First- and second-ring suburbs in Connecticut and across the nation could transform their “auto-dominated” towns and thousands of under-performing properties by focusing on pedestrian-scaled, vibrant designs that residents are requesting, a land-use expert told a packed audience at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy on April 3, 2013.
Lynn Richards, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Smart Growth, said “suburban retrofits” need to build upon such assets as transit service, educational institutions, businesses with growth potential or physical/environmental features to create walkable urban-like neighborhoods that “30-50 percent” of suburban residents say they want. Richards, a Lincoln-Loeb fellow, said municipalities can increase tax bases and provide the walkable housing and recreation environments those residents want either through large-scale or incremental development.
But the private capital and public support needs to be sparked, particularly in unproven markets, with state investments in streetscapes and other infrastructure that (a) signal serious government participation, (b) cover costs developers or municipalities would otherwise have to cover and (c) set the table for future development. Streetscape investments – and complete street features – also create the walkable neighborhoods that lead to successful mixed-use projects.
“What public assets do you have to leverage?” Richards asked. Municipalities, she said, need to be proactive by engaging residents. “You can go low-tech with yellow stickies” used by residents in public meetings to express their preferences, rather than having to raise money for lengthy, high-cost charrettes. “You have to have a plan,” she said. “Getting the streets right doesn’t always mean maximizing the number of (housing) units you build or the square footage.”
She said open space, parks and green features should be included in the plan and municipalities around the country have used strategies to turn big box stores and malls into churches, libraries and schools, wrapped housing and commercial development around parking garages and “activated” empty store fronts with free rents. Noting that “it may take decades to realize the vision” and “may need to be done in phases,” Richards agreed that many municipalities may need technical assistance from private consultants or state government to move forward with suburban retrofits.