Big Bad Developer?
August 4, 2005 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Do any of you live in a suburban community that actually benefited from development? [MI]

My question is related somewhat to the issue posted here, but I'm asking for some concrete or anecdotal evidence.

The ninety year-old suburb of DC where I live is currently in a chokehold from a developer who owns most of the town center, and appears to be doing his best to force out the few barely viable businesses left. But when he bought the properties, everyone was excited at the possibilities and allowed themselves to be charmed by his ideas. Two years later, after cosmetic work to the storefronts, the buildings sit empty and calls made to the "For Lease" sign are not returned.

I had thought the "big bad developer" was a stereotype, now I'm not so sure. Does anyone have a story with a happy ending 5-10 years from when a developer came in to your communities?
posted by frecklefaerie to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Well, Some guy built a huge and quite frankly amazinly ugly building in central campus town here in Ames, Iowa.

Just hedious.
posted by delmoi at 9:40 PM on August 4, 2005

Sure. There are about a billion examples...

My old home town of Walnut Creek, CA, for instance, completely redeveloped downtown as a storefront-type mall. Worked great... Walnut Creek is now the envy of the East Bay.

In Tempe, AZ, where I am now, developers rule the roost. While there are, no doubt, tons of projects which haven't worked, in high demand areas like DC the marketplace will sort it all out. Despite the fact that we're in the middle of a desert, we built a friggin' artificial lake. Despite what all the haters said, it's worked out wonderfully.

What do you imagine would be the worst that could happen?
posted by ph00dz at 4:58 AM on August 5, 2005

Depends on how you define benefitted. If you mean taking a quiet, peaceful community in the countryside and transforming it into a traffic-congested, strip-malled center of economic "opportunity", denuded of every possible open space (with a Starbucks on every corner,) then, yeah, I can point you to several.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:45 AM on August 5, 2005

Drive to Arlington (or better, ride Metro). See how Courthouse and Ballston have sprung up.

The problem with the Maryland suburbs is that they did not build the density around the Metro stations (with the one exception of the Silver Spring station) like Arlington has.

My wife is an urban planner, I've heard all about how X is good and Y is bad in the DC area!
posted by Pollomacho at 6:47 AM on August 5, 2005

Two answers:

1. Sundance Square, Downtown Fort Worth, Texas. A local mogul bought the entire downtown core and remodeled it into the cutest little shops and cafes you ever saw and includes open space to hold events like concerts (yes, that concert is in the middle of the downtown area). It spearheaded a dramatic revitalization of what is now a very vibrant downtown. I would stress that the developer is not so much of a developer as he is a rich patron of the city who is interested in establishing a heritage as much as make money. In fact, the family took a big risk in revitalizing The Tower after it was damaged by a tornado and other developers failed to repair or implode it, and also left a beautiful legacy by building Bass Hall, now considered one of the top opera houses in the world.

2. The forums at Cyburbia are an excellent resource to ask such questions to a community of urban planners and like-interested people.
posted by Doohickie at 7:19 AM on August 5, 2005

Developers benefit from small investments and big financial returns. They're in the business for short-term gains -- that is, within their lifetime, and the sooner the better.

Communities benefit from major investments and look for returns in ways other than financial. They're in it for the long haul -- centuries, ideally.

When communities are run by developers, the only winners are the developers. There may be short-term gains ("We have a Target -- life is perfect now!"), but long-term, the community loses. That may be due to a lack of economic variety (all "upscale" businesses), a lack of diversity in land uses (a CBD that becomes abandoned when hard economic times hit one day), poor construction (residential real estate is depreciated over 27.5 years, commercial over 39 years; there's no reason to build something to last longer), or everything aging out at once (a result of rapid growth and uniformly crappy construction), leading to a quick collapse of real estate values and a Detroit-like abandonment of whole sections of town.

Our tax laws and our planning standards strongly encourage developers to work in a manner that is very much to the detriment of communities. They don't have to be evil. In fact, they'd have to be real mensches not to build crap, because there's just so little incentive.
posted by waldo at 7:27 AM on August 5, 2005

There are a lot of really dumb developers out there. They seem to grab a hold of one trend and exploit it for all its worth -- in Grand Haven at the moment, for example, there are a whole bunch of folks who look at any empty lot and say "I know! We'll replace that with a building that has a shop on the first floor, office space on the second, and then condominiums on top!" Every. Single. Lot.

On the other hand, it varies. Obviously if you're living somewhere because you like it, you don't want it to massively change. If you don't care, then some semi-intelligent development can be cool. You can go from being an incredibly boring suburb to being a suburb with a mall.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:26 AM on August 5, 2005

There are lots of small developers who really do embrace the tenets of smart growth and real community building - i.e., they are interested in mixed-use urban and exurban spaces that are walkable and bikable and incorporate public transit, services and plenty of shared public space, greenways and the like. Usually this happens on a small scale, though, which is the way to do it anyway (lots of small interlinked communities are a lot easier to plan and keep sane and succesful than one enormous planned community!). Some cities in our area - the Sacramento Valley - are starting to offer incentives to developers who will really take Smart Growth to heart; we are lucky enough to have a regional planning agency - SACOG, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments - which is the premiere agent of Smart Growth change and development in northern California.

The key is a long-term plan, knowledge of how the community is changing and what future needs are, and finding developers who care about long-term profits as opposed to a short-term buck. They are rare, but they exist, and if communities offer the right kinds of incentives, they will come and build what you want and what you need.

In an area of interlinked communities and with all the variables that traffic between these communities introduce, the only real way to do it practically is through a regional (and not community-specific) planning agency that is willing to look down the road 25 or even 50 years. We are lucky enough here to have such an agency; I can't imagine that we'd have nearly the focus on mixed-use urban infill that we have if we didn't have such an organization.
posted by luriete at 9:29 AM on August 5, 2005

In the Uptown (ironically somewhat south of downtown) area of Minneapolis, I remember when Calhoun Square was built by a developer named Ray Harris. We were all sure he was the devil incarnate, destroying a quaint charming part of the city. But although Calhoun Square is rather dead inside, since it was built, Uptown has become the hip center of Minneapolis. Lived there for awhile and loved it although the parking was awful. I think that most people would say Uptown was changed for the better as most of Minneapolis is pretty tame in comparison. Uptown was a much quieter, more peaceful neighborhood before all the development. Probably much pleasanter to live in back then, but not nearly as fun to visit. So maybe a mixed bag.
posted by marsha56 at 10:12 AM on August 5, 2005

"I know! We'll replace that with a building that has a shop on the first floor, office space on the second, and then condominiums on top!"

How can that be a bad thing? Reduction in vehicle traffic, increase in walking... why, it sounds like the better bits of Europe!

posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 AM on August 5, 2005

Cupertino, California. Redeveloped the town center into condos and hotels and stuff, residents are shocked and frightened by the fact that they have a vibrant city center with people in it.

Lake Oswego, Oregon ... against voiciferous protest, a developer tore down a huge expanse of eyesores that were falling down and had been condemned due to structural problems ... it was the city's original main street with 100 year old buildings, yes, but the previous owners of all of the buildings never took care of them and most were ready to fall down on their own. In its place, he put a very large modern office/shopping combination with a central, hidden parking structure ... parking that the city desperately needed ... turned a quarter of it into park land and gave it to the city, and got a bunch of very expensive botique shops, right in with the city's mission, to move into the building. Again, residents have been shocked and apalled that they have a vibrant city center.
posted by SpecialK at 10:47 AM on August 5, 2005

dagny - ""I know! We'll replace that with a building that has a shop on the first floor, office space on the second, and then condominiums on top!" Every. Single. Lot." ... that might be enforced by city development ordinance or a special tax or permit discount for developers building structures in that style. Personally, I love that plan... walk around an old part of a small downtown, and you'll see the same thing from the 1920's and on. It's not like that isn't a proven concept. Post-WW2 changed our concept of development from city living to suburban, single-family living, and it's about frickin' time it changed back!
posted by SpecialK at 10:51 AM on August 5, 2005

The problem with it is that no one wants it.

First off, offices would imply having businesses that wanted to be there, which is unlikely, because it's a tourist town that's expensive and offers them nothing practical.

Second, anyone who could afford to live there could afford a house on some land out in the township, which would allow them easier getaways on Coast Guard Weekend -- while living in downtown Grand Haven might seem cool at first, most people would not enjoy it long-term.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:25 AM on August 5, 2005

We've found that this type of mixed use is TREMENDOUSLY useful and desirable in urban California. Conversions of unused warehouse space in Emeryville, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento, California to retail (and even light industrial) / office / residential spaces are happening at an accelerated pace; the lofts and apartments sell out at a rate almost triple that of single-family homes, especially when the units are located in ex-industrial neighborhoods that are fast becoming full of young families and unmarrieds with extra income - lots of restaurants, galleries, shops and things to do on the weekends.

In Sacramento, we are in the process of turning an enormous unused railyard into thousands of residential units, dozens of shops and restaurants, hundreds of offices, complete with schools, services, and an enormous riverfront park (self-link, sorry).

I can guarantee you that those ex-industrial loft apartments will sell far faster than they can be built, mostly to folks who work downtown or nearby and don't want to deal with traffic. Why waste even more of your life in a car?
posted by luriete at 11:45 AM on August 5, 2005

I grew up in a small rural suburban community outside of chicago, and by the time i got into highschool, the quaint touristy aspects of the town became empty with urban sprawl and strip malls slowly moving closer provided more product options. it became commonplace to see "For Lease" signs in empty store fronts.
posted by rabbitmoon at 2:23 PM on August 5, 2005

Others have mentioned it, but I thought it worth repeating. The local government should develop a long term plan, and hold new developers accountable to conforming to that plan.
Lots of specific information on this at the Fairfax County planning site

As for positive experiences with development. I have to say I've been pretty impressed with the development in Fairfax County. Traffic is getting worse, but the roads are getting improved, there's a good mix of retail, single family housing, and multi-unit dwellings. The major centers of development (quaintly termed "town centers" it seems), seem fairly well thought out. Its not perfect ... but I can't recall a major development being an issue. However, this could very well be due to the relative affluence of the county. The residents are not beholden to a developer to revitalize their economy. Good schools, good government, good businesses, barely adequate transportation (but not the worst in the DC area).

A specific development that has seemed to work is: Reston Town Center, but there's been fallout from that too at a nearby older development. But even then, the outlook still looks positive.

Sorry for the ramble, hopefully you find something useful in it.
posted by forforf at 4:11 PM on August 5, 2005

Oops, just noticed the highlighted "suburban" in the question. Ignore Uptown, it's definitely urban.
posted by marsha56 at 5:51 PM on August 5, 2005

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