The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on Remaking Commercial Corridors


I received some really good feedback on yesterday’s piece on suburban commercial corridors.  There were good critiques on Twitter and in the comments section to the article.  I wanted to take a stab at addressing some of them, right here.

Remaking suburban commercial corridors can’t happen in all the places that need it.  This sentiment is captured by commenter articulated milburnism:

“The problem with your proposal is that those areas/developments are so stretched out from each other. One or a few areas might get dense mixed development, sure, but there would still just be a huge discontinuity in the form of Route 59 and mis-planned, sprawling development.”

This is absolutely true, and speaks to the extent of the problem.  The fact is, commercial development in America is as overbuilt as residential development, if not moreso.  Not all Route 59-type environments, or the entirety of any such strip, could be remade as mixed-use developments.

I see two reasons for this.  Mixed-use development will only occur where there is political support for it, and where the demand exists.  Those two factors will greatly reduce the scale potential for suburban mixed-use development along commercial corridors.

I did not mean to infer that that was a possibility.  If you want to see an urban analogy for this, I would suggest looking at major arterials in Chicago outside of the North Side, where land zoned commercial or business since the streetcar era struggles to hold on.  In the suburbs, as in cities, the best option might be for communities to pursue mixed-use development at major intersections of arterials, and pursue more residential uses in between.  This would also be difficult, due to the second point:

Pressure would come from anti-development groups.  In our current political environment, and with NIMBYism the rule rather than the exception, this will happen.  I expect that suburban homeowners will continue to double down on the Suburban Experiment at every opportunity, and oppose attempts by developers or enlightened public officials to provide a different development context in their community.  It’s true that only severe economic challenges might compel communities to accept such changes, and then it would be too late.

This approach potentially undermines existing public transit infrastructure, and creates an Arterial Rapid Transit (ART) paradigm.  This was brought up by Daniel Kay Hertz, and there’s quite a bit of truth to this as well — if all communities accept the approach and implement it.  Because of political pressure, NIMBYists and differences in demand across a metro area, I don’t think this proposal would reach the point that it would become the dominant development type in the region.

My overall point is that suburban commercial corridors will require adaptive options if they’re going to be sustainable.  Much like warehouse districts outside of large city downtowns were rezoned to residential use and converted to trendy lofts in decades past, suburban officials will likely have to come to terms with a similar choice.

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