Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Mixed-Use Town Centers

Dateline: 12:33 pm June 6, 2008 Filed under:

In May the Urban Land Institute published Creating Great Town Centers and Urban Villages. The book is a coffeetable-style journey through many of America’s recent suburban town centers. To browse the book, visit the ULI Bookstore here.

I am happy to say that I contributed two of the case studies that appear in the book. One is The Glen, in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and the other is Crocker Park in Westlake, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

Suburbs need town centers. They need places for people to gather, linger, live, work, and of course shop and dine. Ideally they are linked by transit to the rest of the metro area. The mixed use town centers featured in this ULI book, and numerous other town centers, are part of a trend across the country to provide new and exciting destinations as enclosed malls fall out of favor. The good news is these town centers are succeeding. They don’t necessarily have all the things I listed above, but they are attractive, well branded, well maintained and managed, and in many cases have become regional destinations.

A few things to remember about these new mixed-use town centers. They are very expensive to pull off, and often subsidized, which is not a bad thing. Often what they are replacing is a greyfield or brownfield, or simply an underutilized site. As well, despite being very walkable and well-designed within their borders, they are often hard to reach on foot, by bike or by transit.

Mixed-use town centers are typically retail driven, and are in prime suburban locations, often where a traditional regional mall could have been located. In other words, they can’t work everywhere. Indeed, that is what a development like Victoria Gardens (located in Rancho Cucamonga, California) is – a regional mall with department store anchors in a pleasant, walkable, village-like setting. (A mix of uses is planned, but wasn’t built when I visited.) Those like Excelsior and Grand in suburban Minneapolis have a much greater amount of housing as a component, but the retail had to be there to begin with in order to get premium pricing on the residential units. A lot of suburbs want a fancy town center like those featured by ULI, but do not have the resources nor the market demand to make them work out.

I was able to visit my two case studies, and I liked what I saw. Crocker Park is really nice, with apartments above retail, some good restaurants, a multiplex theater, very good events programming and an oversized chess set. I wish the Dick’s Sporting Goods store, being a terminating vista, was instead city hall or a library, but you can’t have everything, right?

The Glen is a former naval air station, and they even saved the old hangar and control tower building, which visually anchors and distinguishes the project. The Glen town center is surrounded by attractive residential infill as well as an adjacent park and lake, which complement the project well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t credit the municipalities for allowing these mixed-use projects to exist in the first place. Most of these mixed-use centers would previously have been illegal according to zoning in their respective cities, so kudos to enlightened planners and elected officials for allowing new zoning codes and changes, not to mention assisting with public financing for these projects.

My favorite urban and suburban places are typically older downtowns, town centers or village cores; those that have evolved over time. Naperville, Illinois, Claremont, California and of course Country Club Plaza in Kansas City are just three of numerous older suburban downtowns that come to mind. The new mixed-use town centers, especially those featured in the new ULI book including Crocker Park, The Glen, Excelsior and Grand and the East 29th Avenue in Denver are beautiful, well designed places. One hopes that they can evolve well in to villages for the ages that are known more for their gathering places than just their shopping options.

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