Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Refurbishing The Suburbs

Editor's Note: This week’s excerpt from Are We There Yet? is all about the challenges – and opportunities – associated with suburban employment. Suburbs that suffered least during the economic downturn tend to be those that are more walkable, have a mix of moderate density housing and jobs. Many regions are using transit as an organizing principle to rethink the suburbs, and the sidebar discusses one national example doing exactly: Tyson’s Corner, VA, in the Washington, DC, region, which is rethinking a suburban office park as the area gains three new Metro Rail stations. More prosperous and connected suburbs should also be a key component in any regional economic strategy, since suburbs are where more than half of all lower- and middle-skilled jobs are located. 

Suburban employers say it can be difficult to recruit employees, a situation that sparked national interest last year when an email from a Michigan patent attorney appeared on blogs across the U.S. With a subject line reading “Why our growing firm may have to leave Michigan,” Andrew Basile Jr., CEO of Young, Basile, Hanlon & MacFarlane, PC, writes: “Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts. People — particularly affluent and educated people — just don’t want to live here.”

“Things are spread too far apart,” he notes, with “thousands of miles of streets and dingy strip malls” and “poor quality of place.” He adds, “You have to drive everywhere. There’s no mass transit. There’s no open space. It’s impossible to get around on a bike without taking your life into your hands. Most people lead sedentary lifestyles.” And while his company would like to stay in Michigan, he says: “We have a problem. It’s not taxes or regulations. . . We spend more on copiers and toners than we do on state taxes. Our problem is access to talent.”

Richard Florida notes in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article that “the suburbs that have continued to prosper during the downturn are those that share many attributes with the best urban neighborhoods: walkability, vibrant street life, density and diversity. The clustering of people and firms is a basic engine of modern economic life. When interesting people encounter each other, they spark new ideas and accelerate the formation of new enterprises. Renewing the suburbs will require retrofitting them for these new ways of living and working.”

That means quality transit, sidewalks, bike lanes and housing for people with a mix of incomes, jobs and retail located close enough together that you can get from one to the other on foot or by bike.

Regions across the U.S. have begun suburban retrofits that show enormous promise, including a handful of suburbs in Atlanta; Phoenix; Prince George’s County, MD; Minneapolis; Lakewood, CO; Tyson’s Corner, VA. In some suburbs and outlying areas shopping malls and strip malls have been converted into “lifestyle centers.” Roofs have been taken off, and they’ve been redesigned as small towns, with sidewalks, curbs, streetlamps and benches, and are walkable by design.

Successfully retrofitting the suburbs is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that the suburbs are where more than half of all lower- and middle-skilled jobs — those requiring less than a four-year college degree — are located, according to the Brookings Institution’s “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America” study in 2011. Ensuring that lower- and middle-skilled workers can afford to commute to these jobs, and that these are jobs that make the commute worthwhile, is critical if prosperity in this country is to be shared.

But as Aaron Renn notes on his Urbanophile blog, “Suburban revitalization will prove to be a much more challenging task than urban redevelopment . . . This gives us two great challenges: How to redevelop yesterday’s struggling suburbs, and how to make sure that new suburbs are built on a more sustainable base.”

On the way thereTysons Corner In Fairfax County, VA

Tysons Corner is Virginia’s mightiest jobs hub, a car-dominated five-square-mile tangle of 6,000 businesses, 14 hotels, two shopping malls and a dozen auto dealers that is criss-crossed by four wide highways and has more parking spaces — 167,000 — than the number of people who live and work there. The traffic congestion is legendary — caused in part by the fact that five times as many workers drive in (105,000) than actually live there (18,000). And while Tysons serves as suburban Fairfax County’s downtown, it doesn’t seem like a downtown, with few grocery stores, no churches, and just a smattering of aging high-rise apartment buildings and condos. Tysons is expected to continue to grow, given its proximity to Washington, D.C., but property owners worry about how that can happen given the traffic and the fact that there are no options to driving, even to a nearby restaurant. “Growth is good. Growth is inevitable. Growth is coming,” Doug Carter, an architect who has been working with property owners, says in the Washington Post. “But we’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg for the entire Washington, D.C. area unless we do something constructive.”

The decision to build the Silver Line extension of Metrorail through Tysons has galvanized a plan to turn it into something like nearby Arlington, which has over several decades been transformed from a declining suburban commercial corridor into one of Washington, D.C.’s most highly desirable neighborhoods. Dense development around five closely spaced Metrorail stations has succeeded in generating enormous investment and tax revenues, in the meantime minimizing the increase in traffic — most residents walk to rail stations and take transit to jobs in downtown Washington, D.C. — and preserving the quiet single family neighborhoods on the periphery.

The plan is to turn Tysons into an urban center by clustering office, retail and residential development around the four new Metrorail stations, with tree-lined walkable streets, sidewalk cafes, a performing arts center, parks and plazas, an urban elementary school, athletic fields and other uses that will turn Tysons into a 24/7 city where people can work, play and live.

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