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Retrofit a suburban mall as a new urban town

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/28/12 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transform

Imagine knocking down the soon to go dark WalMart at Severance Town Center and replacing it with a green space. Better still, a central park for a new town center that has a restored, native greenspace as its green heart and lungs. It's more than a dream; it's one of three categories cited in Ellen Dunham-Jones' book, "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs."

Severance, and older malls like it, can do something to stave off a death spiral. Malls are experimenting with reinventing themselves, such as Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado. Belmar (pictured) is a great example of how to turn obsolescence into asset in the suburbs. The city and a developer are in the midst of an $850 million conversion of a mall into 22 walkable blocks, lots of green buildings and public streets.

How did Belmar do it? How did they convert an indoor mall with 800,000 square feet of space-and more than 70 retailers-into a walkable, urban place with 1,500 new residents, a farmer's market and shops with busy sidewalks and streets?

Here's a link to the history of the project.

Essentially, the 104-acre site is being redeveloped through a public/private partnership between the City of Lakewood and Continuum Lakewood Development Co. LLC. The site is part of Lakewood's West Alameda Corridor Urban Renewal Area. It came into being following a city-led discussion of what to do with the underperforming mall. The city eventually approved a rezoning, and a Public Improvement Fee (PIF), which amounts to a 2.5% sales tax hike on all purchases at Belmar, to pay for the public improvements like public parking, parks, streets and sidewalks, water, sewer and storm water utilities, public spaces and public art.

It's eye opening that many of the retail tenants are multi-nationals who signed on and agreed to the fee-deflating the myth that big corporations refuse to be part of a new urbanism development.

At first blush, Belmar may look more affluent than Severance. But, how does the Belmar neighborhood actually compare demographically to Severance Circle and surrounding neighborhood? Both have good urban density, with plenty of apartments and three to four bedroom homes within walking distance. According to Neighborhood Scout, they are both ethnically diverse (Belmar dominated by German and Hispanic; Severance by Russian and Ukranian). Housing vacancy is below the national average for both, meaning there's not enough supply to meet demand. While Belmar's median housing prices are higher, that is more a reflection of the market in Colorado versus Ohio.

Severance Circle actually has a far lower percentage (1.2%) of children living below the poverty line than Belmar (11.1%), an indicator of the stability of Severance despite having a lower median income. Also of note: the Severance neighborhood is a popular choice for college students-the neighborhood is rated among the top 1.5% of college-friendly places to live in the state of Ohio – because of its walkability and low crime rate. Neighborhood Scout, which compares neighborhood demographics across the U.S., notes that Severance is "also a very good choice for active retirees and urban sophisticates."

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