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Ellen Dunham-Jones: Cleveland has lots of "retrofit suburbia" potential

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/07/16 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Reuse

53% of Americans live in suburbs. World War II is considered an important demarcation line. Pre-war suburbs are mixed-use with walkable town centers and neighborhoods of the streetcar variety. Think Cleveland Heights and Lakewood. After 1945, development shifted radically — to automobile-oriented housing with various types of single-use commercial development along arterial highways.

Back from the dead<br />The Collinwood Rec Center is an $11 million green energy facility opened in 2011 as a creative reuse of a former big box store. It connects the 32-acre Humphrey Park to the northern reach of Cleveland Metroparks Euclid Creek Reservation, including Euclid Beach, Villa Angela and Wildwood parks.

Half a century removed from America’s “Ozzie and Harriet” dreamland, the suburbs are looking to tell a new story. Particularly, for the tired and huddled masses of old shopping centers.

Stuck somewhere between the past and contemporary trends, shopping centers in the suburbs are often too small to compete with big box retail centers, or too single-use and unconnected in any way, shape or (urban) form to appeal to Millennials and the Baby Boomers who have grown tired of post-War suburbs’ blandness.

The shopping center of old -- and the newly abandoned big box stores--still have some value that shouldn't be so easily written off. And that’s where Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s 2011 book Retrofitting Suburbia comes in.

A lot of suburbs would love to reposition dying malls and vacant strip centers. Some, like Shaker Heights, creatively cobbled together $44 million in federal, state and local funds to green light a redevelopment (of 60s-era Van Aken shopping center as a mix of shops and apartments). Others, like Cleveland Heights, are being prodded by community groups to “retrofit” Severance Town Center, which is limping along since Wal-Mart pulled out and moved 1-mile east to Oakwood Commons in South Euclid. (Cleveland Heights is working with The National Resource Network’s technical assistance project for the development of a short-term and long-range strategy to redevelop Severance, which was the area’s first suburban mall).

Dunham-Jones will speak about suburban re-invention this Friday, December 9 at a 7 p.m. Explorer Lecture at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She has said the inner-ring suburbs, with their mix of urban and suburban form, are in a sweet spot - though they might not realize it.

The first book raised a lot of questions, like, can inner-ring suburbs that haven’t seen an influx of wealth position themselves to get a re-development going similar to fast-growth parts of the country (like those featured in the book: Uptown in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood, Mashpee Commons on Cape Code, Santana Row in San Jose where infusions of investment sometimes topped $100 million).

“There is no single solution,” Dunham-Jones said. “In metros (like Cleveland) where the market for urban living has been proven in the downtown, a twin redevelopment boom tends to occur in the inner-ring suburbs.”

"Under-performing suburban sites with big parking lots quickly become the new 'cheap land' for developers seeking to provide urbanism for that portion of the market seeking an urban lifestyle at a cheaper price point than downtown (the Millennials) or downsizing from their suburban home but within their suburban community (empty nester baby boomers)," she continues.

Dunham-Jones advises communities to facilitate this by:

  • Re-zoning specific corridors and areas for mixed-use
  • Enhancing transit access
  • Adjusting public works standards
  • Beefing up capacity to negotiate public-private partnerships further to help advance retrofits
  • Business Improvement Districts can be very effective at funding the planning studies and putting up matching funds for needed capital improvements (like sidewalks, new connecting streets, etc.)

“In other words, inner-ring suburbs have been able to compete very well against the outer rings by taking advantage of their now-more-central position in the metro by urbanizing rather than by trying to remain 'suburban'.”

Given the resurgence in Cleveland’s downtown, its inner ring suburbs may very well be poised for redevelopment. Although, she cautions, “Not every inner-ring suburban site can or should be redeveloped, especially in a weak market.”

The sweet spot for Cleveland may be “re-inhabitation” of the “dead”—with a more community-serving uses.

Since the original printing of Retrofitting Suburbia,Dunham-Jones and co-author, June Williamson, have collected more than 1,000 examples of dead big box stores converted into schools, libraries, gyms, job centers.

Locally, she points to the former big box store that the city of Cleveland converted in the Collinwood neighborhood to a recreation center (pictured above).

We may even take cues from nature—where birds build from discarded materials and are willing to move into another bird's abandoned nests—grasping the value of “dead” and “abandoned buildings.”

Thinking about the energy embodied in the materials and labor can be a part of a larger, green building / re-inhabitation strategy.

“In markets of shrinking population, it often makes more sense when a mall or garden apartment complex dies to shift the social capital back towards the existing local downtown and re-green the former property. This provides opportunities for ecological repair and increased resilience to flooding downstream. If well designed, it may also trigger redevelopment of surrounding properties. I will show examples of all three of these strategies (in Cleveland)."

Proximity to big urban job centers is a locational advantage that these suburban areas still enjoy. It may not be currently supported by regional and state policy—as highway building pumps value into places that are far from existing populations—but the growing body of re-use and re-inhabitation in all market shapes and sizes promises, with careful consideration for green building principles and new urban principles in the suburbs, more to come.

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