits and target retrofitting strategies at the metropolitan scale. To the same end, local governments should increase incentives for the retrofitting work and decrease incentives for commercial and residential sprawl.
Michael Burnham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-813-7538. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.