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"Retrofitting Suburbia" author to Cleveland: Be nimble

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/12/16 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

The suburbs have paradoxically brought together an image of safety and health; while time has proven them less capable in these areas than we may think.

“Retrofitting Suburbia” co-author, Ellen Dunham-Jones, told a crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last Friday that there are plenty of fixes to help suburbia live up to its ideal.

Dunham-Jones opened with the problem statement.

Eds and Meds again<br />Ellen Dunham-Jones presented Suburban Retrofit example of Vanderbilt Health, a dying mall that was brought back to life with a major medical center.

“The suburbs were marketed as a healthy place to raise children, based on a 19th century idea of infectious diseases,” she said. “But the biggest threat is chronic diseases, like obesity. Human sprawl and urban sprawl map each other pretty closely.”

For her presentation, she pulled out 40 examples (from a database of 1,400) of suburbs where new uses for dead or dying big box stores and shopping centers are happening. They have in common the willingness to look in a mirror, recognize that economic development is sometimes at odds with the goals of giant retailers, whom critics have charged with operating a Ponzi scheme.

Dunham-Jones notes that some of the most successful “suburban retrofit” strategies are less glamorous, but more community supporting, than a major retail chain.

For example, simply adding carpeting and chainsawing out windows is one of the most common ways of “re-inhabiting” a dead big box store—as office space.

Or, the two-story mall in Nashville where Vanderbilt University built a medical center— while retaining some of the retail (pictured above). “Patients get pagers and can shop while waiting to see the doctor. They love it.”

In Oakland, the parking lot at a dying mall will be converted to housing—affordable cottages with nice front porches to form a “cottage court.”

“This is a community that hasn’t seen any new investment in 40 years,” she explains, “so affordable housing keeps with the traditional vision of the neighborhood and provides a missing middle. It brings in a new population that will support a grocery store.”

Right here in Cleveland, the dying 1950s suburban shopping center at Van Aken and Warrensville Center Roads is being rebuilt as a walkable downtown for Shaker Heights.

“To diversity its tax base, Shaker wanted more office,” Professor Dunham-Jones said, “but to attract it they needed urbanism.”

That’s because “suburbs are having trouble retaining 25 to 35 year olds.”

Suburbs can help pave (or unpave) the way to re-inhabiting or re-greening big box centers in a number of ways, including: re-zoning to allow mixed-use development and higher density. Providing incentives for building in existing developments. The more proactive communities are aggressive in marketing their dead or dying shopping centers as open for smaller business start up, libraries, churches, offices, or places identified in master plans that present a vision for redevelopment, even incremental uses, that meet the needs of suburbia today -- and in the future.

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