A Middle Ground: Connecting Suburban to Urban

It's predicted that within the next five years, 20-25% of America's shopping malls will close. How could we redesign those spaces into multi-use developments to benefit our communities?

Many people don’t want the crowdedness of city living, but want to be close to amenities and resources. This has caused a rise in demand for mixed use complexes and sustainable walkable communities. While many movements have focused on creating new communities from scratch or revitalizing downtowns, there is an alternative that lies in the middle ground.

Nodes and Connections

The area around downtown has the most potential for development because of its ability to act as a node – connecting outlying neighborhoods to the center of the city. Currently in Fort Wayne, this area is mostly low density commercial and single family residential. With a masterplan providing improved walkability, public transportation, and green space, this could be a great investment and living opportunity. As an architectural intern at DC this summer, I focused my research project on this topic.

Opportunities

Looking at the area surrounding downtown Fort Wayne, there are both sprawling single-family neighborhoods and large commercial strips. Some of these neighborhoods are even hidden among the commercial strips. However, these homes are disconnected by busy intersections, fences, trees, and a lack of sidewalks, making them unwalkable, vehicle-dependent communities. By letting down those barriers and allowing these different sectors to interact, the whole community benefits from increased activity. The opportunity lies in injecting other types of properties that are lacking in the area. This would create mid-density, sustainable, walkable spaces, bringing Fort Wayne residents closer to downtown and shortening their daily travel. People would be closer to the places they want and need to go to – work, the grocery store, movie theatre, shopping mall, doctor’s office, church, etc.

Strategies: Adding Residential

Since many commercial strips already have entertainment, retail, food, and medical facilities nearby, it makes sense to build upon their existing resources. All they need for further development is mid-density residential and improved infrastructure. This would also help connect the existing suburban neighborhoods.

 

Failing businesses and strip complexes are leaving gaping holes in the physical and economic fabric of the surrounding area. A report from 2017 predicts that 20-25% of America’s malls will close within the next five years. To keep these communities alive, malls need to reinvent themselves and welcome new tenants. With each closing store, there’s an opportunity to convert that space to residential apartments. It is especially helpful to add other community and entertainment spaces to re-attract consumers diverted by online shopping.
 
Parking lots are often under-utilized, visually unappealing, and take up valuable real estate. A community development department in Los Angeles, CA, stated vast mall parking lots held the greatest potential to add new homes. According to a Los Angeles Times article by Andrew Khouri, South Bay Galleria mall sits on 30-acres which could add 1,467 residences under current zoning as part of a mixed-use development. A great example takes place in a parking lot at the Northgate Mall in Seattle, WA. According to a Fast Company article by Adele Peters, what used to be empty asphalt is now 387 LEED-certified apartments, senior housing, a medical center, and several retailers. The development is Seattle’s first LEED Silver neighborhood. Its proximity to public transportation and bioswale to filter pollution from further endangering the salmon in a nearby creek make it environmentally friendly. Northgate Mall and its users aren’t missing the vacant parking lot, and the number of cars on the road have actually decreased. The percentage of neighbors using public transit jumped from 18% to 80%, and over 20% of residents don’t own a car.
 
Another way to add density is building vertically. Many commercial strips are a single story. Adding residential units brings residents as close as they can be to the stores they frequent and can be very marketable. However, there are obstacles to this type of development due to reinforcing existing structure and keeping the businesses below active during construction.

 

Key Factors

Mixed use development allows residents to be closer to amenities and resources, which saves them time and money. This makes demand for this type of development high. It is also helpful for stimulating the economy due to a business’ proximity to their consumers. Both workers and shoppers have the potential to live just next door, which is potentially beneficial to both consumers and businesses.
Being able to walk to local stores is not only healthy and reduces vehicular traffic, but it is extremely convenient. This makes coordination with the city extremely important to provide the proper infrastructure for residents and traffic.
Road congestion is a common concern when adding additional buildings and people to an area. However, amount of traffic has been shown to decrease around mixed-use developments. According to a Greater Greater Washington article by Ryan Arnold, this is most likely due to fewer commuters on the road who are instead walking or taking public transit. Less road congestion means less air pollution resulting in a lower collective carbon footprint. In addition to less pollution from cars, which improves air quality, mixed-use developments also encourage a more active lifestyle. This could potentially result in better financial health for residents that are saving on gas and health bills.
Gentrification and rent hikes are a recurring problem in many mixed-use developments. To combat this problem, these developments should include affordable housing in addition to mixed-income units to diversify the resident population and help support a variety of local businesses.
Additionally, many urban and suburban areas of the United States are in a food dessert. This severely hurts those who don’t have reliable transportation to travel to distant grocery stores. This is another reason why this type of development needs to provide affordable housing. By doing so, lower-income families could benefit by having access to better grocery options.
Adding more residential and mixed-use developments to the area surrounding downtown Fort Wayne would bring more pedestrian traffic. This could pressure the city to improve and provide more public transit and pedestrian friendly infrastructure, like sidewalks and pedestrian bridges. This would in turn connect outlying neighborhoods to the nearby commercial node and by extension, downtown.
 
Molly Schultz
Architectual Intern