Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How do we Re-Center our Suburbs?

The last twenty to thirty years have left many of our suburbs as vast sprawling single-use residential subdivisions surrounded by vast sprawling single-use commercial strips with little to seam the two together. This pattern has been well-documented and is now the location of foreclosures and dark storefronts. Why? There are of course many reasons for this, some of which are complex (over-leveraging of debt instruments) and some are rather simple (oversupply of homes and retail not supported by actual population growth).

Regardless, it appears that the communities that have fared the best are those with a true civic heart and a viable center of the community. For most communities, this is the Main Street, their downtown. Just why is having a downtown so important? Very simply, it gives a community its heart and soul. It binds people together socially and creates a visual characteristic that distinguishes one address from the other.

Our practice has allowed us to work with a number of these suburban communities seeking to physically define their geography with the creation of a Main Street. This work has ranged from Germantown, TN where we assisted this suburban Memphis community of 37,000 in redefining 800 acres of largely single-story strip shopping centers into a multi-story, mixed-use environments to Trinity, NC where we recently assisted them in implementing a vision of a true village center for this nearly 200 year old settlement.

In Germantown, they realized that the annexation-based greenfield growth that fueled their tax revenues through the 70's and 80's was slowing quickly. As a result, they began to refocus their economic development efforts on the redevelopment of previously under-performing sites. The resultant plan will be guided over the next 40 years by a form-based code and a public-private partnership program.

The economic analysis of the potential redevelopment told the tale. It is estimated that the current tax proceeds for the area is approximately $1,760,000. However, with mixed-use infill and redevelopment as contemplated by the plan, the City can conservatively expect tax proceeds in 2007 dollars more than double this value. So, in fostering an environment where mixed-use was permitted and encouraged (it was previously forbidden) Germantown now has the opportunity to create a Main Street where previously there was none and yield a substantial return on investment. Sounds like a win-win. For more information go to http://www.germantown-tn.gov/SmartGrowth.html

In Trinity, NC they face a different challenge. Trinity was first established as a community in the 19th century when Trinity College occupied a plot of land at the center of this small agricultural community in the Greensboro-High Point region. Unfortunately, Trinity College was moved before the turn of the 20th century to Durham and became Duke University. Trinity was on the precipice of forming a downtown around the college and the rail line just to the north to serve this growing area but found itself instead returning to its agricultural roots with little occurring until the last ten years. The community was re-incorporated in 1997 and moved quickly to plan their growth. Having adopted their first land use plan and planned significant investments in a community-wide public sewer system, the town leader's sought ways on how to best manage these key investments.

In May, 2009, the community organized a public design charrette and developed a coherent vision for their historic core. Most importantly, they planned a vision of a village center anchored by a village green on which they can program community-wide events and activities. Located at the doorstep of the true community activity center, the high school, this village green is envisioned to draw from the historic remnants of Trinity College (located adjacent to this site) while establishing a heart and soul for this "placeless" community. In addition, the plan identified the opportunity of redeveloping five key parcels directly to the north to create a small mixed-use neighborhood center that will finally give Trinity the Main Street they have longed for. For more information go to trinity-nc.blogspot.com.


  1. I am reaching from http://stldesignworld.wordpress.com and it´s great to find a new blog on these issues. Just keep writing now you have started and have fun writing.

  2. I like the description of Main Street as a "visual characteristic that distinguishes one address from another." Increasingly, however, it seems that many new suburban typologies fail to provide visual interest -- including more urbanistic models that emphasize pedestrians over vehicles, feature multiple building stories, and mix uses. Village centers, especially those of master-planned or single-developer projects, often seem sterile or monotonous in their architectural identity while simultaneously appearing more attractive than their outdated strip mall counterparts. Meadowmont Village and the emergent East 54 in Chapel Hill, NC, illustrate this claim. The positive benefits of these new, suburban design templates notwithstanding, how can suburban communities promote visual distinctiveness when today's development models: A) remain driven by large, single-developer entities pursuing projects that B) demand significant capital expenditures up front, reinforcing the tendency towards construction by sole developers of a coherent if not tedious composition. Based on these assumptions, how do communities instill a sense of character in their new-found village centers that will adequately differentiate Chapel Hill, NC, from Germantown, TN, from Plano, TX?