Saturday, February 16, 2013

Can we sell urban infill to the suburbs?

At a superficial level, American suburbs have reached a point of inflection in terms of their dependency on automobiles.  The past decade has introduced mandatory sidewalk ordinances within many (if not most) metropolitan jurisdictions, as well as an expansion of mass transit into many of the newer, fast-growing exurbs.  But these initiatives are just a drop in the bucket.  Suburban America typically remains an overwhelmingly auto-oriented place.  And since I try my utmost to remain a moderate voice in the matter, I’m not fully critical of this condition: suburban living offers a character and quality of life that appeals to the vast majority of Americans, even as urban living has emerged as a fashionable counterpart to the suburbs for select demographic groups.

Regardless of the suburbs’ many merits, walkability is not usually one of them.  The older, streetcar-oriented suburbs in most of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest share a certain design that generally accommodates other means of getting around than the car.  But this condition is more a product of these “inner ring” suburbs’ age, rather than a deliberate configuration to appeal to the market.  Suburbs from up to about 1930 still enjoy a core density that encourages walking simply because cars were not yet ubiquitous at the time these communities arose from the farmlands.  But in almost all suburbs built after the Second World War—after Euclidean zoning and separation of uses became de rigueur for cities old and new—the built form of roads, houses and commercial buildings has fully supported the car.  In the vernacular of urban planners, “suburban” as an adjective is almost synonymous with “car-centered”.  The conflation of these two labels has spread into the lexicon of your Average Joe and Jane.  It’s likely that, whether intentionally or not, most people’s application of the word “suburb” refers to a place in which movement by some other means than a car is difficult, if not impossible.

As I alluded to those sidewalk ordnances and transit expansions, the last decade or so has brought us a bit of a pushback.  Encouraged in part by wildly fluctuating oil prices (which typically have increased faster than household incomes) but even more by the escalating and seemingly insurmountable public health concern of widespread obesity, more and more suburban communities are attempting to integrate land use patterns and developments that encourage (or at least accommodate) access by means other than those four wheels and an engine.  Ambitious developers are increasingly willing to cut their teeth on innovative, spatially efficient commercial and retail projects, even in suburbs where land is cheap and plentiful.  More often than not, the community itself resists, claiming higher levels of vehicular congestion by trying to cram a 500,000 square foot project into a quarter acre through the stacking the both the stores and the parking lots, rather than allowing them to sprawl across multiple football fields.  It’s hard not to spot the irony in these objections, since one of the main reasons the developers (and usually the City itself) support these designs is its efficiency of land use.  It takes up less space, so it’s closer to adjacent uses (housing, offices, parks, other retail), and by taking up less space, it requires shorter distances to access, making it easier to reach by bike or foot.

So how well do these experiments in consumerism work?  Judging from one interesting example in suburban Cleveland, it’s still a mixed blessing.

This unconventional shopping center sits along the south side of the arterial Cedar Road in University Heights, an affluent suburb in which the majority of the houses pre-date 1970.  Located about nine miles east of Cleveland’s downtown, University Heights emerged as a significant bedroom community during the Depression, and it continued its steady growth through the 1960s.  By 1980, the small city had begun to decline in population, a phenomenon that has recurred in every subsequent decade.  Most of the decrease has been relatively small (less than 5%) and the economic conditions of the suburb (median household incomes over $70,000) scarcely suggest that the population is systematically abandoning its housing stock.  It’s still a desirable place to live.  More likely than not, University Heights has shrunk because of the general decline in household size over the last forty years.  But it’s not a big place: only 1.8 square miles, hemmed in by other incorporated suburbs on all sides, and almost completely built out.  Given the city’s decline in population to about 13,500 from its 1970 peak at 17,000, city leadership must devise creative solutions to retain a stable tax base.  Thus emerged what the City hoped would prove a cash cow: a new regional shopping center.

Fifteen years ago, the southeast corner of Cedar Road and Warrensville Center Road hosted a standalone Kaufmann’s department store in a mostly windowless block building, surrounded by an ocean of parking.  An old photo (back when it was still The May Company) shows the alignment.  The developers at Providence-based Starwood Wasserman bought the property in 2000 from Royal Ahold, and while the original plan simply to integrated the Kaufmann’s into a new, two-story shopping center, the central location and favorable demographics encouraged the maximization of the parcel’s potential.  The developer began construction shortly thereafter, partnering with the city, which signed a $40 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deal to help fund a parking garage adjacent to the new shopping center.  The result?

A multi-level shopping center combining big boxes, inline retail, and restaurants, by the name of University Square.  It features 620,000 square feet of leasable retail space across four floors, each of which hosts different tenants.  (The International Council of Shopping Centers offers a more detailed history in an article released shortly after the development’s completion in 2003.)  The following Google Street View from August 2009 offers a better idea of the magnitude of the project.

While such a vertically oriented project would scarcely raise an eyebrow in space-challenged European or Asian cities, they are uncommon in the US and virtually unheard of in the suburbs.  Most of our suburban centers fit the typology of the old Kaufman’s building from before 2001; that is, they include a free-standing building surrounded by a parking lot that often comprises double the land area of the building itself.  But this design shrewdly tucks most of the parking behind the storefronts—maximizing the visibility of the retail space from the street level—while granting motorists the flexibility to park on the same floor as their shopping destination of choice through the many floors of the garage.  Here’s a view of the parking garage behind the retail space pictured in the photo above.

It appears that the garage is largely disconnected from the shopping itself, with skybridges at every level for access.  And, for those who are less invested in a lengthy shopping experience at University Square, the western side of the development (fronting Warrensville Center Road) offers some more conventional, quickie off-street parking, outside the Macy’s (formerly Kaufmann’s). 

By building upward, Starwood Wasserman could easily have quadrupled the floor-area ratio, opening the possibility for significantly more tenants, which in turn would translate to a larger tax base for the City of University Heights than the much more inefficient one-story typology would allow.

While the developer may have initiated this complicated deal, I have no doubt that the city’s planners were some of the biggest cheerleaders behind it.  Without perusing University Heights’ zoning ordinance, I’m going to assert that, even if regulations didn’t overtly prohibit a commercial structure of this magnitude in a relatively small parcel, the codes governing building form (parking visibility, “setback” distance between the structure and the road, vehicular circulation) would have put the kibosh on it.  I can only imagine the number of variances necessary to pull this off.  In addition, a project this large and unconventional probably sent the neighbors’ heads spinning: too big for the parcel, out of character with the neighborhood, too intense of a use for all the cars driving into it, and so forth.  Such a proposal would have required a tremendous buy-in from the citizenry.  To top it off, the developer convinced the City to help finance the garage, which obviously raised the ante on the deal, since most multi-level garages obviously require greater construction costs than a dirt-cheap surface lot.  But the City bought into it.  This public-private partnership, forged through the TIF that financed that garage, would easily pay itself off once the property is fully leased, through its superior assessed value and taxes collected on the tenants’ revenues.  And it would provide a huge new shopping destination, attracting visitors from well outside University Heights’ modest borders.

But has it worked?  The Tops Supermarket that helped to christen the shopping center pulled out years ago.  Meanwhile, the Google Streetview above showed the label for a Joann Fabrics, which has since vacated the property.  And when I was there in the fall of 2012, the Pier 1 Imports was preparing for relocation as well:

It looked like quite a few of the other first-floor storefronts were vacant as well.

And, looking at University Square’s primary promotional sign from a different angle, it sure appears that there’s plenty of room for more tenants.

Before long, the management will have to scratch Pier 1 off that sign as well.  And as for the parking
Completely empty.

The truth is, just ten years after its dedication, University Square is in trouble.  And, based on my research, it never really did take off as expected.  At its strongest, in the early days, it was 80% leased, but within a few years, its vacancy level was 55%--and this was before the recent departure of Joann Fabrics and Pier 1 Imports.  By 2008, the owner, Inland Western Retail Real Estate Trust Inc., put the entire property up for sale.  No doubt the company was trying to divest itself of a real albatross; it was already responsible for a multimillion dollar garage repair, which, according to one structural engineering blog, was a repeat of the catastrophic 1981 Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapse just waiting to happen.  Ostensibly, those repairs to the parking garage are now complete, but University Square must be at least half empty.

The development is not a complete disaster: Target, T.J. Maxx, and Macy’s all survive—generally competently managed companies that are weathering the persistently sluggish economy pretty well.  But University Square depends on major anchors, with relatively little space devoted to inline tenants.  And few nationally recognized big boxes are currently expanding.  Meanwhile, the ones that have departed aren’t necessarily struggling financially; they’re just seeking greener pastures.  For example, Pier 1 Imports has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years, after a difficult time at the start of the recession.  As of last fall, the one at University Square was relocating—to a plush lifestyle center called Legacy Village, about a mile to the west in Lyndhurst:

Legacy Village opened less than a year after University Square.  Immediately catty-corner to Legacy Village is Beachwood Place, an upscale enclosed shopping mall that has successfully survived multiple renovations since its founding in the 1970s.  Meanwhile, Severance Town Center, another regional shopping plaza a mile northwest of University Square, struggles with even higher vacancy rates than our featured development.

Do you think these eastern suburbs of Cleveland might be a bit overrepresented with shopping centers?  God forbid I suggest such a thing—except that I’ve repeated it time and time again.  The oversupply of retail outlets in this country results in a commercial culture that more or less has absolute freedom to locate wherever it sees the mostopportunity.  Space for shopping centers is abundant, resulting in significantly lower leasing rates than most other affluent countries.  And that also means that the retailers have little incentive to experiment with unorthodox typologies like University Square.

The place doesn’t look bad, and the developers most likely thought out the interior design carefully, to avoid confusing visitors with an unfamiliar architectural typology.   But it still might not be enough.  After all, the absence of setbacks through much of the development means the only thing separating much of the building and the street is a sidewalk.  Thus, because the structure lacks a vehicle-oriented parking lot (and access lanes) between it and the road, it is presumably more inviting for pedestrians…except that, with few exceptions, pedestrians cannot access the stores from the outside.

The only way for customers to access Pier 1 Imports and Foot Locker are from the interior, coming directly from the garage:

In all likelihood, the vast majority of University Square’s visitors will be approaching the shopping center by car, so this makes sense.  After all, University Heights is fundamentally suburban and boomed in the 1940s and 1950s, when cars had already emerged as the primary method of transportation.  At the same time, however, all roads in University Heights have sidewalks, the majority of intersections have crosswalks, the residential streets virtually never end in cul-de-sacs, and the homes themselves are close enough to one another that about five or six would fit in an acre.  In other words, the automobile may dominate in University Heights, but it still remains much more pedestrian friendly than the suburbs to its west—those that boomed in the 1960s and 70s.

From an urban historian’s perspective, the layout of this inner-ring suburb is transitional—part of the evolution from the pre-vehicular streets of Cleveland to the vast exurban residential tracks of the metro’s easternmost purlieus.  University Square shares a bit of this transitional character.  I’m not sure people know how to engage with it, since both the primary storefront entrances and the biggest parking lots are invisible to passers-by.  It possibly could have helped if the design had allowed for doors on both the interior (next to the multilevel parking garage) as well as the exterior (along the sidewalk), but that wouldn’t have appealed to tenants like Foot Locker or Pier 1, who would then have to sacrifice valuable display space for another door, while also accounting for a higher degree of security, due to the doubling of customer entrances.  But since University Square lacks an identity that is affirmatively urban or suburban, it loses out to the many more conventional, accessible shopping centers only a mile or two away.

Barring major changes to how we buy goods, I don’t see a very sunny forecast for this shopping center.  And it certainly won’t stand as an augury for similar vertically oriented developments in the Cleveland area.  While the community around it remains generally higher income, its population has not grown in decades.  Most new development on the Metro Cleveland East has taken place on the outside of the I-271 Outerbelt.  University Heights is on the inside.  Obviously it is unfair to use a single struggling example as an analytical representative of similar multi-story retail across the country.  After all, I’ve visited stacked big boxes in Washington DC and Chicago that seemed to be booming.  But they were in high-density, resolutely urban milieus, a far cry from University Heights.  The developers no doubt expended a great deal of energy in the conception, design and negotiation for University Square.  But it just wasn’t enough, suggesting that momentum favoring conventional, auto-oriented design is often too great to reverse—bolstered in part by the apprehension of retailers to sign leases, and, most importantly, by the collective wills of the consumers that relentlessly favor the familiar.