Thursday, May 27, 2010

Single Use is Better for Revitalization than Mixed Use

The AIA, Congress for New Urbanism, industry circle jerk consensus these days is that the best way to bring back a fading urban or suburban area is with some TIF financed mixed-use development that rips the roof of the enclosed shopping center, and places condos and offices nearby. The idea is to create an instant city, as long you consider a place filled with mall cops, teenage skateboarders, and Panera/Starbucks/Quizno's chains a city. Yet Rome was not built in a day, and Reston Town Center looks like it was built to last ten minutes.

Fair Oaks Mall Parking Lot or Reston Town Center?
What mixed-use really creates is a "mix" of activities that can be found in many shopping center parking lots, right down to the mall cops harassing the skateboarders. Single use, on the other hand, allows a place to have a specific purpose, without being forced into some bad, Duany Plater-Zyberk plan to hype a development and win another AIA award. Single use also allows financing to come locally, from friends, community banks, or credit unions, not a distant bondholder or BofA loan officer.

In the DC area, we have a number of expanding pedestrian areas that have grown over the last 15 years due to single use developments. Two that stand out are Logan Circle, and Falls Church, Virginia, an incorporated city that sits about 7 miles from the White House.

I Wanted to Title this Section "Step By Step", but was reminded of that Horrible Early 90s Sitcom
Logan Circle and the adjacent 14th Street corridor used to be hooker heaven. I worked not to far away from there 15 years ago, and while the rowhouses looked like they had potential, the neighborhood was completely bombed out, and was very sketchy at night. Today it's a yuppie paradise with restored townhouses, ethnic restaurants, and rapidly rising real estate values. The picture on the top right corner of this blog is a photo of one of those rowhouses, taken with my very technically advanced iPhone camera.

Logan's redevelopment did not occur based on any grand architectural vision, but a one-by-one improvement in each store and home. It's got retail and homes near each other like many places do, but has little office space, so it's not "mixed-use" like the outdoor mall/condo/office developments that the Congress for New Urbanism typically fawns over.

Logan did get a big boost when a Whole Foods opened up in 2000, but it has not had much of the big bang development New Urbanists typically push along transit stops. And it's not "transit-oriented", because in spite of its urban location, it's a good 15 minute walk to the nearest Metro stop.

Outside of the Whole Foods and a Caribou Coffee, most of Logan's retail/restaurants are locally-owned. It's renewal, now 15 years old, is still a work in progress, but is sustainable and real. But you don't hear much about it because it wasn't redeveloped as part of a grand city plan, or designed by a publicity-seeking architect.

Single Use Success
Much like Logan Circle, Falls Church is in the midst of a decades-long, property-by-property revitalization. It has benefited from rising rents in neighboring Arlington, which has sent the local merchants to its single-use retail properties, and has a locally-owned coffee shop, ice cream store, and bars that are becoming regional favorites, and have created pedestrian traffic on its real, not manufactured, main street. In between these spots are a few ugly strip malls, but slowly these are being redeveloped or improved, but by a mix of architects, not for a mix of uses. Virtually all of the redevelopment in Falls Church has centered on one use - retail. Like Logan Circle, it sits between major office submarkets, but is not one in its own right. And while it might have looked a little worn out in the mid-90s, Falls Church never had crackwhores parading up and down its streets like Logan Circle did.

Unlike Falls Church, Reston Town Center, 15 miles away, has been hyped in architecture and urban planning books, and is filled with chains and cheesy bars. Financed with distant capital, RTC followed the New Urbanist big bang theory, and is an attempt to create a mixed-use city where a field existed not too long ago. Its "sidewalks" are actually the developers' private property, where walkie-talkie carrying mall cops will scold you if you try to take pictures, in between their attempts to keep fake ID-less teeny boppers from crowding the entrance to Pizzeria Uno.

Reston Town Center is as walkable as any shopping mall, though it has really impressed academic architects, the kind who often rail against capitalist profits, because it has a couple of 15 and 20 story office buildings on site. While some minivan moms think it's neat to get an ice cream outdoors, instead of at the food court, locals increasingly realize it's a weak substitute for a real town.

Two recessions in ten years, and distant bankers' nuts have gotten tight, so they are more hesitant to build more fake cities with "multiple uses". But the local capital sources financing local shop owners are far more shielded from overall conditions in the credit markets, and putting together $50,000 for a new bar or ice cream shop is far easier than underwriting a $150 million series of TIF bonds. It's also more likely to lead to someplace where you can walk outside to shops and restaurants, without feeling like Goofy is going to reach out and try to shake your hand.


  1. A mall-cop trolled development that is sprung up overnight and has a mix of uses in retail and residences, is still better than a sprawling exurb of cookie cutter homes or an office park tucked at a distant crossroad.

    These NU development will at least (ideally) create a place that will be inhabited throughout the day.

    Comparing those developments to ones that develop thoughtout time with a mix of players is a bit unfair.

  2. Omar, you raise a good point about evening activity. These developments might keep the traditional mall crowd an extra hour or two, extremely creepy to walk around the inside of a mall at 10pm. But many of these New Urbanist developments have been around since the early-to-mid 90s, and none have evolved their tenant mix to the point where you feel like you are in a real city.