Thursday, September 6, 2012

most growth happening in "walkable urban" neighborhoods

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
People want "walkable urban" places like this, and developers are responding.
In recent years, apartment and office towers have sprouted up around Greater Washington in inner-city neighborhoods and suburban town centers alike. According to a new report from LOCUS, a smart growth advocacy group, these "walkable urban" places are actually driving the region's growth.

The report won't be released until a conference on the future of D.C.-area real estate to be held next week, but the Wall Street Journal has a preview:
Since 2009, these walkable locations in the Washington area have seen 42% of new apartment development, up dramatically from 19% between 2000 and 2008, and 12% during the 1990s. A similar change was seen for offices, as 59% of the space delivered since 2009 was in these areas, up from 49% between 2000 and 2008 and 38% in the 1990s . . .

To Mr. Leinberger, a developer himself, the shift for apartments and offices is a function of the market: Developers are getting higher rents in denser areas, leading to rising values compared with typical suburban-style development. “That’s the market telling you, dramatically, build more of this stuff,” Mr. Leinberger said. “There’s pent-up demand for walkable urban.”
43 "regionally significant" neighborhoods where development is concentrated. Map from the Atlantic Cities.
The 43 "walkable urban" places Leinberger identifies include everything from Columbia Heights in the District to inner suburbs like downtown Silver Spring and even satellite cities like downtown Frederick. As the Atlantic Cities notes, these "walkable urban" places take up less than 1 percent of the land in Greater Washington but already have a third of the region's jobs.

Whether or not you personally want to live in an urban neighborhood, this report is good news. Increased demand to build in areas with existing infrastructure can reinvigorate struggling communities. It can also save local governments a tremendous amount of money compared to development on the fringe where roads, utility lines, and schools may not already exist.

We know that there's an unmet demand for housing in neighborhoods with public transit and other amenities within an easy walk, so those people could get the opportunity to live in the kind of communities they want. Meanwhile, those who prefer a suburban or rural lifestyle will be able to have that in communities that may see reduced development pressure in the coming years. And as Leinberger points out, the glut of large houses in suburban areas built in recent years means that they'll be more affordable as well.

The challenge, then, is ensuring that everyone who wants to live in a "walkable urban" place gets the opportunity to do so. These neighborhoods are likely to have housing costs, and though they're often offset by low transportation costs, we have to make sure that renters and homeowners alike aren't priced out, even when there's substantial neighborhood opposition to new housing.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids hanging out in Kentlands, a "walkable urban" neighborhood in Gaithersburg.
It's also important to make sure that our urban neighborhoods are the best they can be. We need to make sure they get high-quality public spaces that make up for the lack of private space and allow people to come together. The region's towns, cities and counties would do well to follow the District's lead and get developers and police officers together to ensure that new neighborhoods are designed for safety.

We also have to ensure that people of all ages, not just young adults, are welcome in our urban neighborhoods. These places have lots of potential benefits for kids, but only if they have the right amenities to draw families who may otherwise look to suburban areas.

Greater Washington isn't the only region in North America that's moving towards a more urban future, but it's probably the furthest along in shifting growth to urban places instead of suburban ones. Hopefully, this report will serve as a wake-up call to both the potential our area has and the challenges it will face.

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