Chris Leinberger has a message for real estate developers.
Your customers are clamoring for something, and it’s not what you’re currently building.
“The market is telling us they want something different than what we know how to build,” said Leinberger, a metropolitan land strategist and developer at the Brookings Institution.
That something, he said, is “walkable urban” communities. And, in essence, Columbia isn’t that. Not yet, anyway.
“Columbia is the pinnacle of drivable suburban,” he said. During the last few decades, Leinberger said, “we’ve gotten better and better at building freeways, and the growth of metropolitan areas continues to push outward from the major cities.”
Simultaneously, our politicians have nurtured the drivable suburbs as the golden child of development. “We put in place extensive public policies that mandated that you only build drivable suburban. Our elected officials responded to the market demand for low-density development,” said Leinberger.
Now, developers will have to change their traditional mindset of using up land, throwing it away and moving on, Leinberger said, especially as future generations demand energy-conscious communities.
“Drivable suburban fringe is where the vast majority of energy consumption takes place in our country,” he said.
What’s more, he said, the energy-hogging suburbs were also at the heart of the real estate crash. “Mortgage foreclosures in this country were on the drivable suburban fringe. Sprawl brought down this economy.”
The Local Voice
Columbia residents want input into changes that may lead to less sprawl and a more walkable urban community. More than 60 people attended a planning meeting on June 16 hosted by the Columbia Association (CA) that covered the development of the 40-acre Symphony Woods Park.
“Phase 1 is expected to include an entry plaza on Little Patuxent Parkway, walkways, some additional parking, a central gathering area or plaza, lighting and site furnishings,” said Jan Clark, project manager for the CA, which owns Symphony Woods.
Phase 1 construction on Symphony Woods is scheduled to begin in spring 2012 and could be completed by fall 2013.
The plans for Symphony Woods, located between Little Patuxent Parkway and Merriweather Post Pavilion, are part of an overall plan for redeveloping downtown Columbia that was approved by the Howard County Council more than a year ago. The redesign of Symphony Woods is the first part of the redevelopment plan to move forward.
Developers have to change in Columbia and in the rest of the nation, agreed CA President Phil Nelson, who introduced Leinberger as part of a speaker series offered by the CA in conjunction with The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC).
Nelson mentioned a few of the massive changes Columbia has seen since Jim Rouse first made his vision a reality. “Gas was 23 cents a gallon,” he said. “Oil was plentiful. Most families were nuclear families with a mother, father and kids.”
Now, he said, we are facing dramatic changes. “The nuclear family has been replaced. In Washington, D.C., just 8% of families are nuclear.”
In the face of this morphing population, drivable suburban has been overbuilt, said Leinberger, who did point out, on the optimistic side, that some downtown centers — such as Bethesda and Silver Spring — have been revived into vibrant, walkable urban centers.
Unlike walkable urban communities, which can become even more desirable places to live if developers increase population density in a strategic way, suburbia’s quality of life inevitably goes down as more and more people sprawl out of the cities, Leinberger said.
“As you build more, the quality of life gets reduced because of traffic, because the open space is chewed up, and because of pollution.”
Considering Leinberger actually called walkable urban development “a bitch” to pull off, how do developers feel about the future?
John DeWolf, an HHC senior vice president, was determined to speak optimistically before an audience of some 300 Columbia residents, community leaders and Howard County Council members who came to hear what Leinberger had to say.
“We think we have a bright future,” DeWolf said, “and we’re very intent on seeing that to a very good future.”
But we will have to live in a different way than how our kids were raised, said Leinberger. “We tend to downsize when we retire, and most of us want to live in the same neighborhood if we have that option. Today, on average, throughout the country, only 25% of households have children living in them.”
Making room for a growing “creative class” of residents (or knowledge-based workers in sectors including not only the arts, but science, engineering, education, computer programming and research) is also vitally important, he said.
“The creative class is demanding a walkable urban environment,” he said, “or they are going somewhere else.”