The Patient Option

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Is Suburban Retrofit an Option? 

If the power center is dead, then maybe the site’s future is not as a suburban shopping center but as an urban outpost, a replica of what we already know works about Lockport: its traditional, walkable downtown and core neighborhoods.

“Suburban retrofit,” or the conversion of former mall or power-center sites into urban-style neighborhoods, is an idea a couple of decades old that has never quite lived up to the hype. In theory it’s a way to jump-start new pockets of urban density, meet demand for housing, and build something that has a relatively high financial return to the city for the infrastructure invested in the site. In practice, though, these projects are often hamstrung by the constraints of their context, which is almost always an isolated pod surrounded by wide, fast roads. They take a lot of effort to plan and execute, and amount at best to C+ versions of true walkable urbanism

This is the pitfall facing Lockport Square. Janko Group has had discussions with the City of Lockport for years about alternative uses which would require a zoning change, including residential. “Horizontal mixed use,” in which retail would coexist on the 23 acres with some combination of apartments and townhouses, is an option, and Janko has worked on some site plans of this nature but not found a buyer. Putting in the public streets that would be required is costly, and any developer would likely want the city to finance it using Tax Increment Financing, effectively forgoing years of future revenue.

From the city’s perspective, residential is on the table but is likewise a more challenging route. Purely residential development would likely meet skepticism from Lockport residents worried about such issues as school crowding, according to Director of Community & Economic Development Lance Thies. From the city’s perspective, suburban-style residential development would also be a money loser, requiring more in new services than it generates in revenue. Mayor Steve Streit told me he is open to housing on the site and believes he can make the case to his constituents, but says he would want the city to do a fiscal analysis (like those conducted by Fate, Texas) to ensure that anything built will actually be a net positive to the city over a longer time frame of 20-plus years. It’s possible that a higher-density residential use such as multi-story apartments, like a “Texas donut,” would be such a financial winner, but for the property owner’s part, Janko believes the rents attainable in Lockport are not high enough to justify the high cost of that type of construction.

Given the obstacles to any master-planned future for the site in the near term, I asked Janko about the prospect of subdividing the site and selling off the lots piecemeal for incremental development. His response was that such an option fails to solve the problem that “the guy in the back is still the guy in the back.” 

In other words, this site’s value is all about access to the highway and visibility from the arterial road, 159th Street. The lots in front that have those attributes might sell quickly, while the ones buried in the back of the development remain unmarketable.

A key lesson here is that the lack of any urban context is a Catch-22 that dooms a lot of suburban retrofit in practice. Incremental development of the past was a remarkably resilient and productive way of building. But it occurred in a very different context: a city would fill out on a compact, walkable plan, making very intensive use of every square foot within its grid. Then it would gradually (or rapidly) expand at the edges, largely contiguous with the existing grid. Thus, those outlying sites enjoyed the immediate benefit of proximity and access to destinations that were already mature: if you built your house on 43rd Street next to a cornfield, it was because everything up through 42nd Street was a pretty well-established neighborhood.

This isn’t the case with the suburban development pattern, which consists of “pods” unto themselves accessible only from wide, fast roads. This creates the “guy in the back” problem. To create an incremental neighborhood with enough gravity to cohere as a place when there’s nothing surrounding it that you would want to, or be able to, walk to is a much taller order.

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