Right now, the United States is undergoing a societal paradigm shift, with Americans spending less time in cars and preferences shifting from big, cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs to smaller spaces in compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. A combination of factors contribute to the shift: rising gas prices and highway saturation, demographics and generational preferences, and increased sensitivity to environmental sustainability, among others.
As a result, urban populations are growing, and land is becoming more valuable as sizeable lots and opportunities for large-scale, transformational development projects are limited. However, many existing urban neighborhoods are ripe with outdated, underperforming, and out of character strip retail centers that are ideal for reinvestment and redevelopment.
Where did the strip retail centers come from?
These strip retail centers are a product of post-World War II life in the U.S., stemming from the rise and reliance on the automobile in the post-war period; the 41,000 miles of roadway developed via the Interstate Highway Act of 1956; and from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) loan programs designed to improve home affordability and increase home ownership. Ultimately, these factors and others paved the way for families to move from the city to the suburbs to obtain their “American Dream.”
Eventually, retail and offices followed suit, creating the automobile-centric strip centers and office parks we know today. These buildings have a number of defining features — they are pushed back far from the street and fronted by vast parking lots. Essentially, they are single-use pod developments that are disconnected from the community.
Not surprisingly, this style of development found its way back to cities, where blocks of buildings were demolished and street right-of-ways abandoned in the middle of neighborhoods to make way for this suburban style development. These retail centers, while providing great access for cars, stand in isolation from the neighborhoods they serve. In many cases, they sever street networks; create impenetrable borders by erecting long blank walls (literally “turning their backs” on the neighborhood); and disassociate with the street and pedestrians by setting back behind a sea of surface parking.
Shifting back to the city
Today, as market demand turns back to more traditional urban design principles of a concept known as placemaking, these retail centers are ripe for redevelopment. Some, perhaps, are in need of a wrecking ball, while others could get by with just a scalpel.
Imagine replacing a “single-use pod” that is only active during the day — and is vacant and unsafe at night — with mixed-use residential and office buildings that include spaces for nightlife and entertainment to provide a 24/7 experience. Surface parking could be replaced with shared parking structures located in the middle of newly formed blocks. And new and historical street grid patterns could be reestablished, evaporating the borders and reconnecting back into the adjacent neighborhoods.
Imagine more: open spaces such as squares, plazas, and greens could be incorporated to provide recreational opportunities and space for community events and farmer’s markets. Commercial and professional office space along with local retail could be integrated, giving nearby residents an opportunity to locate their businesses within the community, or at least be able to access professional services.
These new developments have the potential to become identifiable centers for these communities —and to restitch them back together with a focus on creating compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented places.
If current polls and market trends continue, there will be more demand for this kind of development, and these suburban-style retail centers housed in cities can become the next big opportunities for large-scale master planning and architectural development.
If you have an urban revitalization project in mind, Marks, Thomas Architects has decades of experience transforming underused properties into viable, thriving places to live, work, play, and learn. Contact us to start the conversation.