Bethesda Row in one of Washington D.C.’s inner-ring suburbs, Bethesda, Maryland. Courtesy image.

What if there were a mixed-use development like the Pearl near Loop 410? What if the parking lot of an abandoned strip mall were converted into greenspace? What if infill development, as we’ve come to know it as a vital tool in the center city for redeveloping existing city blocks, was incentivized in all neighborhood and commercial areas of San Antonio? A vacant building downtown is just as dangerous and wasteful as one outside of Loop 410 and the benefits of walkable, sustainable design can be realized outside the urban core – why not let these traditionally urban design concepts leak out into San Antonio’s suburban sprawl?

These are but a few concepts that will be touched on at the Pearl Stable on Tuesday, June 16 as author, award-winning architect, and professor of urban design Ellen Dunham-Jones will speak on “Retrofitting Suburbia for 21st Century Challenges” during a luncheon hosted by ULI San Antonio and AIA San Antonio as part of the Sustainable Urban Development series. Registration for the event closes this Friday, June 12. Click here for details.

Ellen Dunham-Jones
Ellen Dunham-Jones

Dunham-Jones’ talk will be based largely on her and co-author June Williamson’s book, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs” (2008) and her TED Talk in June 2010). Dunham-Jones has been scouring the country for case studies of suburban retrofits, and compiling them into a massive database. Turning Wal-Mart stores into churches, schools, libraries, or museums; a mall into a hospital; a strip mall into a mixed-use boulevard – all examples of the kind of infill development that is happening outside of major center cities nationwide.

“(My first book and TED Talk) was focused on reducing dependence on the automobile. That is still job one, but now that the database has grown, we’re really focusing on which retrofits that – in addition to helping curb dependence on automobiles – also are raising the bar on how the suburbs can deal with public health, affordability, attracting, and retaining jobs,” Dunham-Jones said during a phone interview last week. “The suburbs were never designed to deal with sustainability – things like water (and) energy efficiency. Ultimately, (the research aims to) help make places that are going to be better resilient to climate change.

“Great places will connect to the past, the future, and to nature,” she added.

Dunham-Jones has more than 1,200 examples in the database that will be informing her second book, including some in Texas. Nationwide, 70% of jobs are in suburbia. Not everyone can live downtown, so there is a growing need to develop mini-downtowns or “nodes” in sprawling cities.

Rackspace is a great example of a rehabilitation,” Dunham-Jones said. “But it hasn’t really had as much of an impact on the neighborhood” as other retrofits elsewhere have had.

This may be because most of the retrofitting has been done on the inside of the former Windsor Park Mall. Beyond an improved sidewalk, there’s nothing to really tie the building to the surrounding community.

Rackspace occupies the former Windsor Park Mall. The company has transformed the dead mall into a modern workplace that includes sectioned off conference rooms, escalators, and is home to the old gondolas from Brackenridge Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Rackspace occupies the former Windsor Park Mall. The company has transformed the former mall into a modern workplace that includes sectioned off conference rooms, escalators, and  the old gondolas from the Brackenridge Park Sky Ride. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Though not technically suburbia, former Air Force bases Brooks City Base and Port San Antonio also come to mind when thinking about repurposing spaces and buildings. They both have on-site residential options and are located amid neighborhoods.

San Antonio has plenty more commercial space in suburbia to tackle, said Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), who will be attending the luncheon next Tuesday. This approach to citywide development is on the City’s radar.

The Comprehensive Plan and development planning in general is geared toward this notion of nodal development – to develop more work-live spaces,” Nirenberg said Monday. “We try to (improve codes to encourage mixed-use) on a case by case process, but we need to better codify these activities.”

Along old highways and main thoroughfares, there are areas of blight and “concrete wastelands” that dot the city, he said. What he’s found by talking to businesses and developers is that it’s simply cheaper and easier to build a new store than it is to retrofit old ones.

“What we need is a reduction of red tape and encouragement of incentives to let business use those (old buildings) instead of developing greenspace,” he said.

San Antonio has a number of incentives offered for infill development and a pilot program for vacant buildings, but those are geographically limited to property in the center city.

Another example of a successful urban retrofit comes from from Bethesda, Maryland, a suburban city near Washington D.C., is basically a culinary, entertainment, and residential complex called Bethesda Row that has sparked multi-million dollar residential developments including apartments, condos, and townhouses (see top image).

According to her research, almost every single city that has begun to “retrofit suburbia” first saw a boom in traditional downtown revitalization. Which makes sense, she said, “you have to prove the viability of urban living” to both residents and developers to create a demand for that lifestyle in other parts of the city.

“Most of the time what happens is; downtown living starts to be validated and it gets expensive. Then the suburban retrofits provide a cheaper price point,” Dunham-Jones said, using the terms “authentic urbanism” to describe established downtowns and “instant urbanism” to describe new projects that emulate them. 

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You can imagine some people (not everyone) that live in Stone Oak or beyond visiting the Blue Star Arts Complex for the first time and thinking to themselves, “Why can’t my neighborhood have something like this?”

What needs to happen to get the ball rolling for “instant urbanism?” In many cities, including Atlanta where Dunham-Jones teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology, it has been the private sector that has taken the first step by creating Business Improvement Districts or Community Improvement Districts (BIDs/CIDs), she said, where “commercial property owners agree to join together to self-tax themselves to make improvements in the area.”

Initiatives include smaller steps like installing flower beds and trees, adding security, or improving sidewalks to large investments like paying for planning studies, new roads, and street lights.

“(CIDs) have really made an enormous difference of making it clear what the area needs – especially with transit,” Dunham-Jones said.  “CIDs are the folks saying hey, ‘we want the transit.’ … When the larger community hears that from the business people, they tend to expect (a response) from the public sector and (city) planners.”

The last and only time Dunham-Jones was in San Antonio was about 10-12 years ago, she said, a quick trip that included staying in a downtown hotel and visiting the River Walk. A lot has changed since. She’ll be speaking at the flagship of modern San Antonian mixed-use developments, the historic Pearl Brewery Complex, but perhaps will have time to bring fresh eyes to what could be in San Antonio’s suburban blight.

“I look forward to learning more about what is happening in San Antonio,” she said.

*Top image: Bethesda Row in one of Washington D.C.’s inner-ring suburbs, Bethesda, Maryland. Courtesy image. 

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Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com