Planning Challenge 1: Commercial Aggregation and Subdivision (Part 1)
Tags: abandoned industrial sites, big box, brownfield, dead malls, development, Generation Investment Management, greenfield, north america, permits, redevelopment, restoration, subdivision, suburbs, superblocks, urban regeneration, zoning
This post is the first part of a multi-part article on an original (as far as I can determine) idea for regenerating large commercial or industrial sites into healthy city. The idea is as yet untested, a thought experiment. I look forward to your comments; please pass it on where you think it will do some good in stimulating conversations.
The word “subdivision” is almost synonymous with the “suburbs.” The building blocks of many suburbs are subdivisions with names ranging from the biblical (“Green Acres”), to the pompous (“Kingdom Heights”), to the pastoral (“Pheasant Run”). The problems of inner-city rejuvenation, brownfield restoration, and strip-mall redevelopment are miles away from the great subdividing maw of suburbanization at the rural fringe. But the theory and practice of subdivision may have something essential to teach about re-vivifying blighted commercial and industrial properties in the urban core.
Subdivision is a process typically used in greenfield rural sites to govern the way a large piece of land, such as a 50 acre farm, is carved up into smaller individual parcels. A subdivision regulation provides rules for the sizes of the parcels, the design of the roads and utilities, and provisions for open space, conservation, storm water management, and so forth. The incentive for the developer to accept these additional requirements is that rather than being able to build only the one house they might be allowed under the existing lot, they now have the right to build, perhaps, fifty homes.
There are two other important advantages to the typical subdivision process: vesting development rights and phasing. Any large subdivision is an expensive and complex process. Under most state laws, once a property receives its subdivision plan the developer’s building rights “vest.” The developer now has assurance that they will be able to build something, though wrangling may still occur over building permits and zoning approval, the fundamental building rights is protected.. This is particularly important on large sites because a developer can secure some rights without having to design every last detail of every last building (amounting to millions of dollars of design work) without any guarantee that they will be able to build anything at all. Likewise, a developer may phase their project by building one part of a subdivision and then coming back a year or years later to finish other parts in response to the real estate market.
In appearance there is no similarity between farm fields and woods at the edge of the city and polluted, abandoned factories, vacant, paved over big box stores, dead malls and empty office parks. Yet these sites share an essential characteristic of rural subdivisions: the sites are very large relative to the urban fabric around them. The size and shape of many commercial and industrial sites is so large that they site like a lump of undigested dinner in the dense network of streets and buildings in most cities. Such sites are de facto superblocks – monolithic lots that are in ten or a hundred times the size of the lots around them – lacking road connections through the lot, or a dense, diverse, and complex fabric of urban buildings. Instead of corn and alfalfa fields, parking lots stretch over a half dozen acres; island fast food restaurants take the place of copses of trees.
Can the essential logic of subdivision – taking one big parcel and breaking it into smaller pieces – show us a better way to redevelop large sites like these? In my next installment, we will look at the history of North American cities in the 20th century and consider why overly-big parcels create barriers to healthy redevelopment.