November 6, 2008
Town centers are a new catalyst for small cities
By DAN BERTOLET
Across the Puget Sound region, a growing number of small cities have a new vision for their downtowns: One of a vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented center that provides an authentic social heart for the community, as well as a focus for renewed economic vitality.
Residents and civic leaders alike are realizing that a sprawl of strip malls tends to be a dysfunctional community center, and that redevelopment has the potential to create an energetic central place that nourishes both the social and economic aspirations of their cities. In short, cities want a traditional town center fashioned for contemporary reality.
There are at least 18 cities in the Puget Sound region involved in some form of town center development project, ranging from initial conceptual planning to completion. What follows is a discussion of the driving forces, the key elements for success and a regional example of town center development.
Why build new town centers?
At root, the burgeoning interest in town center revitalization is a manifestation of major societal shifts. It is becoming clear that the United States is reaching the end of a chapter ruled by cars, cheap energy, wasteful land-use patterns and a demographically monolithic suburbia.
Changing attitudes and trends are fueling the desire for new town centers. Some of the driving factors include: a heightening awareness of global environmental issues and the corresponding recognition that dispersed, suburban-style development is unsustainable; an increasing preference for the urban lifestyle, with its cultural amenities, mix of uses, and 24/7 energy; and a growing desire to have places that engender civic pride, strengthen community bonds and provide a sense of place. Concurrently, shifting demographics are stimulating demand for a more diverse range of higher-density housing types.
Here in the Puget Sound region, there are also powerful economic factors contributing to the attraction of town center redevelopment. In recent decades, the region has experienced rapid population growth combined with a strong economy and job market. These trends, in turn, have led to a relatively high cost of housing and commercial real estate in the biggest cities, which boosts the appeal of smaller cities. Meanwhile, the state’s growth management policies are an ever-present impetus for dense development.
Successful town centers
Town centers can vary considerably in size, form and content, but typically consist of a mix of commercial and residential uses, along with a public gathering space that serves as the central focus of activity. Commercial uses are most often retail, but may include office and hospitality. In some cases, town centers are weighted heavily toward commercial, and may not contain any residential uses at all. Ideally, a town center integrates a significant civic anchor, such as a community center, library or city hall.
The most important component of a town center is the public realm. Throughout the history of cities, the public realm has been a potent wellspring of human energy and social unity. Consisting of streets, sidewalks, plazas, parks and public buildings, the public realm sets the stage for a synergistic mix of commerce, leisure and everyday life, while the presence of people works like a magnet to attract more people.
Because new town centers lack the history that helps establish authenticity, careful consideration of the public realm is even more pivotal. Key features of a successful public realm include:
• Activated spaces that are designed to accommodate events and are well-integrated with adjacent uses.
• Accessibility and connectivity, both within the site and to the community beyond.
• Human-scale elements and site design that enhance the pedestrian experience.
• An inclusive, civic identity that feels like a public space even if it’s private.
• High-quality buildings lining the public realm’s edges.
Town center implementation
As with any development, the first imperative is to respect the market realities. For a mixed-use town center, that means understanding both the residential and commercial markets, as well as the more subtle issues of how the different product types are likely to play off one another, and how each will fit in with the overall character of the center.
The development of a town center is an inherently complex endeavor: The large scale, the mix of building types, the integration of the public realm and civic uses, long development times and the potential need for phasing all pose unique challenges. Typically, community support and collaboration with local government are additional prerequisites.
A public-private partnership is often an appropriate strategy for addressing the above challenges, enabling the public and private interests to share the risks and rewards. As noted in the 2007 City of Mountlake Terrace Town Center Plan: “The city is able to achieve goals that would not be possible through public funds alone, while developers benefit from increased certainty (decreased risk) and assistance in navigating regulations.”
Burien’s town center
Burien Town Square, under construction in downtown Burien, is perhaps the best regional example of a development that has potential to deliver the ideal vision of a new town center. Developed by Los Angeles and Seattle-based Urban Partners, Burien Town Square occupies a 10-acre site, and when complete will consist of three mid-rise mixed-use residential buildings with a total of 400 housing units, a King County Public Library and Burien City Hall, all surrounding a one-acre public park.
Burien Town Square is also a salient example of the role of public-private partnerships in town center development. On the public side, more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies supported the project. Meanwhile, Urban Partners provided the bulk of the $145 million investment, but also participated in more than 50 public meetings and met with hundreds of community members.
Former Burien city manager Gary Long and Urban Partners principal Dan Rosenfeld agree that the most critical ingredient for the project’s success is a deep-rooted and enduring vision. The city’s vision for a new town center was established in 1993, and was consistently supported by strong civic leadership and a well-organized community. The city adopted a new downtown plan, acquired land for the project, implemented streetscape improvements, secured funding for new streets within the development property and offered a 10-year property tax abatement to new homeowners.
Town center redevelopment is born of the desire to restore the economic and social health of communities, and as such, directly addresses those two key components of sustainability. Furthermore, a properly designed town center has the potential to shrink our environmental footprint by reducing car dependence and relieving development pressure on ecologically sensitive land.
Consideration of town centers through the lens of sustainable development only emphasizes their promise for contributing to the evolution of our built environment toward a form that makes sense for the 21st century.
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