This is what a transformed suburb looks like.

Earlier this week I made a list of changes to city policies and the public realm that would help transform suburban communities into passibly walkable urban environments. The changes I listed were:

  • Narrow existing roads to slow cars, make the pedestrian experience tolerable, and reduce the cost of road maintenance;
  • Reduce parking requirements and price on-street parking according to demand;
  • Expand the transportation network to include pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Reduce minimum lot size, especially for commercial and retail uses;
  • Allow mixed-use developments by-right along arterial corridors;
  • Found local financial institutions for both debt and equity financing for local business and small-scale developers;
  • Reduce or eliminate building setbacks along arterial streets; and
  • Require buildings facing arterial streets to have active commercial uses on the ground floor.

These changes, in the right places, will preserve the single-family experience for the majority of a community, while providing the benefits of transit and shopping within walkable distances. But what exactly would a suburban city look like once these changes were in place?

Brookhurst Aerial

South Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, CA is a typical suburban arterial roadway. It is classified by the City of Anaheim General Plan as a Major Arterial, and it consists of three vehicular travel lanes in each direction with a painted median. Total right-of-way width is 120 feet, with 100 feet of paving, curb to curb, dedicated to cars, and 10-foot, curb-adjacent sidewalks on each side of the street. The predominant land uses along Brookhurst are auto-oriented strip commercial, with ample parking facing the street. These commercial parcels range in depth from about 150 feet to about 500 feet, with typical suburban residential neighborhoods bordering the rear of the commercial uses.

The first step is to modify the Brookhurst right-of-way. It’s possible to maintain the same throughput of the street, with the same number of lanes and turning movements, while adding additional parking, and additional pedestrian and bicycle amenities. To achieve this, travel lanes are reduced from the existing 12-foot to 9-foot wide lanes. This can be achieved today within the existing right-of-way, with nothing more than a few cans of paint.

Existing Brookhurst
Existing Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst
Proposed Brookhurst

The second step is a combination of zoning policy changes, including reducing parking requirements, eliminating setbacks to arterial streets, permit mixed-use developments, and require active commercial uses on the ground floor. These changes enable a vibrant pedestrian street life, instead of simple auto-dependant commerce. The picture below shows Brookhurst as it is today, and a rendering of what it could look like with these zoning code changes in place.

Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Exiting Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape
Retrofitted Brookhurst Streetscape

Amazingly, this is the same street, using the same roadway right-of-way, with mixed-use buildings simply replacing the strip commercial adjacent to the roadway and not displacing any of the existing suburban single-family homes. This increased density along the arterial roadways, along with the existing homes, provides sufficient density and productive value to support robust transit options, such as Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail.

The walkable commercial corridors, combined with the availability of transit transforms the existing suburban neighborhoods into ones that are more walkable. These changes provide commercial amenities and transit within the walkshed of the existing homes. It preserves the character of the neighborhood and all of the things that people love about the suburbs, while also providing many of the benefits of urban living.

With simple land use policy changes and very little public investment, suburban municipalities can unleash huge amounts of private investment and ongoing economic activity in their communities. These simple changes result in more prosperous cities, with larger and more sustainable revenue streams with lower per capita costs, while at the same time reducing environmental impacts caused by the city as a system.

These changes won’t achieve quality results in every suburb. Some suburbs, especially those built within the past thirty years, do not have arterial roadways in close enough proximity to single-family subdivisions or have been built in places that are not topographically conducive to walkability. Also, the demand for these types of places is not infinite, so the communities that adopt these changes early will have an advantage over the communities that wait.

If you want your suburban community to thrive over the long term, and to preserve the things that make suburban communities desirable, then you need to provide the leadership necessary to ensure your community is in the first wave of communities that adopt these policies.

The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Anaheim’s historic downtown was a seedy red-light district. Despite the fact that downtown dated back to the founding of the city in 1853, with a traditional street grid, mid-rise masonry buildings, and a Carnegie library, it had become overrun with adult bookstores and a movie theater that played adult films. It was, quite simply, the embodiment of the negative stereotypes of urban living that were so popular at the time. The Anaheim Redevelopment Agency’s solution to this situation was to bulldoze the vast majority of the historic buildings, re-route and expand the major thoroughfares, and replace everything with car-focused development. Over the past thirty years, Anaheim’s redeveloped downtown has stagnated and fallen once again into disrepair, while neighboring cities such as Orange and Fullerton preserved their historic downtowns to create vibrant urban districts.

This clean-slate approach to redevelopment is not a successful strategy for rebuilding our suburbs, and especially not our downtowns. The rapid destruction and redevelopment of entire neighborhoods displaces existing users, destroys any existing economics and community activity, and creates far too much supply of new development to be absorbed by the market. The result is a neighborhood with continued anemic economic and community activity, similar to the condition before redevelopment. In short, the redevelopment effort ends up being a failed investment into the community. Continue reading The Problem with a clean-slate approach to redevelopment