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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

As we remake suburbs, should we guard against "commercial gentrification"?

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 11, 2013

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  Little River Center, Annandale, VA (via Google Earth)

There is little question that suburban strip malls represent an unsustainable architecture.  Totally automobile-dependent, marked by large surface parking lots, and remarkably inefficient at using land, strip malls generate much more pollution and consume much more in the way of resources on a per capita basis than do more walkable, urban shopping districts.  Such urbanist thinkers as Galina Tachieva (Sprawl Repair Manual), June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones (Retrofitting Suburbia) are absolutely correct in urging that, as these malls age and decline, they should be replaced with better, greener forms.

Indeed, some of our best and most iconic smart growth developments – The Crossings in Mountain View, California, and Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida come immediately to mind – were built on what were once dead shopping malls.  Late 20th-century commercial buildings typically have much shorter life spans than do homes, so remaking these old parking lots and typically single-level stores represents one of our best hopes for achieving a greener suburban future.

And yet:  As these properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses.  Particularly as immigrants have settled in inner suburbs (where many of these fading commercial strips are), businesses owned and patronized by the immigrant population have occupied many of these spaces, in some cases alongside small start-ups owned by longtime community residents as well. 

strip mall sign, location unknown (by: Quinn Dombrowski, creative commons)The risk is that, as we reshape these old properties with new buildings and concepts, the replacement properties will be much more valuable than their predecessors; indeed, that’s why new development is appealing to investors and how it is made possible.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  But small businesses either go under, unable to afford new rents, or relocate as a result.  The logical place to relocate in many cases will be vacant storefronts in other strip malls in locations less attractive to the businesses' clienteles.  What to do?

When we redevelop areas with low-income housing, we know what to do (which is not to say that we always do it):  minimize displacement of residents, find new homes for those who must be displaced, and set aside properties in new development with affordable pricing to help make sure that a revitalizing neighborhood can retain diversity.  An ethic has developed, in many cases adopted into law with inclusionary zoning.

But, as far as I know, there is no comparable, widely understood ethic to protect small, often minority businesses that are harmed by otherwise beneficial neighborhood change, and I am wondering whether there should be.

I recently visited my home town of Asheville, North Carolina, where there was an article in a local “alternative” weekly newspaper about small businesses that have sprung up in local strip malls.  Julia Ritchey writes:

“Beyond the typical tanning salons, pawnshops and big-box stores, you will find other complexes that, like [local Korean restaurant] Stone Bowl’s, Westgate Shopping Center, Asheville, NC (by: zen Sutherland, creative commons)feature small, independently owned businesses with a flair for the unique.  Call it manifest destiny, suburban style.  By being accessible, original and part of a diverse cluster of storefronts, these local establishments ensure that the American strip mall may continue to thrive in today's fickle economy . . .

“Strip malls offer business owners certain quality of life conditions not always available in thriving, popular downtown districts:  affordable rents, ample parking and a relatively hassle-free start up.  What a strip mall may lack in charm and architectural interest, it makes up for in value.”

According to Ritchey’s article, Asheville’s strip malls offer a setting for synergies to develop and help connect entreprenurial businesses to each other:  for example, establishments offering diverse but complementary products and services can share a customer base, trade ideas, and cross-promote.  This strikes me as analogous in some ways to synergies available to start-ups in more urban “business incubators.” 

It makes a lot of sense to me and, in many parts of the country, it is newer Americans who are benefitting the most from these opportunities.  For them, a successful business in a strip mall is the American Dream at work.  Three years ago, Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) and I wrote separate articles (mine; Aaron’s) about a sort of organic economic revitalization being initiated by immigrants within the existing fabric of our older suburbs. 

There is no doubt that today’s suburbs are more diverse than they used to be.  As of 2009, 44 percent of elementary school students in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia - outside of Washington, DC - spoke a language other than English at home.  Although Spanish is the second most common language (after English) spoken at home by Fairfax students, fully half of the county’s immigrant population is from Asia.

  strip mall, Richmond, BC (by: Kelly Constabaris, creative commons)

Fairfax remains one of America’s wealthiest counties (its rank fluctuates year to year but is always in the top five nationally), and a drive down any of its main drags is a drive through seemingly endless strip malls, many of them with Asian, Spanish, and Indian language signs marking the businesses within.  As these aging malls are gradually replaced – and many of them will be in the next decade – what will become of these small businesses?

By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that the problem of commercial gentrification is inherently suburban.  It is plainly not.  Nor is redevelopment entirely to blame for the loss of small businesses, either in inner cities or in strip malls.  Larger economic forces have been driving mom-and-pops out of business for decades. 

But I do think there has been a resurgence of entrepreneurship in recent years.  It is taking place in older commercial buildings with lower rents and, increasingly, that means it is taking place in some locations we may be quick to dismiss as car-dependent and unsustainable.  While surely the best way to preserve small business diversity and opportunity is not to preserve some of the most unsustainable architecture in America, my sense is that we – environmentalists and urbanists – have not put enough thought into how best to sustain what that architecture is now nurturing. 

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Michael BerndtsonJun 11 2013 10:06 AM

Great article. One solution is to rezone much of suburbia to allow commercial and denser housing. Like at the mouth of a cul de sac . Mixed use development us to be the typical neighborhood set up in Chicago and its close in suburbs (yea Berwyn). For instance my neighborhood consists of small brick homes, two-flats and smallish apartment buildings intermixed with commercial areas. There's a Mexican corner butcher and grocery store a block and a half away that has done well for 10 plus years. And this is with an Aldis, Jewel, Meijers, Tony's Specialty Foods and several larger Mexican produce stores within a mile from my house. The neighborhood is extremely diverse both economically and ethnically and for some reason is the opposite of a food desert. Ironically Northwest Oak Park liberals hate Berwyn.

There's a infill quasi-urban development in Bloomington, Indiana that is basically re-did the traditional Chicago neighborhood plan. It's called South Dunn Street. This development has been finished for over 5 years and another developer is pretty much copying the same plan across the street, due to Dunn Street's success.

David RotensteinJun 11 2013 02:52 PM

Good post. Historian Tom Hanchett has written about these strip malls in what he calls "Salad-Bowl Suburbs":

They are an interesting challenge, on many levels. In my arena, historic preservation, many postwar strip malls are now being evaluated as historic landmarks. Unfortunately, because they were built as auto-oriented complexes, they include lots of surface parking area that the centers' designers and earliest owners considered integral. If you read the trade journal and newspaper articles that reported on when strip centers opened in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, in many cases the sprawling parking lots got most of the glowing copy. Today, those parking lots are oftentimes wasted seas of asphalt -- grayfields -- that beg for creative adaptive use that doesn't necessarily involve demolition and gentrification. National Park Service historian Tim Davis wrote a really thought provoking article on strip centers, gentrification, and their parking lots in a 1997 Vernacular Architecture Forum article titled, "The Miracle Mile Revisited: Recycling, Renovation, and Simulation along the Commercial Strip" .

Wayne SenvilleJun 11 2013 02:56 PM

Thanks for a perspective on commercial strip malls that I haven't heard expressed. In planning circles there's (unfortunately) little heard about immigrant communities and how they're making use of the built environment.

Here in Burlington, Vermont, our "old North End" neighborhood is blossoming with an array of stores and markets meeting the needs of our increasingly diverse population (in our case, it's not a strip mall that's being reborn, but an older, urban commercial street - North Street).

The City of Burlington wisely helped the process by investing in infrastructure and street improvements, such as better and more attractive street lighting and sidewalks.

Maybe it's not a great analogy, but one of the reason for the "comeback" of public libraries is also their increased use by immigrant communities.

Kaid, I'd welcome more future postings on how immigrant populations are affecting the shape of our cities and suburbs. It's a subject that's under the radar for many planners (perhaps because these groups are often not as active in the public planning process).

DougJun 12 2013 04:43 PM

Kaid, as usual great and insightful article. I've been reading your blog for some time now and have learned quite a bit from it.

I live in a very small town. The population is around 6500 people with an additional 10,000 or so that make up the whole community. We are about an hour north of Houston. My interest for some time now has been how to transform my town from a dying retirement area to a place where young families want to be. I've thought about looking into some of the HUD programs that you have suggested. Is there anything that you or your readers suggest that I can do? Obviously, I have no formal training or place within government but I am simply a concerned citizen.

Michael LewynJun 16 2013 12:59 PM

I'm not sure I understand the main post correctly.

As I understand it, your fear is that:

1. If a place becomes more walkable it will become more expensive.

2. If a place becomes more expensive it will price out everything but chains.

Assumption 1 is pretty dubious because there are plenty of walkable places that are not particularly expensive (or at least are not particularly expensive by the standards of their region). For example, although every place in NYC is expensive by Earth standards, it is nevertheless the case that many perfectly walkable places are low-rent by NYC standards.

Assumption 2 can be easily tested. Go to Walkscore for any well-off, walkable neighborhood and see how chain-dominated it is. I went to 86th and Lexington in the Upper East Side- one of the richest urban places in the United States. Of the closest 9 or 10 restaurants I found, only one (Shake Shack) was a chain that I had heard of

Kaid @ NRDCJun 17 2013 08:23 AM

Michael: With all due respect, NYC is not remotely comparable to a suburban retrofit. Show me a faded strip mall that has been given a new urbanist makeover in the last 10 years. Thanks.

Paul NabtiJun 17 2013 01:21 PM

Kaid, thank you for this great insight! I am part of a smart growth advocacy group in Fairfax City, VA. A few months ago we made a presentation to the city planning commssion supporting redevelopment of the main commercial strip in the city. We also acknowledged some pitfalls, including the potential loss of some of the numerous small and local retail businesses occupying older shopping centers. When one of the commissioners aksed us what kind of policy tools the city could use to combat this, we had a few suggestions, such as retail leasing requirements and support from the Economic Development Authority, but we did not have a response that was wideley used and accepted. It is unfortunate to read that you haven't come across anything either. I am hoping to find examples of redevelopment projects that have successfully included existing small businesses to share with the planning commission the next time we meet.

Dan JordanJun 18 2013 08:39 PM

There are some strip malls that are very attractive and well maintained. I know many businesses that prefer a small strip mall to a large enclosed mall. While I like the idea of mixed use urban development, it is ultimately up to the property owner and what the shopping public supports that will determine use. Whether we like it or not, many suburban dwellers are always going to use their cars and will shop where convenient to park. Zoning needs to be flexible to allow various development. The less the planning commission tries to force redevelopment, the better the law of supply and demand will work.

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