Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Suburban Downtown Booms

Last month a developer put forth a proposal for a 523 foot skyscraper in downtown Evanston, Illinois that would be the tallest building the Chicago suburbs. Heck, it would be one of the tallest buildings in a lot of big city downtowns. Now another developer is coming up with a proposal for a 421 footer right next to it.

This really illustrates the turnaround in suburban downtowns in the last decade or so, and the plans these suburban communites have made in Chicago and elsewhere to truly become self-standing cities, with not just residences and stores, but their own employment bases, downtowns, arts groups, and entertainment activities.

Chicago is ground zero for this because it has a lot of larger, established suburbs with big, historic downtowns that grew up along the rail lines. Evanston is a city in its own right, not just a cornfield suburb like you find out on the fringes. Towns like Arlington Heights, La Grange, and Naperville bring significant financial heft to their downtown development efforts. These communities are fighting a fiece battle to keep themselves relevant as even newer communities spring out of nowhere on the edge of the spawl. Older suburbs that were experiencing big declines like Elmhurst are now highly sought after – and pricey – locations for yuppies coming out of the city with young children.

What are we seeing in these downtowns? A few trends:

- Significant densification. A lot of the development going into suburban downtowns is more dense that what you see in a lot of city neighborhoods. In fact, you often find more willingness to change in these suburban downtowns than you do in the city, where every new development faces significant opposition. Evanston has a skyline. In places like Arlington Heights there are 8+ story condo towers everywhere.

- Housing. Most of these places are encouraging the construction of new, high density condos, hoping to attract younger professionals and couples who might otherwise opt for the city. These are typically walk to the train/Starbucks/Walgreens/grocery store type places that appeal to people seeking a different lifestyle from the traditional suburban one.

- Restaurtants. High end eateries, often branches of upscale city restaurants, and usually not chains, have turned a lot of suburban downtowns into dining destinations. A good example is Main St. in Carmel, Indiana, which has a branch of Bazbeaux Pizza, Muldoons, Bub’s, and other places to eat.

- Fancy boutiques. These aren’t the cutting edge places you’ll find in city neighborhoods, but the focus has been to reinvigorate suburban downtowns as upscale shopping destinations as opposed to traditional Main St. type retail locations.

- Arts facilities. Arlington Heights built a major theater. Skokie did as well, albeit not in a true downtown location. The goal is to become a regional entertainment destination. The bulk of these again are not putting up world class or ground breaking programming, but if you looked at the suburbs a decade ago, there might not have been anything.

- Transit. Most of the Chicago towns already had direct downtown commuter rail service, and this is being leveraged as a key asset.

For people who don’t work in the city, which is the vast bulk of suburban residents, these new downtown go a long way towards making the suburbs a more self-contained type of place. It is no longer necessary to go to the city to have a good meal, for example. This trend will continue to put pressure on cities to elevate their game. This isn’t a problem for Chicago, with its world class downtown and neighborhoods. But it could be for smaller places. In this case, I think competition is good. A world class city needs world class suburbs. These types of developments are going a long way towards improving the attractiveness of suburban communities, which can only increase the attractiveness of the entire metro area in the long term.

I think this trend of suburbs coming into their own as full service cities will be an interesting one to watch. We’ve already seen the rise of the edge city as an employment and shopping mall location. Now we’re witnessing the rise of the suburban downtown. We’ll see what the next stop is.

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Topics: Economic Development, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: Chicago
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