Postwar neighborhoods are key to suburban revitalization


World War II has long been considered the watershed for automobile-oriented development. Suburbs were built prior to the war, but largely were mixed-use, walkable towns and neighborhoods of the “streetcar suburb” variety.

After 1945, development shifted radically — to automobile-oriented housing with various types of single-use commercial development along arterial highways.

Yet this binary view — traditional neighborhoods before the war; suburban sprawl afterward — obscures differences in postwar suburban patterns that can exert a critical impact on revitalization.Planners and theorists have in recent years been debating how to fix the suburbs, as discussed in books such as Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, and Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva. This year, Arthur C. Nelson in Reshaping Metropolitan America made the demographic case that redevelopment of low-density commercial buildings – largely in the suburbs —  could meet all of the US new housing needs in the coming decades.

Suburban malls have been converted into walkable communities in a few well-documented cases, but this concept has yet to become common or mainstream across the US. The inner-ring, postwar suburbs built from 1946 to 1965 could be the key to that shift. These neighborhoods, immortalized in classic TV sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, and satirized in popular songs like Pleasant Valley Sunday, possess hidden assets that make them ripe for public and private investment today.

Twenty-six million housing units were built between 1944 and 1965, Williamson writes in her new book, Designing Suburban Futures: New Models from Build a Better Burb, published in May as a 162-page Island Press (see review on page 17). Most of the units from this era are single-family houses and are in decent shape after multiple renovations and additions. They likely house 60-70 million Americans today.

Here’s why the postwar suburbs are good candidates for repair:

• Better connectivity. Suburban housing is reputed to consist of disconnected cul-de-sacs and isolated subdivisions, and such has been the new urbanist critique. This view is true of later suburbs, but the streets in early postwar housing neighborhoods are mostly connected. Blocks are a bigger and streets more curved than in cities, but at least they link up. A lack of street connections is a huge barrier to the retrofit of later suburbs.

• Narrower, more walkable streets. The supersizing of streets in America was gradual and affects the walkability of later suburbs tremendously. Retrofitting these streets will be expensive. The postwar residential streets, however, are generally built to a scale that supports walking and bicycling. Some have sidewalks and some do not. Narrow streets with slow, low-volume traffic are often walkable without sidewalks. Postwar neighborhoods mostly need destinations to walk and bike to.

• Closer to downtown. The postwar neighborhoods are in inner-ring suburbs that are closer to jobs and transit than are later suburbs. The close-in location will affect real estate values and help to attract investment. Nelson argues that suburbs built before 1980 will hold their value better than those built after 1980. Post-2000 suburbs, he predicts, will have little or no market even in the fastest-growing regions.

• Inclusion of low-value commercial strips. This may not seem like an asset, but these 1950s-era commercial strips are ripe for redevelopment and revitalization into mixed-use places. Their low value reduces barriers to redevelopment.

• Rich in small-lot housing. Postwar suburbs contain much of the nation’s supply of small-lot single-family housing. Nelson and other market analysts find that America is oversupplied in large-lot housing and will be for decades to come. Multifamily and small-lot housing are undersupplied. Suburbs that revive are likely to be those with small-lot and multifamily housing — the latter could be added to postwar neighborhoods as low-value commercial strips are redeveloped.

• Demographic appeal. Millennials and Gen Xers with children may not want to live in cities due to considerations like schools, but they still want walkable environments. Postwar suburbs are increasingly diverse racially and economically, and that is also appealing to these groups. If they can be made walkable, the appeal could be strong. Baby Boomers, living in these neighborhoods, want active living as they retire. Walkable, mixed-use centers would enable them to retire in place.

• They are everywhere. America grew so fast during the first 20 years after World War II that nearly every metropolitan region has a plentiful supply of postwar housing.

• Incremental development opportunities. Redevelopment of shopping malls into town centers such as Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, or Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida, required visionary developers with access to significant capital. Postwar commercial strips can be rebuilt incrementally in a series of smaller projects.

• Potential for combining suburban and urban qualities. Postwar suburbs have yards, single-family houses, and great tree canopies. The redevelopment of commercial strips could bring urban, mixed-use qualities as well. That’s an appealing combination.

• Existing assets. Postwar suburbs have had 60 years in which to mature, create quality civic assets like parks and schools, and develop cultural institutions. Redevelopment builds on these assets and there is no need to create them from scratch — as new urban greenfield developments have done.

• On-street parking. These neighborhoods have plentiful, underutilized, on-street parking. This resource is useful be when adding infill apartments and accessory units.
Examples of postwar suburban retrofits

With such a list of advantages, there must be some examples of successful postwar retrofit — and there are. Lancaster Boulevard in Lancaster, California (see January-February 2013 Better! Cities & Towns), features the redevelopment of a 1950s commercial strip flanked by postwar housing. Completed in late 2010, streetscape investments of $11.5 million generated $273 million in economic benefit in two years, a study found. Redevelopment has brought 800 new and refurbished housing units and 50 new businesses.

Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia, a 1950s commercial strip with a form-based code adopted 10 years ago, has revived with nine mixed-use projects in recent years adding 1,499 housing units and 163,000 square feet of retail, office, and other uses. The county is now expanding the code and plan and moving forward with a streetcar project (see the July-August 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns).

New mixed-use buildings along Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners

In Roanoke, Texas, officials borrowed $8 million to invest in a two-thirds-of-a-mile commercial corridor called Oak Street and adopt a form-based code. In less than 10 years, the corridor has been transformed with six new buildings, six historic rehabilitations, and a dozen restaurants, says Scott Polikov of Vialta Group, a Gateway Planning company. Now a mixed-use project is planned where the developer would dedicate land for a new city hall. The sales tax increase is already where the city had hoped it to be in 20 years. “The eight million invested turned out to be a hell of a deal for everybody — businesses, property owners, and taxpayers,” Polikov concludes.

Bothell, Washington, is a postwar suburb that is quickly becoming one of the hottest communities in the Seattle region. The city had fewer than 800 residents in 1940, but achieved greater than 100 percent growth in the 1950s and 1960s — rapid growth in these decades is the hallmark of postwar housing communities. Now containing a population of 33,000, the city has experienced disconnected sprawl in more recent decades.

The first phase of the boulevard in Bothell, Washington, is shown in pink. Most of the current redevelopment is on that side. Image courtesy of Freedman Tung + Sasaki

The parts of Bothell that are redeveloping now are the neighborhoods connected to a pre-war Main Street and an old commercial strip. These neighborhoods took shape in the postwar era. Freedman Tung + Sasaki (FTS) worked with the city on a plan to realign a state highway, revitalize the main street, and turn the commercial strip corridor into a boulevard with mixed-use buildings. This project is still in its early stage, with the boulevard not yet built, yet investment is pouring in.

“City officials said this has resulted in more than $207 million of planned private investments by residential and commercial developers, including Oregon-based McMenamins, which is turning an old schoolhouse … into an entertainment complex with a hotel,” The Seattle Times reported recently. The newspaper described the area as a “contrasting mix of bulldozers, power drills, and protected wetlands,” as various multistory apartment buildings, condos, and mixed-use projects get underway.

The old school being reused by McMenamins will anchor the new boulevard, and the school has an Art Deco entrance that will be highlighted in the urban design, notes Gregory Tung of FTS. The school is currently set back from the arterial road. The boulevard will be wider and bring the sidewalk within a few feet of the façade. A slow-moving access lane, two rows of street trees, and two rows of parallel parking will separate the sidewalk from through traffic. The street redesign allowed for the creation of a mid-block crossing that terminates a view of the school’s entrance through a gap in the street trees. A majestic Atlas Cedar will also be celebrated through the creation of a small plaza. “Applying a strong orderly and regular streetscape spacing structure (of trees, lights, etc.) to a large multiway boulevard creates ample opportunities to ‘capture’ and take advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the place — and show them off to add to unique placemaking and urban identity,” Tung explains.

The city is constructing the west side of the Boulevard first, and that is where most of the new development is taking place in Bothell.

Twenty-year-old resident and University of Washington-Bothell student Jaclyn Pang is quoted in the Times: “There are a lot of 20- and 30-somethings like me who see all these changes going on and it’s just what we’ve been waiting for,” she says. “I’m excited about all the opportunities and being able to walk to everything.”

Arbitrage potential

John Anderson of Anderson Kim Architecture & Urban Design says commercial strip corridors in older suburbs have a tremendous “arbitrage potential. The difference in value between what is and what could be is tremendous. There’s an amazing opportunity.”

Anderson calls these commercial strips, harshly and bluntly, the “corridors of crap.” There’s some truth to that statement — the corridors are characterized by a hodge-podge of automobile-oriented businesses that are often not well maintained and hardly distinguished architecturally. Nevertheless, many of the businesses themselves are viable and can be viewed as an asset upon which to build.

The first task is to change perceptions of the streetscape, starting with the design speed, Anderson says. Adding on-street parking and street trees will make a difference. Bring businesses out to the sidewalk with food carts and small buildings. Make additional improvements to the streetscape and, finally, mixed-use buildings can fill in the parking lots. Anderson Kim created such a plan for a commercial corridor in Hicksville, Long Island, near the first Levittown, for the Build a Better Burb competition that Williamson writes about in her new book.

The images above are part of a series on the redevelopment of a postwar commercial strip in Hicksville, New York, into a Main Street.

A form-based code is important to ensure new development adds to a walkable environment, Polikov says. Roanoke was successful because of the combination of form-based code and street improvements. “Just doing the form-based code without the redo of the street would not have been enough,” he says. “Marrying them both together is the story.”

The existing businesses should be “grandfathered” so they can keep operating without being forced to change, Polikov says. As property values change and the economy turns over, new development will support the new vision, he explains.

The first 20 years of post-World War II development were qualitatively different from what happened in later suburbs — those with “power centers,” mega-schools, McMansions with three-car garages, and lots of cul-de-sacs. Later suburbs are sometimes the locale for retrofit, but special conditions must be in place. High-quality transit service, such as a new light rail service or redevelopment of a 1980s park-and-ride near a commuter rail station, could be a catalyst. In unusual cases, ambitious developers with deep pockets can build a full-scale new urban center on the site of a former enclosed shopping mall, but in these days of tight credit, such deals are rare. Even then, opportunities to connect with existing surrounding development are few.

The postwar suburbs have assets that will make for more revitalization opportunities in the next decade or two. These assets include connected, narrower streets and houses on smaller lots – often with one-car garages or carports, in place of the intrusive two-or-three-car garages common in later suburbs. Their commercial strips can be redeveloped with smaller increments of capital. Their inner-ring location is likewise attractive.

The scale of the postwar suburbs, housing a fifth or more of US population, is impressive. Making these neighborhoods more sustainable could keep urbanists busy for a couple of decades.

The “complete streets” factor

One barrier has stood in the way: A lack of public investment in the commercial arterials to make them more appealing and safe for pedestrians and bicyclists. State departments of transportation that have historically favored fast-moving automobile traffic often control these arterials. This barrier is breaking down, however, as more states and local governments pass “complete streets” laws that recognize the importance of thoroughfares to all users. As millennials, who drive less and favor walkable environments, enter the electorate, the politics is beginning to shift. Transportation officials are starting to recognize that sometimes the best policy is to keep drivers off the road by making neighborhoods walkable and bikable.

Cities and towns with historic gridded streets will continue to revitalize. But living in the city is not for everyone, at all stages of life.  It’s important that the US develop sustainable, walkable suburban neighborhoods with plentiful single-family housing. The postwar suburbs offer the greatest opportunity to do so. Over all, these neighborhoods complement cities more than compete with them. The demand for walkable neighborhoods is strong enough that both cities and postwar suburbs can benefit from revitalization. The creation of more walkable neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs will help keep some urban neighborhoods affordable in the coming decades.

As successful case studies pile up, demonstrating the high returns generated by redevelopment associated with Leave it to Beaver neighborhoods, more public funds could be allocated into remaking the “corridors of crap” into main streets. This, in turn, could generate momentum for bringing new life to the suburbs built after World War II and make US metropolitan regions more sustainable, appealing, and economically viable.