Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? The Move Back To The City

This is another in a series of blog posts excerpted from Reconnecting America's report "Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America"

While the creative class is causing seismic shifts in the urban landscape — bringing investment, entrepreneurship and creative class jobs into downtowns and urban neighborhoods — shifts are also underway in the suburbs. For every decade since the 1920s the suburbs have grown faster than their city centers but this summer census data showed that between 2010 and 2011 city centers grew faster than suburbs in 27 of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas. From 2000 to 2010, in contrast, only five metro areas saw their cores grow faster than their surrounding suburbs.

There is also anecdotal evidence of a similar shift in commercial real estate. The Wall Street Journal, for example, noted in 2012 that the big box chains Lowe’s and Best Buy are saddled with poorly performing stores “whose problems may have less to do with how they are run but more where they are located . . . Through much of the decade, expansion-minded retailers followed a strategy of chasing rooftops. As home-builders plunked down houses farther and farther away from urban centers, retail real-estate developers followed with new shopping centers. But the recession and housing bust put an end to that.”

The Journal notes that with population growth in the suburbs at a standstill, store customers never showed up and higher-income households — the customers most valued by retailers — are gravitating closer to the urban core. “It’s a demographic shift that could potentially be as disruptive for retailers as the previous push to the suburbs, which eventually did in the likes of Montgomery Ward,” the Journal article concludes.

Crain’s Chicago Business was blunt in a special issue in 2011 entitled “Corporate Campuses in Twilight,” declaring: “Like the disco ball, the regional shopping mall and the McMansion, the suburban corporate headquarters campus is losing its charm . . . Remote, sprawling and splendidly isolated, these headquarters epitomized corporate America in the last quarter of the 20th century.”

Shout Out

Below are shout-outs to some of the agencies that have been able to go the extra mile to serve non-rush-hour commuters, who include food servers and retail clerks, attendants who work in hospitals and nursing homes, and cleaning crews. The Federal Transit Administration has provided funding through its Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program for transit service at night, on weekends and along less-traveled routes, and to help families get their children to childcare. But the JARC program was eliminated in the 2012 federal transportation reauthorization, creating an uncertain future for many of these services. 

  • San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit service from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m.
  • Portland’s Swan Island Shuttle after-hours service to FedEx and UPS.
  • NYC’s Request A Stop allows late-night riders to get out anywhere along a bus route from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
  • Laughlin, Nevada’s 24-hour shuttle service for casino employees.
  • Chicago’s 24/7 Night Owl service, with an owl logo on bus maps.
  • Bay Area All Nighter shuttle service to BART and Caltrain stations.
  • Essex County, New Jersey’s demand-responsive night owl service to Newark Penn Station and surrounding neighborhoods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
  • Indianapolis late-night IndyGo bus service from low-income neighborhoods to industrial areas and the airport.
  • Monroe, Louisiana’s Night Rider service for late-night workers at retail outlets.
  • The Niagara Frontier Transit Authority’s after-midnight service between Buffalo and its suburbs.
  • The Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region’s “emergency ride home” program. 

The article focuses on Chicago, which saw a tripling of private-sector employment in the suburban “collar counties” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but which is now seeing companies such as Allstate, Motorola, AT&T, GE Capital and even Sears reconsidering their suburban locations. Crain’s quotes Joe Mansueto, chairman and CEO of Morningstar, an investment research and analysis firm based in downtown Chicago: “The whole corporate campus seems a little dated,” he says, adding that downtown locations help keep companies competitive because their employees are aware of cultural and technological trends.

The Crain’s article also concludes that if these trends continue transportation planners need to focus less on building suburban highways and more on moving people in and around central city business districts. “Your transportation investments ought to be driven by your desire to grow the economy, not to spread investment across the state like peanut butter, which is what we do now,” says Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Principles, a nonprofit group of business and civic leaders. “The global economy is changing in ways that demand higher densities that can only be serviced with transit.”

It is hard to imagine what some of the larger downtowns in the U.S. would look like if everyone had to drive to get there. For example, more than 125,000 workers commute into downtown Pittsburgh every day, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and if every one of them drove alone, the entire 50-acre downtown would be a parking lot. Fortunately, more than half commute on foot, by bike or on transit, providing the downtown with a vibrant, animated streetlife — which is good for business.

A number of news stories have also suggested that downtown office space is rebounding from the recession more quickly than suburban business parks. The Wall Street Journal reported that at the end of the third quarter in 2010 the national office vacancy rate was 19 percent in the suburbs, compared to 14.9 percent in downtowns. In suburban Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example, more than 5 percent of the total office space inventory was vacated between January 2009 and September 2010 — while downtown Los Angeles, in contrast, lost just 1.8 percent.

The Journal also found that the property values of downtown office space increased 40 percent since the low point in 2009, whereas the value of suburban office space fell 4 percent. The article suggested that this was because downtown space was perceived as a lower risk and more likely to retain its value over time.

In 2012 the New York Times cited a study on aging office parks, called “What’s Old Is New Again,” that predicts by 2025 more than 6.3 billion square feet of vacant office space will exist in the U.S., at the same time that demand will grow for multifamily rental housing. Much as Arthur Nelson suggests in the Living chapter that McMansions and single-family homes be turned into multifamily housing, this study suggests that office parks could be rezoned for this purpose. The study also notes that the most successful office park retrofits are those with access to rail lines or major highways that also provide access to transit.

More Blog Posts In This Series