One of the great things about sprawl is that there are a lot of buildings already in place. We can look at the various ways they affect the communities surrounding them — their environmental implications, traffic pattern issues, how well they are built.
Galina Tachieva, managing partner at DPZ, a Miami-based planning and urban design firm, says this wealth of existing data can lead us in lots of great directions when it comes to redesigning and repurposing old office and retail spaces. As long as we keep in mind that we can’t fix everything, and that we have to listen to the youngsters.
Tachieva will be the keynote speaker at the 2015 PlanSmart NJ Summit, “Stranded Suburban Real Estate Assets: Changing Economy, Changing Land Use,” on Friday June 5, starting at 8 a.m., at the War Memorial in Trenton. Joining her will be Daniel Caffrey, Mayor of Morris Township; Mike Cerra of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities; Peter Cocoziello of Advance Realty Group; Jennifer Coffey of Association of NJ Environmental Commissions; Christine Cofone of Cofone Consulting Group; Dave Fisher of K. Hovnanian; Mike Hedden of FTI Consulting; Chris Henry of Fitzgerald & Halliday; George Jacobs of Jacobs Enterprises; Charles Latini of American Planning Association; Anthony Marchetta of the Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency; Mike McGuinness of the National Association of Industrial & Office Properties; Carol Ann Short of NJ Builders Association; Tim Touhey of Investors Bank; Ted Zangari of Sills Cummis & Gross; Ralph Zucker of Somerset Development; Kevin Welsh of CBRE; and Francis Womack III, Mayor of North Brunswick. Visit www.plansmartnj.org.
Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, Tachieva grew up in a “very modernist” architectural world, where talk of revitalizing and repurposing sprawl was not part of her bachelor’s program in architecture. In 1992 she came to the United States to get her master’s in urban design from the University of Miami, where she studied under the tutelage of the founding partners of DPZ. In 1993, her master’s in hand, she joined the firm and became a planner, urban designer, and architectural designer with a focus on sustainable urbanism, urban redevelopment, sprawl repair, and form-based codes.
In 2010 Tachieva published “Sprawl Repair Manual” (Island Press), which was largely constructed around the success stories her firm has had in turning once-bleary suburban industrial and commercial space into vibrant living spaces. One of the best examples is where she’s worked for the past 22 years. “Miami then was dark and dangerous,” she says. Overflowing with empty buildings and dead streets. Today, she says, Miami is bustling and lively. Happy even, thanks to the city’s efforts to find new ways of looking at old blight.
Fixing New Jersey. Much of New Jersey’s suburban developments happened a couple-few decades ago, when the idea was to go big and to build destination spaces, like malls. Unfortunately, the mall mindset also spawned the strip-mall mindset, which led to larger stores anchoring chain retailers in large parking lots. That’s fine if the stores are open and busy, but hardly pleasant when there’s one stalwart clinging to a dying branch in an otherwise empty strip of storefronts.
The other trend in ages past, says Tachieva, was the “single-use enclave,” the large corporate building that served as a vanity beacon for a company’s logo, surrounded by hundreds of parking spaces. Again, fine if that employer is filling the lot with employees, not so fine when they pack up and leave behind a huge asphalt prairie with a couple cars scattered around.
“Outside of Princeton, there are many examples of how not to do it,” Tachieva says. The suburbs, north toward the Brunswicks or south toward Trenton, are full of “big buildings that are like spaceships on large parking lots.”
Fortunately, she says, a lot of places in New Jersey have “beautiful historical fabric” to work with. Towns like Haddonfield, Morristown, and Trenton, where there is a combination of three ideal aspects of redevelopment: buildings, transportation, and sidewalks. These places and others, she says, can take a lesson from Princeton, which she calls “a perfect mix of things.” A place where the three-to-five-story buildings house shops and offices and places to live, to create a lively place people want to go to and live.
Existing towns like Trenton or Haddonfield that can support walkable (that’s extremely important) development have an enormous advantage, Tachieva says. These areas already have the heavy lifting done for them. It’s just a matter of getting the right development plans in place and using the spaces properly. In the ‘burbs, where those giant spaceships came to rest years ago, it’s a matter of finding out how best to use the space the right way. And acknowledging that not every space is fixable.
The right fit. A recent Time Magazine feature announced that Millennials are now the largest sector of the American workforce. More people in this generation are in the workforce today than baby boomers, meaning that Millennial buying power and attitudes are front and center to economic growth.
This is important for redevelopment, Tachieva says, because Millennials don’t want what they used to have. As children of the 1980s and ’90s, a lot of millennials grew up in large suburban areas like Upper Freehold, where they had lots of land and no way to escape it until they got cars. Millennials, she says, view car-dependent suburban living with little favor. They instead prefer places they can experience the old-fashioned way — on foot.
The trouble is that millennials, though numerous in the workforce, are not yet the ruling class, so they are not making the kind of money that allows them to buy apartments and homes in places like Princeton, Tachieva says. So it’s fast becoming the norm to find ways to refit and retrofit the sprawling spaces that were originally designed to attract customers and workers, only to disgorge them to parts elsewhere at the end of every business day.
But “not every single inch of what has been built can be retrofit,” Tachieva says. “Where it makes sense to rebalance with different uses is where roads and transportation are available.”
And this is why a new trend of building the infrastructure first is taking off. In Phoenix, for example, the city built the light rail first and then came in to do the development around it. And it’s worked fantastically. New Jersey, she admits, has fewer places to do that kind of thing, because the development is already there. However, she says, building the infrastructure in areas where redevelopment will occur could help direct planners and designers toward the right purpose for redevelopment areas.
The key, she says, is transit hubs and walkable communities, which she also says is just common sense. For one thing, millennial workers like that kind of thing, and they’re the ones spending their money to be in places that offer such amenities. On the other end of the spectrum, there are retiring boomers and older people who can no longer drive, or are unwilling to drive. And they also prefer places they can experience without having to get in the car to do so.
“What will save or kill [redevelopment areas] is self-sustainability,” Tachieva says. “The more mixed use, the more activities there are, the better.”