Dunham-Jones: “Underperforming Space Is an Opportunity to Retrofit”

On day two of The Atlantic Magazine’s Green Intelligence forum, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, talked about how some of the detritus of suburbia—the vacant big box stores, crumbling parking lots, dying strip malls—can be re-purposed. Today, a third of enclosed shopping malls are dead or dying. More than 28 percent of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, owing more than the current value of their homes. The result is “zombie subdivisions.” But, says Dunham-Jones, “the proliferation of underperforming space is an opportunity to retrofit. We can redirect development to more walkable, affordable communities.”

Promising to focus on two Washington, D.C. area case studies, she first sketched out three categories of retrofits: re-greening, reinhabitation, and redevelopment. The first she characterized as “re-greening of areas that shouldn’t have been built on in the first place.” An example was Phalen Village, Minnesota, where a wetland was reconstructed on the site of a failed shopping center. She described reinhabitation as replacing retail with something different, as when a big box store in Denton, Texas, was turned into a public library. With redevelopment, an area is made more dense and urbanized. An example is Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, where a former enclosed mall is being turned into a mixed use, walkable urban community.

Turning to the case studies, Dunham-Jones described University Town Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. This former office park was surrounded by surface parking. The opening of a Metro stop nearby resulted in a zoning change that encouraged mixed-use development. The owner built a parking deck and inserted a road over the surface parking, along with some apartments. The first retrofit steps encouraged others. The area became more walkable, which increased property values.

In the case of University Town Center, the redevelopment was encouraged by the arrival of mass transit and led by the developer. In the second case, that of Columbia Pike in suburban Virginia, densification came first. The question became, could the increased density trigger and pay for transit? The additional tax revenue that came with a more urbanized area was envisioned as a way to fund a streetcar along a stretch of the Pike. Also, along Columbia Pike, new zoning was proposed at commercial nodes, rather than along the entire route, so that existing affordable housing could be preserved.

Critical to this strategy was the use of form-based zoning codes. Unlike the traditional use-based codes, which say only how the zoned area may be used, form-based codes determine where a property sits in relation to the street—close to it or set back.

What’s next in revitalizing the suburbs according to Dunham-Jones? Scaling it up.

To learn more, watch a TED talk with Dunham-Jones.

This guest post is by Rachel Shaw, Manager, Professional Practice, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

Image credit: Phalen wetland restoration project / Daytons Bluff.org

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