I recently read a great post by Nathaniel Hood on the Strong Towns blog here describing the plight of many aging second ring suburbs. He was concerned that auto-dependent low-density communities were running into structural problems as they entered their fourth or fifth or sixth decade. Declining municipal revenue is combining with increasing costs for everything from infrastructure maintenance, unfunded pensions, and vital services. His solution involves adding value to the existing infrastructure through higher density mixed-use infill development and a shift towards more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly urban fabric. This would boost tax revenue on existing underutilized low value property – most of which is currently surface parking lots. Money would then become available for things like teachers, police and fire protection, and public amenities like parks and libraries rather than eight lane arterial roads lined with one story strip malls.
Mr. Hood was clear about the possible options facing these towns. If they keep things exactly as they are now they will inevitable decline and devolve into less prosperous places. The numbers simply don’t add up to allow these local governments to remain solvent into the future given their current set of arrangements. The problem with his solution is that current residents often resist change for fear that the character of their familiar suburb will be altered. There’s a political backlash against things that smack of top down “social engineering” that doesn’t play well with many people. The default political position is to keep things as they are and muddle along.
I say, “Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.” I’m pretty sure what Mr. Hood has in mind is something in keeping with the lovable neighborhoods of a previous era: Boston’s Back Bay, Toronto’s Queen Street West, Miami’s South Beach, or a thousand charming small Midwestern “Norman Rockwell” farm towns. Or perhaps he holds newer places like Portland’s Pearl District or Vancouver’s slender glassy podium towers in high esteem. In my experience when most suburbs do embrace things like density and transit they do so in a peculiar manner that achieves the stated goals, but with a very different flavor.
Recently I’ve been helping a friend move house from an apartment in San Francisco to a suburban tract home in San Jose forty miles to the south. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for twenty years but I’ve never explored San Jose before. I simply never had a good enough reason to spend time there. But now I do and what I keep finding is very strange. Surprising, but strange.
This is Santana Row in suburban San Jose. It was once apricot and plum orchards, but starting in 1961 it became the forty acre Town & Country Village shopping center and Courtesy Chevrolet dealership. Then in 2002 it was transformed into a complex that at times and from certain angles looks and feels remarkably like an actual town. Let’s go down the list… Dense? Check. Mixed use? Check. Walkable? Check. Family friendly? Check. Ethnically and culturally diverse? Check. Served by public transit? Check. Fills the municipal coffers with loads of tax revenue? Check. Employs lots of people? Check. Contains highly efficient public infrastructure? Check. I could go on, but you get the idea. So Mr. Hood, problem solved! Except…
Santana Row is still a shopping mall. In fact it’s still home to a car dealership as well in the form of a Tesla showroom. Mind you, it’s a shopping mall with 219 condos and 615 rental apartments sitting on top of it, but every inch of it is still a mall. The surface parking was compressed and stacked into multi-story parking decks. The big box stores were pushed to the edges along the high volume arterial roads so as to create a buffer for the eponymous main drag down the center. There are public buses that stop on the edge of the complex so there is nominal access to transit, although it doesn’t work well since Santana Row is embedded in the middle of a whole lot of low density sprawl. You really do need to drive to almost everything most of the time. And there are plenty of people driving on the roads and freeways outside the complex to get to the mall from someplace else.
Keep in mind the people who build these higher density infill developments are the same people who have been building shopping malls and golf-oriented gated communities for decades. They’re really good at it and have the expertise and financial backing to get these big projects done. But they aren’t city builders. They just build more compact versions of the old stuff they’re used to – usually on exactly the same plots of land.
I want to give Santana Row the benefit of the doubt and say that this might be a baby step that will ultimately lead to other such developments that begin to link together to form a contiguous and coherent city, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Instead this thicker more intense suburban form is its own thing distinct from traditional historic town centers. Some people may prefer it and pay extra to live there. Others may live there because it’s not quite as bad as the suburban alternatives down the highway. Or some may not like it at all and move farther away to escape to an even more distant suburb that’s quieter and less citified. Santana Row is simply another option along the spectrum. But it ain’t Norman Rockwell.
Here’s a different part of San Jose where the city has invested in a light rail system. On paper it works pretty well. It’s possible to travel from downtown San Jose to the airport along a corridor where many Silicon Valley companies have their corporate campuses. The rail stops also coordinate with intersecting bus routes so you can branch out to other neighborhoods. And in a few years the BART commuter rail will be extended from Oakland and San Francisco to connect to San Jose. The problem with investing in rail systems in suburbia is that there may be some density here and there – like an apartment complex, Chinese retirement home, or Holiday Inn. But mostly there’s just too much empty space and low value crap everywhere for the system to be efficient or pleasant. In time things may flesh out, but the way things are looking now suggests that the end result will be more like a parade of five story strip malls than anything our great grandparents would call a town.
Here’s another example of density without urbanism. This is Dublin, California forty miles east of San Francisco and thirty miles north of San Jose. Dublin is a new town being built on pasture land and it’s the last stop on the BART commuter rail line. It’s pretty much the farthest you can go in the Bay Area without the daily commute to other suburbs (forget the city) from becoming intolerable.
The aerial view from Google Earth provides an excellent understanding of the city planning involved. The territory has been carved up into giant superblocks just like the typical suburban pattern. One chunk for the regional shopping mall, one chunk for the office park, one chunk for the big box and chain restaurant pods, and many chunks for residential use. But instead of building single family detached homes on cul-de-sacs, Dublin is going with much higher density condo complexes with massive internal parking decks. The width of the roads anticipates a tremendous amount of traffic once the landscape has been filled as planned. There’s already bus service in operation and bike paths have been included in the street design, but only the most unfortunate inhabitants of this landscape will ever “chose” to use it as a last resort. The physical design of the place repels pedestrians and makes biking unpleasant even in the California sunshine. And look at the buildings. These are actually more dense than typical neighborhoods in San Francisco or Brooklyn. This is just more density without urbanism. What would it be like to walk to a shop to buy bread or milk from one of these buildings? Would you let your children walk to school here? Would you be comfortable letting your elderly mother sit on the side of one of these roads waiting for a bus to travel to the mall or the doctor? Dublin is an hour and a half away from civilization, but not really any closer to what you might call nature – and the more of Dublin that gets built the less pleasant it will become.
So Mr. Hood… When you encourage aging suburbs or new green field developments to build more compactly please be far more specific and mention the other vital aspects of city building and place-making that need to accompany the density. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with sprawl puffed up on steroids instead of a real town.