The economic crash has cities scrambling to keep their real estate markets alive. Disappearing credit has caused many of the most capital-intensive projects, meaning big buildings, to halt. Some have been surprised that projects modeled on traditional patterns of urbanism, such as mixed-used developments, have been caught up in the storm. It’s one thing when a lone skyscraper or a subdivision at the edge the city stops dead in development. It’s simple to ignore and get around. But when an entire neighborhood of urban fabric disappears and leaves a large hole in the core of the city, the loss of urban life is noticeable. This is exactly what happened with mixed-used redevelopment in Salt Lake City.
For many, the Sugarhouse area was full of nostalgia. The downtown area featured local shops including a boutique, record store and a corner coffee shop that became a commons area for many residents. All this was lost when the developer Craig Mecham demolished the Granite Block of Sugarhouse for a new mixed-use project. The plans were to create a live-work-play dense pedestrian friendly environment for citizens.
“I actually think it’s a great idea because it’s going to bring housing to Sugar House,” said SLC resident Zach Moses. “There’s a lot of housing around Sugar House, but there’s not really any in it.”
But with America’s economy reaching its lowest numbers since the Great Depression, Mecham lost his funding and left a huge hole. Now city officials want Mecham to fill the hole, only to later dig it up again when he achieves the funding. This would result in an extra $80,000 added to the cost of the project.
Mixed used development is the invention of a Frankenstein urbanism, where parts of living neighborhoods have been stitched together into an unnatural system and large amounts of money invested to shock the whole into getting up and looking alive. The stitches are nevertheless obvious, and the creature is moving a little bit funny.
When Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life of Great American Cities, she described some qualities of cities that made neighborhoods alive. Some of them were small block sizes and mixed uses. What she couldn’t imagine at the time was how entrenched the municipality/developer growth relationship would become. And so municipalities, instead of returning to the creation of small blocks in their grids, continued making the superblocks but required the developers to build developments that matched the description of a neighborhood that Jacobs explained the workings of, without paying any notice to the process that created those neighborhoods she was describing. This not only perpetuated the unsustainability of sprawl, it also made the life of developers much more complicated.
Mixed-used neighborhoods work because they provide a marketplace for mixed people. Each person brings along his own specialized economic know-how, and so knows how best to provide in details the building program for his specific economic activity. A neighborhood, in that sense, becomes mixed-used because it is the product of mixed users all contributing their part to its complexity. What speculative mixed-used development does is force the developer to control and predict every building program in the neighborhood, then finance the entire development as one investment. The risk of failure is increased over single-use development, requiring subsidies either from the municipality or, as we saw in the case of Florida TNDs, the developer himself.
As older subdivisions and shopping malls become increasingly dysfunctional, the pressure to remove them whole is going to increase. But replacing them with another big development will not create the kind of neighborhood that disciples of Jacobs, or people who love the vitality of cities, wish to create. These neighborhoods are made by large numbers of people over time. We have to understand that suburban subdivisions are our context and that they must be preserved through the transformation into real neighborhoods for the simple reason that we can no longer afford to remove them. This requires creating a whole new kind of urban code and process. The codes for TNDs tell developers how to make urban-shaped development where nothing exists, but not how to repair the fabric of suburban sprawl through very small and random increments that improves the sprawl around them.
Mixed used development has been a mirage of sustainable development. It has allowed people to think that great historic cities can substitute sprawl development by changing the product, without changing anything about the production processes. (Ironically, Victor Gruen did something similar by recreating the european shopping street, within the suburban sprawl system, as the shopping mall. Shopping malls later become icons of sprawl.) With cities literally faced with gaping holes where wonderful drawings promised them urbanity, that mirage has been revealed to be a mound of sand.
This economic crash has been described as rivaling any crash since the 1930’s. This dates back before the creation of the municipality-developer system for urban growth. It’s possible that this time credit will not come back, and the system of big development cannot be resumed as it has worked in recent times. To recover from a crash as bad as the 1930’s, we may have to come back to development processes dating back before the 1930’s. Processes which rely less on massive concentrations of speculative credit and more on the piecemeal investments of regular people.
In the immediate time-frame, economic reality requires a massive down-scaling of the production of urban fabric. Those cities that first change the structure of their marketplace to restore the production processes for small development initiated by many people instead of a few developers will also be the first to get out of the slump, and emerge with mixed-used neighborhoods that are the product of the people who live there. If they cannot achieve that, then the next best thing is to create a more flexible regulatory framework that allows developers to create marketplaces for many people and to stop developing by big investments. This might save both the cities and their developers.