Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Empty Chairs at Empty Townhouses

I've watched the New Urbanist movement grow over the past few years, and it's been a bit scary. Traditional suburbs, filled to the gills with rec centers, quality public schools, McMansions, large back yards, environmentally destructive sewer systems that disturb regional watersheds, car-oriented layouts that discourage non-automobile-based transportation, class- and racially- segregated housing patterns, and an utter lack of public spaces, have decided that they need to get themselves some old timey-time ye olde days of yore downtown. That's right--what our suburb really needs is a town square, complete with a Starbucks, movie theatre, and--God willing--an 80-unit luxury condo building.

But hey, maybe I should go easy on suburbs and the economic development directors who push for New Urbanist downtowns overly dependent on upperclass residents. The fact is, suburbs compete with one another for residents. Residents want high-end municipal services. Suburbs get the most bang-for-the-buck (servicewise, that is) by luring in wealthy residents. And if you can believe national economic trends, those wealthy residents want nothing more than upscale townhouses in the centers of thriving, amenity-rich suburbs.

Ah, but it looks like the pie might be a bit smaller than those ED's thought. The Star Tribune reports that planned condo projects are stalled in many Twin Cities suburbs. Some of the projects have been abandoned, while others have been downscaled to traditional rentals (gasp!) rather than upmarket townhouses & condos. It turns out that the market simply isn't that strong for the kind of housing been planned in the "new" downtowns.

I'm not a real estate agent, so I'm not privy to the exact numbers of which kinds of people want which kinds of housing. But my day-to-day experience tells me that the consumer appetite for housing appears to split cleanly between urbanities, suburbanites, and rural folk (ruralites?). There just aren't that many people who want to live in high-density settings in the middle of medium-density towns. The economic logic isn't there--why pay top dollar for less square feet in a suburb where you could easily have a palace for the same price? In the meantime, urbanites like myself aren't looking for super upscale living; I just want to live in a real urban area, densely populated, diverse in demographics, in a centrally-located building.

What does New Urbanism really promise? An urban life, or a small-time nostalgic downtown? Planners can't seem to make up their minds how to sell the concept. The reason, I think, is that you don't get to have the good parts of the urban life without the bad ones. If you want high-density development, you'll have to accept the economic, class, and racial diversity that come with it.

But I ramble...


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