Revitalizing Suburbia: It’s All About Context and Scale

Ellsworth Commons, Malta, New York / Fun Saratoga Blog

As more sprawled-out suburban and rural communities attempt to turn abandoned, outdated shopping malls and other underused spaces into walkable downtown destinations, the chances of things going wrong seem to rise. Developers may fail to understand context and the appropriate scale needed for a new mixed-use development. At the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver, Ian Law, ASLA, Place Alliance, explained how even the best laid plans for retrofitting suburbia can go haywire.

According to Law, it’s particularly challenging to create a comprehensive plan that can sustain a dense, walkable downtown if there are many small landowners in a community. Ideally, “one developer will be in control of the entire development.” Also important is that “the goals of the developer are in synch with the goals of the community.”

Even with a single developer in synch with the community, things can go awry though. Some common errors made by developers are “a disregard for context and creating downtowns out of scale.” If a community tries to add too much retail but has a low-population density, those stores are bound to fail, making the entire place much less appealing. If a development doesn’t fit the existing structure and organization of a community, it will also feel isolated and out of scale.

As perhaps a cautionary tale, Law explained the story of Malta, a small community of 25,000 in upstate New York. The community realized it needed to update itself to accommodate a new silicon chip plant that will bring in 2,000 jobs. However, they ended up creating an overly ambitious downtown revitalization plan. Instead of one downtown to replace what wasn’t working, they ended up creating three, said Law. These isolated, disconnected developments had “too much retail for the scale of Malta.”

One mixed-use development, Ellsworth Commons, broke ground, which created “lots of optimism,” but this “5-story  development that looked like it fell into a field” was destined to have problems. “There was no complete package.” While New Urbanist principles were applied — the building fronted the street — the street, in this case, was a multi-lane highway. The sidewalk ended just a few feet from the building. “There is no place to go. It’s a pretend Main Street. The sidewalks don’t connect.”

Furthermore, the entire development has “poor height ratios,” meaning the entire place feels out of scale. “With the lack of detail in implementation, there is no vibrancy, so people are missing.” Just 4,000 square feet out of the 70,000 square feet of retail planned is now being used, for a coffee shop and frozen yoghurt shop.

Law said this was a case of a developer and community out of synch: the developer could make money just from rental apartments, so they are focused less on the success of the development’s ground-level stores.

In its three downtowns, Malta is planning for some 2 million square feet of retail, which Law argues is out of scale with its current population and organization.

Law and Rosemary Wallinger, ASLA, Place Alliance, then pointed to some successes in retrofitting suburbia. Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida; Belmar in Lakewood, near Denver; and Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, all show “how good urbanist principles can lead to success.”

Mizner Park succeeded because a “single developer had control over the whole parcel.” What was once a tired mall is now a haven of stores, restaurants, and condos. “It has become the cultural center of Palm Beach, with many connections to the surrounding neighborhoods.” What is critical for Mizner Park is the surrounding context: there are some 170,000 people within five miles of the new development. As a result, the developers can make money off of the nearly 270,000 square feet of retail space built.

Belmar in Lakewood, Denver, is now the largest retrofit of a mall in the U.S. Some 104 acres were turned into 1,300 apartments set within 9 acres of open space. There’s also 700,000 square feet of retail. Again, the surrounding population of nearly 150,000 and broader Denver population of 3.2 million made this possible.

While Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod doesn’t have the high density population immediately around it, the 20-acre development, which created a new outdoor shopping center, works because everyone driving from Boston to the Cape passes right by it. “It’s a drive-to-walk Mall.”

As rural and suburban areas with lower density attempt to revitalize their town centers, it’s important to note that “these places need the population to support the context and scale. Not all of suburbia will see growth.”

2 thoughts on “Revitalizing Suburbia: It’s All About Context and Scale

  1. Z. Fechten 12/19/2014 / 1:01 pm

    The article makes Malta sound like an isolated community. It’s not. It’s a suburb of Saratoga Springs, in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metro area, which has 870,000 residents. It’s an accurate depiction otherwise, though.

  2. Stephen Wickens 01/03/2015 / 10:29 pm

    It’s incredible how important but overlooked Jane Jacobs’s four drivers of diversity are. Finding ways of applying them economically in a suburban context won’t be easy, but it will be essential to having any real success.

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