November 5, 2014 by

It seems that the push into new urbanism has cost cities and developers a lot of money. All money spent in an effort to create from whole cloth a new Utopian form of urban-density design. From apartments with ground-floor retail, to new idealized communities where the form-based zoning pushed dense urban public space designs. They are designs that appear to make money only where consumers don’t have alternatives.

Contradictions between the theory and reality become apparent when driving up to one of these new urban-planned projects. I can think of two examples that show how poorly city planner ideals conflict with the realities of consumers. The use of compact parking stalls despite the fact that half of U.S. auto sales are for ever-larger pickups. Also, that notion of “walkable” developments despite the realities of weather-challenged cities such as Omaha.

Even the Lifestyle Mall concept is often a money loser. Yet the redevelopers of abandoned traditional malls where the focus is creating fun gathering places are making money. The trick here is pretty simple: Know one’s local market and design the shopping experience to match instead of using a cookie-cutter approach.

The idea of careful targeting of what consumers want is rewarding developers and cities. Rather than nudging consumers with idealistic regulation, rather than relying on what always worked with the baby boomers, successful development targets the actual marketplace of consumers in all the diversity of wants and needs. Just as states and cities compete to attract new employers with subsidies, successful communities work to attract the entire marketplace of those who will engage and energize their local community.

What appears to be working, and very well in many cities, is the revitalization of historic communities. Reuse of historic structures, rebuilding of historic neighborhoods, and support for the historically successful developments have a proven history of success. These redeveloped neighborhoods and areas appeal to a market segment nostalgic for a pre-suburban lifestyle. One could say: What’s old is new.

Here you have suburban zoning, which recent generations are accustomed to, separating each use. Euclidean zoning. Segregated clusters of similar homes, all linked by big roads. The mini McMansion with a yard, the soccer-mom Suburbans. Homeowners associations with strict enforcement of uniform appearance. The suburbanite exemplifies the notion that bigger is better, or if some is good, more is better.

Then there is the rental lifestyle found in well-located, high-end apartments. Here is a demographic that doesn’t look to homeownership as any sort of investment. This is a demographic focused on convenience and ease of social engagement. Often this lifestyle is a convenient walk, or bike ride, to work, restaurants and nightlife. As opposed to cheap apartment life of the ubiquitous suburban three-story walk-up units, the upscale apartment lifestyle often comes at a price point higher than home ownership, per square foot.

Another trend starting to gain momentum is the tiny-house movement. Despite minimum size requirements in most zoning codes, people skirt the requirement by building very small homes on trailers. Cities might consider embracing the tiny-home movement because it allows for a very affordable housing product. Much like incubator businesses, this affordable housing allows residents to become part of a community without financial risk. Think of underutilized infill locations being offered as temporary, or permanent, locations for communities of tiny homes. These folks tend to consider their lifestyle focused on quality as opposed to quantity.

Instead of imposing Utopian new urbanism on consumers, focusing on the different lifestyles consumers desire is the successful model. Seek the bottom-up, consumer-driven model as opposed to the top-down, authoritarian model we now see so often.

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