The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2017.
For more than a generation, the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y., has been struggling with a stagnant economy, closed storefronts and tax revenue that has fallen even as New York City has boomed just 15 miles to the south.
Now this bedroom community is forging ahead with a plan to remake its low-slung downtown into a landscape checkered with office towers, high-rise apartments and new retail. Over the past year and a half, it has changed its zoning and signed on a team of developers to start building some of the planned towers—all in a bid to attract new employers and residents and breathe life into the local economy.
In short, this suburb is trying to look urban. And it isn’t the only one. Urbanization efforts in New Rochelle, a city of 79,000, offer a glimpse of changes taking shape in suburbs around the country. While the approaches vary, what they share is a general desire for urban-style development meant to appeal to youth and attract employers who might otherwise gravitate to cities.
Tysons Corner, a giant collection of suburban-style office parks in Virginia near Washington, D.C., is pushing developers to build apartments, tall office towers and street grids. North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park—a bastion of isolated corporate campuses built in the second half of last century—is now trying to develop about 1,500 apartments mixed with offices for multiple companies, a first for the park. Officials there hope more will follow.
Similar campaigns are under way from Plano, Texas, to San Ramon, Calif. These efforts mark a major shift, planners say, particularly given that cities were trying to compete with suburbs just a few decades ago, plowing highways through downtowns and building enclosed urban malls.
“The suburbs are mimicking cities like just cities were mimicking suburbs,” says Bruce Katz, who focuses on urbanization at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “This is really an upending.”
Of course, these changes are still nascent. It’s too early to say how the broader market will react to these still largely isolated visions. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many developers bet on “new urbanism,” a concept that generally sought to build mixed-use communities on empty swaths of land. The efforts never took off on a large scale, stymied in part by the 2008-2009 housing bust.
But part of what is driving suburban redevelopment now is the migration by young Americans, particularly the college-educated, out of the suburbs to city centers. From 2000 to 2010, for instance, the population of college-educated 25- to 34-year-old residents in downtowns grew 44%, three times as fast as the rest of the metro areas for the 50 largest cities, according to a pair of researchers from University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The researchers, Victor Couture and Jessie Handbury, say in a working paper that “urban revival” in the 50 largest U.S. cities “is accounted for almost entirely by the rising share of college-educated individuals.”
Trends like these have made it harder for suburbs to attract new employers, who often want to be nearer to the young, talented workforce. Hence the widespread drive to bring more aspects of urban living to suburbia.
A dense downtown “can enhance our civic image and provide a sort of heart to the community,” says New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. “If we want our children and grandchildren to be able to live in places like New Rochelle, then we’ve got to position our community to be attractive to those communities.”
Far older than many U.S. suburbs that sprouted after World War II—New Rochelle’s population grew fastest in the early 20th century—the town has been struggling economically for the past few decades, with almost no new office development and relatively little apartment construction.
Now a pair of developers—the city hopes others will follow—are forging ahead on a set of development sites downtown. Ultimately, over the next 10 years, city officials are anticipating construction of 5,500 apartments and more than 3 million square feet of retail and office space, enough to fill the Empire State Building.
In part, the suburb’s old age adds to its allure for this type of development. Built up before cars were widespread, it has a train stop on the commuter rail just half an hour from Midtown Manhattan, and its own downtown where residents can tolerate dense construction.
“The beauty of New York suburbs is they have real downtowns,” says Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president at RXR Realty. Mr. Pinsky’s firm and developer Renaissance Downtowns completed a deal late last year with New Rochelle to take the lead in the redevelopment of the downtown—and they’re working on similar efforts in other New York area suburbs.
In New Rochelle, the two developers are planning to start on their first large building this year or early next, an apartment building nearly 30 stories high.
Should high-rise building in places like New Rochelle indeed take off, that could help relieve pressure on New York City housing, says Mr. Pinsky, who was a top economic-development official for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“New York City continues to become more expensive, which makes it more and more difficult for people looking for an urban environment to find it affordably in the five boroughs,” Mr. Pinsky says. If those people can indeed be attracted to urban-style living in the suburbs, employers should follow, he says.
The young and educated “are increasingly looking for a different lifestyle, and when the suburbs don’t offer that lifestyle, they lose that population,” he says. “That population is a significant part of the workforce for which businesses are looking.”
Mr. Brown is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.