The business of retrofitting suburban environments is steadily maturing, but with progress come questions -- does rehabilitating strip malls along arterials require, by definition, the muscle of a regional planning approach? Or are incremental steps the more realistic intervention? Two cases studies were highlighted in the panel "Sprawl Retrofit at the Micro Scale: Repairing in All Dimensions" at the 19th Congress for the New Urbanism in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this month: the ongoing transformation of State Road 7 in the Fort Lauderale-Hollywood area in south Florida, part of the Lincoln Institute's Redesigning the Edgeless City program, and the Long Island Index initiative and Places to Grow report prepared by partner the Regional Plan Association.
Along State Road 7 in Florida, the focus has been on replacing a deteriotated commercial strip with complete and more concentrated development at transit nodes, bolstered by a new land-use category for transit corridors and an increase in the sales tax in Broward County dedicated for transit. Yet close attention was also required for conditions on the ground. Planners do not want to displace, for example, the entreprenuers, many of them immigrants, who have taken advantage of the depressed real estate to occupy storefronts with small businesses or carts in the vast empty parking lots.
On Long Island, RPA identified 8,300 acres for potential redevelopment in suburban downtowns and around train stations -- half of which was currently used for parking cars. Mixed-use development in these areas, all within a half-mile radius of transit stations, could produce 90,000 new homes. But concerns about density and "unprotected open space" required going slow, starting the conversation with mapping tools that display how the areas could be filled in.
Both initiatives have been powered by regional planning agencies, and for the critical component of transit, given the fiscal strains on state and local government, future suburban retrofits may depend on the reauthorization of federal transportation funding, currently being tracked by Transportation for America. At the same time, said R. John Anderson, principal at Anderson|Kim Architecture + Urban Design, "developers have got to think much smaller." Given the unstable financial "soil conditions," he said, a one-quarter block of rental units and workspaces is much more likely than big developments coming in to save the day. "Tactical urbanism," he said, is a counter to scenario planning maps and big-picture "vision fatigue." Mike Lydon, founder of The Street Plans Collaborative, was of the same mind, suggesting that "tactical urbanism" such as pop-up cafes, temporary pavement painting, and chairbombing -- dropping in free Adirondack chairs built from shipping crates -- could be applied along suburban commercial strips.
The panel was moderated by Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author with June Williamson of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. Extensive coverage of all the proceedings of CNU 19 in Madison is available here. Related: Kaid Benfield also has a post on the challenges of transforming a dead mall near St. Louis.