I had the privilege to sit in at CNU’s recent Sprawl Retrofit Council in Miami. Sprawl retrofit isn’t something that KWA typically gravitates towards, but CNU is expanding its focus on this important topic, and we are proud to be part of that effort.
Typically, sprawl repair focuses on projects like converting dead malls into new town centers, or similar larger scale interventions. Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual and Ellen Dunham-Jone’s Retrofitting Suburbia are two of the main tomes on this topic.
CNU is actively looking to expand the focus of sprawl retrofit through its Build a Better Burb initiative. Part of this effort is to look at rolling in efforts of Lean Urbanism and the Incremental Development Alliance to focus on small and mid-sized towns. In the Atlanta metro region, a range of small towns were gobbled up in the suburban expansion over the past fifty years. Many midsized towns have sprawled at their edges as well. We are under construction at the downtown expansion of Duluth, Georgia, one of these smaller towns consumed by sprawl. Rolling these types of places into a Build a Better Burb context makes sense.
Several interesting things became clear to me while working at the council in Miami. First, as have learned through many urban redevelopment projects, infrastructure is really expensive. The more you have to provide, the more it is going to cost, and the more likely it is going to tank your deal. We frankly don’t see how most typical suburban retrofits are possible without some form of outside subsidy to defray the significant infrastructure costs involved. There were a range of conversations around how to try to phase these significant costs. However, you typically have to design for the finished project (expensive), and you don’t want to come back later and tear up what you’ve built to redo pipe, streets or sidewalks. This challenge means that you are typically stuck putting heavy infrastructure into a project in the first phase. These basic cost issues make it challenging to make these deals pencil out under normal circumstances.
Facing these challenges from the outset means that the typical suburban retrofit project will either need some form of significant outside subsidies to address the high costs, a deep pocketed developer that can afford to play a very long game with very delayed payoffs, or some combination of the two. That doesn’t leave much opportunity for small and mid-sized developers to play in this space.
So how does one avoid this cost trap? Don’t build or redevelop in typical suburban areas, or secure a line on some generous subsidies. Instead, find a workable site in one of those small or mid-sized towns. At a minimum, you need to find a site that still has some vestige of walkable infrastructure. Walkable infrastructure is decently wide sidewalks and not overly wide streets, ideally with some on street parking. Hopefully, this will be a place where you don’t have to redo an existing parking lot, and can invest more money into the building(s) than the ground. It’s even better if the existing building is somewhat reasonably sited relative to the street. This means that there isn’t a big parking lot separating the building from the street and sidewalk. These conditions typically happen within a few blocks off of the small town main street, or a few more blocks off in a mid-sized town.
Hopefully, you can track down a building and site that fit the bill. We expect that renovating an existing building will offer certain advantages, while providing more challenges and joys of dealing with existing conditions. Our previous blog post on renovating typical main street buildings provides a roadmap to the code issues typically associated with these buildings.