Is the inexorable march to the suburban fringe over? As the recession follows the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, there are interesting developments in real estate economics and geography. I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I would always exhort students that real estate values, having gone up over the last 30 years, could also go down, as history shows and capitalism demands. That was probably the part of the lecture that elicited a “yeah, sure.” Now, we are at “I told you so” and who better to tell you than someone who just bought and sold houses in the worst market in a quarter century? But enough about me.
The Atlantic ran a fascinating story this week by Christopher Leinberger called “The Next Slum” describing new suburban developments where foreclosures are the norm, and how these areas could become the slums of the 21st century. (Thanks to Jim Peters for forwarding the article) They will eventually be chopped up into rentals, Leinberger predicts, although he notes they won’t take the hacking as well as their permanently-built predecessors in the city did: “Many recently built homes take what structural integrity they have from drywall – their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.” That’s another “I told you so.” What’s worse, a student of mine noted, cul-de-sac McMansions are being stripped of their copper wire, pipes, fixtures and all as homeowners and scavengers take everything they can before the bank takes back the house. Crime is up and suburban schools are soon to follow.
“The Next Slum” notes how urban areas are now commanding significant price premiums over suburban areas in cities from Washington D.C. and Seattle to New York and Portland. Now, you could say these are the usual suspects: New York City has an economic geography all its own, and Washington D.C. is not a real place, but it is happening in Chicago too and Cincinnati can’t be far behind. As gasoline prices rise, sprawl becomes significantly more expensive. We advertised our house with the heading “No Car Needed” because of quick access to two train lines and EVERY commercial need within walking distance. Leinberger’s article notes that train-connected suburbs (he specifically mentions Evanston, which has half as many “L” lines as Oak Park) will “do just fine” in the new economic geography.
This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that a rosy 2008 is predicted for downtown commercial real estate. But NOT for suburban commercial real estate. Vacancy rates downtown are dropping and rents are rising. In the suburbs, vacancy will rise and rents will stay flat. What’s going on? An immediate cause is the housing market itself – all those “Mortgages ‘R Us” shops aren’t renting space anymore. Another is that construction slowdowns put a premium on existing space, and a HUGE factor is gasoline. That, plus the increase in downtown residential puts more people in the inner city commercial market.
A 50-year trend of dispersal and sprawl is ending and a new trend of concentration is starting. Sustainability and “Green” will help as well – it is cheaper and easier to heat a high-rise than those one-story boxes they built in suburbia (no matter what kind of windows they have). Leinberger notes that New York City is the most sustainable “state” in the union thanks to highrises, public transportation and walkability. This doesn’t answer the preservation problem, since you can still have urban teardowns and what Blair Kamin called “Curbcut Classicism” that turned the 1900 block of Burling in Lincoln Park into a Vegas casino stageset, a series of numbingly obvious Lollapallazzos. But at least we aren’t fighting the abandonment that characterized cities in the postwar decades.