July 24, 2007

Bringing Back Town Centers

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting story about how suburbanites increasingly want to live near walkable town centers. Younger folks especially want to do less driving and more walking. Ay, but here's the rub: "The key is to find housing that is an integral part of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood." Over at Grist, Jon Rynn chimes in to say that regulations against mixed-use zoning have really hampered things here. Presumably, then, the fact that a greater number of suburban-dwellers now want mixed-use and in-town living will alter the picture somewhat.

Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that zoning laws aren't the only impediment to greater amounts of mixed-use living. Don't developers and lenders tend to shy away from mixed-use development because it's somewhat riskier (seeing as how all the components have to stay in business for things to work, which in turn requires somewhat more planning and foresight)?

I'm basing most of this on a talk given by Christopher Leinberger of Brookings, who noted that the 19 "real estate products" that can most easily get financing are all sprawling suburban projects: grocery-anchored retail centers, starter homes, office parks. (That seems to be because the short-term financial returns on suburban developments tend to be greater—something that would no doubt change if a carbon tax was ever implemented.) Construction costs for mixed-use development also tend to be greater, Leinberger says, since buildings in walkable areas that are seen up close need to be higher quality than buildings that people are whizzing by in their cars at 45 miles per hour.

Maybe nonsensical zoning laws and the preferences of suburbanites are the main obstacles here, but Leinberger seems to suggest there are a lot more factors at work here. On the other hand, it does seem like there's ample room for local governments to alter the incentives at work. Anyway, like I said, it's not something I know a ton about, so correct away.
-- Brad Plumer 11:28 PM || ||