Redevelopment Across The U.S. with Ellen Dunham-Jones (Part 1)

Trademark CEO and founder Terry Montesi speaks with Ellen Dunham-Jones, notable author, professor, and Director of Georgia Tech’s Urban Design Program, about her passion for redeveloping suburban commercial properties. The two examine the three stages of redevelopment and express the importance of the third stage: “re-greening” projects. Ellen also shares her thoughts on revitalizing communities across the country, and how to handle the plethora of dying malls. At the end, Ellen discusses her exciting new book project and how it will influence the future of commercial redevelopment.

Leaning In is published every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Be sure to follow the show on your preferred podcast app to hear Part 2 of Terry and Ellen’s discussion.



Terry Montesi: On today’s episode, I speak with Dunham-Jones, Georgia Tech Professor and coauthor of the Retrofitting Suburbia book series. She explains her ideas on urban design and suburban development. She shares the importance of retrofitting older buildings into sustainable ventures and also her passion behind the subject. We also discuss one of her pet projects, an interactive mall redevelopment map in the US, and determine which aspects she hopes to see in future sustainable mall and office redevelopments.

Ellen, as a Professor and Director of the Urban Design Program at Georgia Tech, you are clearly an expert in urban design. You also have co-written a well-respected book series and a new book and are an authority in sustainable suburban development. You’ve also given a well thought out Ted Talk on the subject. Share more about your background and what you’re focused on today and why.

Ellen Dunham-Jones: Well, sure. Thanks for having me on. I’m delighted to. So, I’m trained as an architect, but also, I think it is kind of worth noting that my entire education pre-kindergarten through graduate was in New Jersey, the most suburban state in the nation. I always loved cities and I would hop the train to New York every chance I got. But my first teaching job was in Charlottesville, beautiful at UVA, absolutely beautiful town and countryside.

Montesi: It is indeed.

Dunham-Jones: Yeah. But while I was there, sort of starting in the mid-eighties, you could practically hear the bulldozers coming down from DC, chewing up the beautiful countryside, and frankly, building some sprawl that was not nearly so attractive or contributing to sustainability. I was kind of horrified that it was frankly looking more and more like New Jersey.

Montesi: As was Bill McDonough, I’m sure.

Dunham-Jones: Absolutely. I started teaching at MIT, and I went to my first Congress for the New Urbanism as an academic spy. I totally agreed with their critique of sprawl, but I was really suspicious of this nostalgic Disneyfied kind of design solution. I’ve literally never missed one since. I actually learned so much at CNUs, and in particular, I kept finding people were presenting these projects that were retrofitting suburbia. They weren’t cool enough to get much media attention, but I really thought we need to amplify the strategies that are being employed in these projects. I wanted to see it grow. So, with my coauthor, June Williamson, I took on the task of building a database of these projects, and two books later, this is kind of where I am – teaching, researching, lecturing, consulting, I have my own podcast, actually, Redesigning Cities. So, I’m doing all of these things just to retrofit suburbia.

Montesi: Got it. Thanks. And by the way, we’re actually working on retrofitting a suburban mall in Bridgewater Commons in New Jersey.

Dunham-Jones: Oh, good to know.

Montesi: And actually, on that point, we’re working on a major redevelopment and retrofit and evolution of North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Georgia. So, we’re right in the middle of this ourselves, and that’s one reason I’m interested in continuing our discussion.

Dunham-Jones: Absolutely.

Montesi: So, in your book series Retrofitting Suburbia and your book case studies in Retrofitting Suburbia, you talk about successful retrofits of retail places and office parks, malls, etc. Tell us more about what you learned from researching this book, etc., that could be interesting to our listeners and that they can apply to their business.

Dunham-Jones: Sure. Well, I think what really struck us and was one reason why we wrote a new book was just the massive changes in the number, quality, and ambition of retrofits between the first book in 2009 and the brand new book just released January this year. So, our first book really just focused on reducing dependence on the automobile. If you did anything to somehow increase walkability, add transit, or build next to transit, any of those things, if you did anything, you made it into the book. Nowadays, a lot of communities are asking, well, while you reduce automobile dependence, what are you doing for all the other challenges that we’re facing? And we’ve seen retrofits have just gotten much more ambitious. So, in addition to continuing to document new strategies for reducing automobile dependence, the first part of our new book provides chapters on improving public health, supporting an aging population, leveraging social capital for equity, competing for jobs, and adding water and energy resilience in the face of climate change. The second part of the book features 32 case studies in diverse markets, diverse climates, and diverse geographies across the country that are raising the bar on addressing these challenges to really become more sustainable. I think one other thing that we found while researching the new book was an increasing divergence between those super ambitious redevelopments in hot markets – Austin, San Francisco, DC, and others, but those were sort of one thing, but you also saw much more modest re-inhabitations that still had great ripple effects in stagnant and weak markets. So, we were glad to also include in the book examples of malls and strip malls and all that that have become ethnic community centers and immigrant entrepreneur business incubators. We see a lot of medical and education facilities at all levels going into former retail spaces and aren’t providing all of the environmental and economic sustainability of the big redevelopments, but they really provide tremendous social sustainability, and we think are really worth noting. What I’d like to see more of is really the third strategy because we talk about retrofits as being three strategies – redevelopment or the re-inhabitation, essentially the adaptive reuse of the building, but the third strategy, and we don’t see enough of them, are re-greenings because we never should have built there in the first place. And so, having a sort of vacant, abandoned property is now that opportunity, and we love the projects that become stormwater parks, they become reconstructed wetlands. They have a direct environmental benefit. And then if they’re designed well, they tend to attract more redevelopment around them and also give that economic boost.

Montesi: So, help us understand your passion for suburban redevelopment, etc., retrofits, and their significant connection to all these types of sustainability. Why is it that big a deal? Why does it make that big a difference? How can it make that big a difference? Put a little more meat on that bone.

Dunham-Jones: Sure. Half of the US population lives in suburbia. They tend to drive a lot and tend to live and work in detached buildings, which contribute to them then having the largest greenhouse gas emissions, we’re just endlessly consuming undeveloped land, and we’re building it into very highly segregated places, segregated by race and income. So, to me, the suburbs tend to look leafy and green, but they’re actually our least sustainable landscape. And yet, they’ve been largely ignored by architects and planners. So, the academic in me is actually quite fascinated by the intellectual questions that suburban redevelopment poses. You go into any architecture or planning school library and the shelves on urban design are bursting with books on downtowns. We know what we should be doing in downtowns. We aren’t always doing it, but we at least know kind of what we should be doing. But there’s remarkably little written on what we should be doing in suburbia. That was really part of the motivation for me. What can we do, and what is happening, and how do we accelerate some of that? So, the advocate in me is really motivated to show off what I think are great examples. And I’m trying to sort of help suburban communities make use of the growing supply of aging, dead, underperforming commercial properties as the sites that provide the opportunity to address these new challenges, and at the same time, meet the demand for more walkable mixed-use, multi-family, or missing middle housing from the 60% of households today that are only one to two people. And there’s such a mismatch between those, that number – I think we’re at 58% of households are one-to-two-person households, and yet 75% of our urbanized land is zoned exclusively for single family housing. And we’re starting to see an easing up of the restrictions on exclusive single family house zoning, but at the same time, and it’s perhaps a somewhat easier path, I think we’ve got a real opportunity to redirect growth to the existing underperforming, commercially zoned areas to help meet that market for more urban lifestyles and suburb and location. Chris Nelson, a former colleague of mine at Georgia Tech but now teaching in Tempe, has shown that if we just built two-story housing on a quarter of the existing surface parking lots, we could meet the country’s housing demands for the next 50 years without tearing down a single tree. To me, that’s why I’m passionate about trying to just show these strategies, these solutions. I look at dead malls and dead office parks as fantastic opportunity sites.

Montesi: That put more meat on the bone for me, and it helps me also with some of the why behind it. We are a mixed-use developer. We believe in mixed-use. We believe there’s a real reason that there are premiums for cap rates and rents and high walkability score real estate. I always new mixed-use is more sustainable because it requires less car trips because you can walk to work, you can walk to the cafe. It’s also just a more interesting, safer way to live. So, this is supportive of our thesis. So, thank you for that. So, let’s go to malls for a minute. You mentioned malls, and well actually, I’ll go more macro, even retail. One of our theses is that we have way too much retail square footage in this country. And I don’t think it increases, I think it decreases. We are building so much less new retail square footage than we used to, and I see so many malls that are either planned to be reduced in square footage or totally demoed, lots of retail centers that are even in good locations where they’re going to have reductions in square footage and a sustainable solution that includes adding multi-family onsite or adding a hotel on site or adding office onsite, which, again, does what a lot of what you were talking about and increases walkability, reduces use of cars, etc. So, I really think that what you’re talking about, and so this is the first time I’ve thought of e-commerce as sort of a catalyst for sustainability, because the fact that e-commerce is a big part of the reason we have too much retail square footage today. And a lot of it is currently being planned for densification or demolition. And so that’s heartening. So, let’s move on to one of the more iconic types of retail properties at high visibility locations, which are malls. So, you’ve done an interactive map of mall developments that are becoming more sustainable, and I’m wondering what do you look for in that? Some of it is probably what I just talked about. What do you look for in that when you’re talking about dead malls being converted into green downtowns? Anyway, I’ll let you take it away and talk about malls, and those couple of concepts.

Dunham-Jones: Sure. Well, you first sort of asked what am I looking for with the mall map, and mostly right now, it’s time. I’m really behind in updating it with more stories and more info. If anyone wants to find a grad assistant to do this, I’d be very grateful. I have the info, but I just can’t get the time to put it all into that map. And malls are not the only property type I track, but they definitely provoke the most curiosity because they’re so visible, and so many people have a really nostalgic connection, an emotional connection to the mall. And when the mall dies, they mostly just want someone to come rescue their mall and return it to being a bustling mall, and that’s just not happening. The mall map was really just to try to help communities, certainly help developers, help planners, see that there really are a lot of different strategies out there. The map is color coded to show redevelopments, re-inhabitations, and regreenings to help folks sort of recognize that the solution might not be a mixed-use town center in every case. A year or two ago, a couple of years – it was pre-pandemic, now seems like years ago – I was invited to run a workshop with seven mayors of suburban communities surrounding Cleveland, each of whom had a dead mall or at least another similar type large property. And before I arrived, they were surveyed and asked, realistically, what do you think is going to happen on this property? And every single one of them said, oh, I think it will become a mixed-use town center. And yet I arrived, and I kind of said you guys are frankly in an area that is losing population, and you probably will get at least one, but that’s going to be pulling population from your existing centers; that doesn’t sound to me like something you should be wanting. And it was actually when I talked about the regreening and discovered that especially Cleveland is one of the cities and most of those suburbs were also part of having combined sewer overflow problems. And that lit a light in the mayors’ minds that, oh yeah, we can get funding for green infrastructure that helps solve our combined sewer overflow problem, and you’re saying that adding regreening tends to also bring some new development around it, but it’s not necessarily going to be quite at that scale of the full mixed-use mall. So anyway, that’s just a side story of why the mall map, I think, tries to identify that there are so many different things happening at malls. Right now, on the mall map, we’ve got about 125. Those are the mall retrofits that are most substantially complete. But there are over 400 that have been proposed and a flurry of new announcements since the start of the pandemic. So, you also asked about dead malls converted into green downtowns, and that is certainly what a lot of communities really want. The very first one was Mizner Park down in Boca Raton, Florida. That one started off, that was really in the early ’90s. And a lot of folks thought they were crazy to- Well, before I get into the craziness, so that mall, it never really thrived. There was a competing mall five miles away that just always did better. So, the mall died after only about 15 years, the land defaulted to the city. So, while the city owned it, they issued an RFP, but they required that 60% of the land be made into open space. They wanted more green space and parks. The plan is sort of centered on this linear park in the center of kind of a boulevard, lined with retail upgrade, and then apartments and offices above. It’s had seven additions since, each time at a higher and higher price point. And even though initially a lot of folks thought they were crazy to put apartments above retail – “Oh, nobody does that except in places like New York and Chicago” – it has done extremely well. It now provides the second highest tax revenue of anywhere in the city. And so that has led to a lot of other malls redeveloping. Belmar outside of Denver in Lakewood, Colorado, was the second example. And again, it was a hundred-acre superblock. Today, it’s 22 blocks with very walkable public streets, mix of uses. They keep adding; they just added some new senior housing. And they tripled density on the site, and yet did not have to add a single new traffic light or widen any adjacent roads. Because of that mix of uses, they’re capturing about up to 40% of the trips that normally would be generated by each of those households. Those are now walk and bike trips on site. Belmar is now generating four times the tax revenue that the mall did at its peak. But at the same time, in terms of being green, Belmar was able to get a grant from the state to put in the largest solar facility at the time on a lot of those roofs. We see lots of attention to storm water in these projects. Suddenly you’re getting street trees on almost all the streets, often with Silva Cells underneath them to just facilitate gathering more of the stormwater and infiltrating it onsite, lots of bioswales and things like that. There’s a lot of the malls that are- those were the early ones. And I think now, as we’re seeing some of the newer generation of mall redevelopments and retrofits in general, we’re just seeing even more of these kinds of features of sustainability being added.

Montesi: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you can hear the rest of the conversation.

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