I recently read an article in Fortune magazine and later paged through a book, both called “The End of the Suburbs “– which discuss how for the first time since the 1950′s, there is a trend for Americans to be moving from the suburbs to the city. The article discusses how town centers and planned communities are popping up in the suburbs to resemble mini-cities – basically a city in the suburbs.
Since 1992, when I first visited Columbia, MD, I was first intrigued by a planned community. Over the years I saw Reston, VA; Seaside, FL; Urbana, MD; Kentland, Gaithersburg, MD; The Glen in Glenview, IL; StreetScape, Libertyville, IL.
The latter three are generally the newer ones. Streetscape came during the housing crisis just a few years ago. A developer saw land north of Chicago and also was thinking about Seaside, Fl’s community. There was an upscale townhouse community that had fallen on hardtimes. Only 5 of 31 town homes were built before the previous builder shut down for business. A developer bought it and turned part of it into 26 arts-n-crafts bungalows, and 15 loft style condos.
The community was very, very close to Libertyville and so residents could walk less than 500 feet for errands and entertainment. Within 18 months of starting the project – all during the housing crisis – he sold all the homes.
Streetscape brings a new thinking in housing is Redfield Development. Most planners are very familiar with the terms greenfield development (development on previously undeveloped land) and brownfield development (development on land formerly contaminated by environmental pollutants).
But planners should learn a new term that will only become more common as the U.S. begins to slowly recover from the recent economic recession: redfield development, or development on foreclosed properties — properties “in the red.”
SchoolStreet occupies a four-acre site which includes the historic but vacant Libertyville Central School building.
The area had been identified by the village in the 1970s as ripe for redevelopment, with adaptive reuse of the school building a key provision in several iterations of the village’s comprehensive plan. In the 1970s the village began systematically purchasing the other homes along the street and by 2004 had assembled the site and issued an RFP for its redevelopment.
The winning proposal planned 31 luxury brownstones on the site, with 12 condos in the school building. Construction began in 2007 on the first building, with four of five units sold. But then the bottom fell out of the market — and the project. In 2009 the bank foreclosed on the property, creating a redfield.
The failure of this project opened the door to new possibilities, both good and bad.
John Spoden, AICP, Libertyville’s community development director, braced himself for proposals to tear the historic building down and increase the height and density of new construction — conventional responses to making development work in tough markets and on infill sites.
But developer John McLinden of StreetScape Development, LLC, had a different vision. Having completed several successful residential infill projects in Chicago, McLinden saw the site’s 29-foot-wide lots as the perfect setting for an intimate neighborhood of single-family homes modeled onnew urbanist principles. Through countless meetings with the community development department, the mayor, and the community to hammer out the details, the project — now with 26 homes and 14 schoolhouse lofts — took shape.
In August 2010, the village approved an amended planned development agreement; in September, StreetScape closed on the property and began construction. Within the first eight weeks buyers had snapped up seven homes, and to date 24 have been sold, with 10 completed homes closing at an average of around $629,000 each. The first schoolhouse one-bedroom loft to be finished thus far is priced at a more affordable $189,000.
McLinden’s approach may serve a model for future housing development. Take an infill site and turn its conventional liabilities—tiny lots, a vacant and neglected historic building — into its strongest assets. Create a “story,” developing a “big and magical” idea — in this case new urbanism and the aesthetics of its flagship Seaside development — to engage and excite neighbors and potential buyers.
Use savvy marketing and publicity to spread the word about the development — McLinden developed 10 house plans named after famous figures from Libertyville’s past and convinced architect and author Sarah Susanka to build her first Not So Big showhouse here, attracting 5,350 visitors over 12 open-house weekends. SchoolStreet has garnered over 80 media piecesranging from local news to the Wall Street Journal, PBS, and even a Chinese architectural journal.
And back up the story and the marketing with a high-quality housing product aiming to create a new sense of place within an existing community.
But planning played a role in this success story as well. McLinden worked exhaustively with the planning department and the mayor to develop a project design that would make the numbers work while harmonizing with village character and adding value to the community.
Spoden notes that because of this extensive effort, the village felt comfortable approving planned-development regulations with such unusual provisions as the 6-inch setback required along one side lot line to take full advantage of the site conditions. He also emphasizes the importance of the vision for the site laid out in the village’s comprehensive plan in guiding the project vision and supporting the village’s decision to approve this innovative proposal.
Building on a redfield provided its own opportunities; according to McLinden, buying the land in foreclosure allowed him to price the initial SchoolStreet offerings at $449,000–$689,000, down from the $800,000–$855,000 asking prices for the brownstones originally planned for the site and $250,000 less than market value.
The SchoolStreet project rescued a foreclosure site and realized a decades-old redevelopment vision while strengthening the fabric and character of the community and creating a national model for a new type of infill housing redevelopment. Though such a fortuitous combination of opportunity, effort, and good planning may not exist in all places, this project is well worth planners asking how they can put some of these ideas to work to spur the redevelopment of redfields in their own communities.
I always like situations where we can improve upon our own past situations and efforts, and make the present situation better with just a little bit of creativity and a different perspective. Here they took rather hum-drum, conventional thinking and a potentially bad financial situation (for the area city) and turned it into a desired, interesting, productive neighborhood.
We’ve all seen the bad neighborhoods – and I’m not talking crime-ridden – I’m talking those communities where developers showed little creativity or interest in planning. Many suburban communities from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s show us how not to move ahead in the future, yet communities are still being built that way.
I’m intrigued by town centers and planned communities. I often think that if I won some lottery prize, I’d take a chance and build my own.
Do you know of a community that is set up well? A planned community? A towncenter that I didn’t mention above?