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Urbanizing the Suburbs

Urbanizing the Suburbs for the Next Generation

By Anthony SanFilippo
May 2019

The popular belief, maybe even a stereotypical one, has always been that younger adults prefer living in cities while older, more family-oriented adults are keen on suburbia.

The rationale being, the city offers a more vibrant, fast-paced lifestyle with an abundance of dining and entertainment options, the convenience of everything being close by, and having a short commute to work and the ability to network professionally with more ease – all which are allegedly more appealing to the younger generations.

Meanwhile, the suburbs are more spread out, quieter, considered by many to be safer and greener, so that there is that patch of grass to live out the American Dream.

This generational divide when it comes to young adults compared to middle-aged adults has been noticeable since single family homes started sprouted like wildfire in the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s.

But today’s younger generation is turning that traditional mindset on its ear, and commercial developers are paying attention.

As millennials now start to become the most prominent buyers in the real estate market, more and more are interested in having the amenities of the big city atmosphere while being able to enjoy a more suburban home life as well.

Maybe they should be called the “cake and eat it too generation.”

Regardless, the concept of urban suburbs, or “hipsturbia” is now a very real thing.

“Low-rise, medium density housing attempts to combine the best elements of both urban and suburban development.”

The concept of having the best of both worlds – convenience, entertainment, dining, networking, living close to work combined with the serenity and open space of the suburbs – is quite attractive.

In some cases affordability is the issue – the housing gap continues to grow bigger and bigger, especially in metropolitan areas – but with the evolution of these urban suburbs, the next generation of suburbia is already showing a footprint in the U.S.

It was a trend that started in Europe and has made its way to the U.S. and it puts an emphasis on livable scale, while having the context of a more social community.

Low-rise, medium density housing attempts to combine the best elements of both urban and suburban development. They include a variety of public transportation options, access to major cities close by, and walkable areas with shops and restaurants, all within short, safe distances to individualized dwellings and access to better schools.

This concept reduces sprawl and efficiently use the limited space found in the urban environment, while also maintaining the street grid and pedestrian pathways.

Not to mention, it offers the possibility for substantial economic growth for these communities in the future.

“Communities are beginning to realize that increasing the density of their neighborhoods has many benefits, including helping to alleviate affordable housing issues.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than $2.6 million Americans relocated from a city to a suburban residence in the past two years.

But the millennial demand is different than their parents – while big backyards in a single-family home in a low-density community is picturesque, millennials find it too automobile dependent and too spread out.

Instead, millennials prefer retrofitting these suburban communities with dense, walkable city centers – and they are starting to crop up, even if some outdated zoning restrictions do pose a challenge in certain communities.

However, more and more communities are beginning to realize that increasing the density of their neighborhoods has many benefits, including helping to alleviate affordable housing issues. More housing needs to be built to put a lid on out-of-control real estate prices in wide swaths of America.

Additionally, low-density suburbs are expensive to maintain, as there are often too few residents to sustainably support the infrastructure as it is designed.

There will be those who oppose this concept – anytime there is a potential to increase traffic in the ‘burbs there’s going to be a strong vocal resistance.

But many commercial spaces like suburban strip malls, which are struggling because of online retail, are being converted into medium to high-density residential and commercial areas.

These areas are where developers are racing to turn previously taciturn locales into urban ‘burbs that attracts throngs of millennials.


A great case study is in Voorhees, N.J.

The quiet East Coast town had been anchored by the Echelon Mall since 1970, when it was built on the site of a former airport and offered 1.1 million square feet of retail space. It was the gathering spot for a community of New Jersey residents with its shopping options, popular food court, and convenience just off the highway so it could be easily accessed by residents from neighboring towns just a short drive away.

But, as like with many malls in the U.S., Echelon began feeling the crunch created by the birth of online shopping and has endured a rapid decline of the past decade.

Vendors started bailing out on the Mall and eventually, it reached the point where the iconic shopping center was practically abandoned.

Leaders in the community decided to start to reclaim the once burgeoning property and hired a developer to create the Voorhees Town Center in 2011 – a mixed used space on the corner of the Mall’s property that included 425 apartments and new retail and dining options all in a walkable radius.

That success has spurred on a new development idea to the property – homes.

Retail follows roofs, so with a proposed building of 330 new homes on the property, a plan is in place for a “live, work and play” hub that aside from the homes, will have between 50 and 70 “experience-based” retail options, such as a microbrewery, an athletic complex, a cigar bar and a theater.

An additional 10 percent of the space will be earmarked for green space, creating a park and outdoor sitting/eating area.

The renovation project is still in its very early stages – just ideas on paper – but within a decade, or even sooner, it can offer that “hipsturbia” feel that many millennials are attracted to today.

Everything changes with time, and if the suburbs have to get a facelift to close the housing gap and provide a boost to the local economy in the process, then that’s some commercial development progress to which no one should be opposed.


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