Mini-cities, walkability are trends that are here to stay

Brian Leary of Crescent Communities
Brian Leary of Crescent Communities

Crescent Communities executive Brian Leary had a simple message when he spoke Tuesday to an urban planning and design group in Charlotte: Walkability, “mini-cities” and similar ideas aren’t just passing fancies, they’re here to stay.

“This isn’t just a fad. This is really an old idea,” said Leary, speaking at the Civic by Design forum, about walkable, compact so-called mini-cities built around their own street grids. For example, think of the retail-office-apartment-house developments underway right now on Providence Road just south of I-485, or the Sharon Square development in SouthPark that features a Whole Foods, apartments, offices and retail packed onto a small site at Sharon and Fairview roads.

Leary moved to Charlotte from Atlanta a year ago to head Crescent’s commercial and mixed-use development. Crescent, and other similar companies are making big bets that the current trend towards such mixed-use developments is really a long-term shift in American lifestyle, away from the cars, commutes and single-family homes in the ‘burbs. Crescent is building high-profile apartments, restaurants, an office tower and hotels on light rail-linked sites in uptown and NoDa, based on the premise that millennials don’t want the same picket fenced-yards their parents chased.

Here are some of Leary’s key points:

▪ If you want (highly anecdotal) proof of how culture has shifted from a suburban to an urban mindset, look at popular television shows. From the 1950s to 1980s, most of what was popular on network TV was set in the suburbs or small towns (Leave it to Beaver, The Simpsons, etc.). “When an alien visited earth, Alf ended up in the suburbs,” Leary said.

By the 1990s, a wave of hit shows set in cities had taken the top spots. Friends, Ally McBeal, Frasier and Seinfeld were all set in big cities with apartment-dwelling main characters who took full advantage of their urban environs. “Kramer could pop in and say, ‘Hey, let’s go!’ and there was no commute. You could do it,” said Leary.

▪ Despite lower homeownership rates and more time spent renting, millennials won’t completely discard the ideas that drove earlier generations – especially as they have kids.

“Walking up four flights of stairs with a stroller or a car seat isn’t as cool,” said Leary, referring to a hypothetical walk-up apartment that might not work for a couple in their 30s. But even if they want a house with a yard, millennials are likely to want to be closer to urban cores and avoid long commutes, Leary said. And they’ll be willing to sacrifice size for proximity to work, restaurants and other amenities.

That means infill development – redeveloping older lots close to uptown – is likely to be increasingly important and priced at a premium, especially compared to new developments farther out from any urban areas. And building close in can have benefits for cities – it’s cheaper for people to live close to work than to build big new roads to carry people 15 miles to and from their offices.

▪ Big-ticket items such as transit tend to get the most attention in many discussions about urbanism. But when you’re building a walkable, urban, mini-city-like area, small details matter.

For example: Making sure all the doors in a row of businesses have recessed entrances, so you can fold an umbrella and avoid whacking pedestrians in the face when you exit the business. Having clear (not darkly tinted or reflective) glass on windows that lets passersby peer into shops – studies show people linger longer in front of store windows than many other urban features, Leary said.

Such small touches, repeated over a wide area, can add up to an urban center that’s built for people instead of cars, Leary said.

“So much of America was built at 55 mph,” said Leary. “We have not given people an honest choice.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo