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What's the best path to retrofit Cleveland suburbia?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/30/12 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Recently, I was chatting with a good friend about his family vacation plans-they were vacillating between Disney World and New York City. Ultimately they decided on Orlando because the castle in the sky was better suited to their 6-year old.

Isn't it interesting that two of the top American getaways involve fantasizing about 1) the idyllic German village of Regensburg (Walt's castle is a scale model) and 2) how most of us suburbanites seek an urban experience when we get the chance. It got me thinking about how we can make the suburbs more bearable for every day living. So we're not sacrificing all that excitement of strolling Park Avenue or the West Village just because we perceive the suburbs as the only safe option.

In fact, plenty of Clevelanders live in a city or suburb (usually built before World War Two) which simulates New York's density and urban vibrancy. Not all of us buy into the fantasy that self worth is tied up in a place that holds rank with the editors of Cleveland Magazine (at least their annual Rating the Suburbs issue admits their criteria for 'best'-safety, schools and taxes. Perpetuating the myth that suburbanites place those filters above all others is at best irrelevant for the growing trend of young professionals and kidless couples. Their decent article on Lakewood as a bike friendly city is nearly rendered worthless by the feature of Avon as an eco-haven. Cleveland has way more than Avon's proposed 130 community garden plots, many of them on 'recycled' vacant land. Also, Avon's new highway interchange and big box development is mentioned as a positive for 'growth' without regard to how it contributes to more sprawl and plows under green space-not exactly a defining feature of an 'eco-friendly' town).

Back to the point. Since at least half of us live in the suburbs, we cannot afford to write them off as beyond repair. Cost will always get cited as an issue, so what about zoning? Can zoning updates, along with revised street standards (i.e. Complete Streets), serve as part of a strategy to rethink Northeast Ohio's glut of strip malls and crumbling sidewalks just as it has in other parts of the country like Atlanta's Memorial Drive, I-85 in Gwinnett County and Buford Highway in Dekalb County? Is it too simplistic to say Compete Streets and better zoning, such as introducing mixed-use categories, exist to better define what people want to see in their town - dense, walk and bike friendly streets and buildings? Does zoning go far enough to entice developers or will infill development also require government support and local incentives?

In a slow or no growth region like Northeast Ohio, developers continue to play it safe. They argue that more big box centers are what consumers want. Trends point in another direction, though, as the recent, ugly battle over the former Oakwood Country Club in South Euclid illustrates. Even the cut-above developers like the Marons are highly selective about locating infill mixed use development. That leaves a lot of suburbs wishing they could reposition dying malls and vacant strip centers. Some, like Shaker Heights, creatively cobbled together $44 million in federal, state and local transportation funds for a road diet and traffic calming project. That was before the bottom fell out of the economy and urban redevelopment programs like Sustainable Communities were cut by Congress.

If Shaker can tame the Warrensville-Van Aken-Chagrin intersection it will be because of plans to build on assets, like moving a light rail station and creating a pedestrian plaza. Its vision is to calm traffic, acquire properties for mixed-use development and create a 'third place', a social gathering spot like you would see in European cities and which retailers tend to love. Among the myriad of reasons, the New York Times wrote last Sunday, that a walkable, convenient place also increases real estate values.

How do more suburbs around Northeast Ohio (who are looking enviously at Shaker) retrofit their commercial areas? Should any hope rest in the current regional sustainability initiative, NEOSCC, its that it can figure out how to raise the capacity for better local plans that lead to suburban retrofits like Shaker's. In Chicago, a Sustainable Communities grant was used to launch a Local Technical Assistance program which offers municipalities staff time for comprehensive and neighborhood plans, overcoming barriers to better development and even tapping competitive federal funding streams like TIGER grants for implementation.

Plenty of visionary cities and developers are out there designing retrofits for suburban American malls. Some of them, like Uptown in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood, Mashpee Commons on Cape Code, Santana Row in San Jose (admittedly in fast growth regions like D.C./Virginia and Colorado) were infusions of investment sometimes topping $100 million that brought new life (literally) into dead retail areas. They are bucking the economic trend; but then, they're betting that vibrancy and density will continue to attract the biggest consumer class out there -young adults.

Some might argue that it would be cheaper and easier to retrofit a building or street in Cleveland, Akron, and their pre-war suburbs. Are they right? Can we afford to ignore the unsustainable development pattern in the suburbs and concentrate all of our (vibrant) place-making resources on the city and suitable, traditional suburbs?

I'll leave off with this passage from the book, "Retrofitting Suburbia"

"Arthur C. Nelson, a professor of planning and co-director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, argues that 2.8 million acres of greyfields will become available and if only a quarter of them are redeveloped, they could supply half of the housing demand by 2030. With unmet demand for walkable urbanism already at 30%-40% of the market and demographic trends reinforcing this direction, the challenge is to redesign the corridors housing all of those greyfields into attractive, safe, walkable environments."

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