Vibrant — it’s such an appealing word. We all want to live in neighborhoods that are vibrant — lively, stimulating, and friendly.
Vibrant centers attract educated millennials and empty nesters—as well as the economic activity they support. Office tenants prefer vibrant suburban centers to typical suburban office parks, and vibrant suburban centers command higher rents, lower vacancy rates, and greater absorption.
The Urban Land Institute recommended eight ways for a community “to find its own path to greater vibrancy”. The White Flint sector plan has embraced these eight suggestions, and it appears that the White Flint 2 sector plan may also embrace them.
1. Encourage higher-density housing of all types. Successful, urban and suburban vibrant centers become expensive because they are desirable places in which to work, live, and play. Higher rents, rising property values, and deeper tax bases should be celebrated instead of vilified as the path to gentrification. However, vibrancy cannot be sustained without social and economic diversity.
Vibrant centers need housing for middle- to lower-income people who work in the retail, personal services, and entertainment sectors, as well as empty nesters, students, and young people with entrepreneurial ambitions. The market will provide all the higher-income housing needed. Lower-income households should be retained through use of inclusionary zoning, density bonuses, and the array of state and federal affordable housing programs.
2. Remember the rule of pi. A hypothetical circular urban area that is 20 miles (32 km) across has an area of 314.16 square miles (814 sq km). If its downtown has a radius of one mile (1.6 km), its area is 3.14 square miles (8.1 sq km)—pi, or 1 percent of the urban area—and many downtown areas in the United States are smaller than pi. Downtowns are truly special places because they have so much development in such a small area. Keep it tight.
3. Take full advantage of policies and regulations that treat downtowns as special places. CBDs are usually zoned with high floor/area ratios. Often, mixed use is allowed or even encouraged; parking requirements are minimal. CBDs may contain unique historic properties or historic districts. These special conditions enable real estate developers to create financially feasible projects in spite of longer entitlement periods, more difficult construction staging, higher land prices, and other constraints.
4. Reject suburban development prototypes at all costs. Suburban prototypes imposed on urban centers reduce density, compactness, connectivity, and walkability and often destroy urban fabric. Features such as adjacent surface parking, drive-through lanes, lack of sidewalks, front entrances from parking areas, and the like have no place in centers that want to become more walkable.
5. Provide public space and multimodal infrastructure to support downtown redevelopment. Vibrant urban centers need transit of all kinds to reduce auto use and encourage walking. Transit includes car sharing, taxis, bike lanes, bike sharing, trolleys, buses, and, when feasible, rail. The public realm is enhanced by small public parks and hardscape areas where people can gather to celebrate, engage with one another, or rest.
6. Consider housing for downtown workers as necessary infrastructure. Most jurisdictions recognize that structured parking is infrastructure necessary to achieve vibrancy. Workforce housing should be put in the same category. Public/private partnerships may be needed to serve this market segment. One approach to provide small apartments and micro units is to attach liner buildings to parking decks above the ground floor and on all sides that have street frontage.
7. Seek ideas about redevelopment selectively. In many automobile-oriented, highway-dominated areas, the vast majority of households live, work, and play in three separate suburban locations and devote considerable time each day to driving from one activity to another. Central city workers rarely live or play there. Suburbia is the only environment many Americans know. Therefore, it is better to gather ideas on downtown redevelopment by convening small focus groups of people with high “urban IQs” than by holding large meetings open to the general public.
8. Prequalify real estate developers who are interested in urban redevelopment. Many capable suburban developers have never built urban product and do not know how to create urban character. In order to provide good precedents for future development, developers that have this know-how should be recruited to initiate downtown redevelopment. Requests for qualifications (RFQs) can be used to identify developers who can deliver urban projects that will increase vibrancy.