Re-Shaping Suburban Spaces

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DSC_0372The story of Research Triangle Park is in some ways the story of North Carolina’s regions over the last 50 years. Farms and forests gave way to substantial suburban development. Now, as growth continues and suburban spaces show their age, a transition is happening in RTP—and across the state.

RTP is the model of the 20th century research office park. Wide streets and avenues roll through wooded estates with sprawling corporate campuses. While there is a still a clear need and value in that style of development, leaders in the Park have recognized changing needs and market preferences. As outlined in the RTP Master Plan, the Park will redevelop strategic areas to include denser, mixed-use development including retail, restaurants, hotels, and public gathering spaces.

That effort reflects a broader trend across the state, indeed across the country. Many of our communities enjoyed growth through the second half of the last century. But now, communities are grappling with how to reshape these suburban spaces. What is the local government role in this transition? How does a city or county support the redevelopment of suburban spaces? And what are the practical and political implications?

Many local governments are facilitating suburban redevelopment through public finance tools and zoning adjustments. RTP is a case in point. In September the Research Triangle Foundation went before the Durham County Commission to obtain rezoning and public financial support for the future Park Center.

Of course, the local government’s role in redevelopment varies, depending on the place and politics. In some cases, strong market demand is driving redevelopment. Commonly zoning is incompatible and neighbors oppose change. Consider Charlotte’s SouthPark area where there has been a long line of redevelopments of low density sites into mixed-use higher-density projects. Recently a proposal to rezone a low-rise apartment complex to allow for a dense, mixed-use development drew the ire of neighbors, including a protest petition. The plan was re-submitted after the protest petition law was repealed.

In other cases, the real estate market has shifted away from the suburban area. The mall is empty, the garden apartment complex is aging, or the strip commercial corridor is passed over for the newer shops further down the road. In Charlotte, the once thriving Eastland Mall slowly lost shoppers and tenants to other commercial centers. The mall shuttered and finally, in 2012, the city acquired the property with intent to sell it for redevelopment. Three years later, the City is still working on a solution for developing the site.

Sometimes the local government approach is project-by-project, parcel-by-parcel. Other times communities opt for a broader solution. Chapel Hill, last year, adopted a form-based code (a specific zoning tool) that applies to an area of town characterized by low density shopping centers, hotels, and apartments. The town also approved new financing and a municipal service district to assist with necessary stormwater improvements and transportation improvements for the district. A new seven story mixed-use building is already rising out of the ground where once there was a parking lot and former movie theater. But, with the cranes came political debate. The new zoning district and development were significant issues for the recent town election.

A shift is happening. North Carolina grew significantly through the 20th century, but it grew with low density. In some regions, the growth pressures are continuing, and communities must confront and consider how to accommodate the evolution from suburban to mixed-use. Zoning and public finance are essential tools in that discussion, but they are accompanied by a host of practical and political questions.

How is your community approaching suburban redevelopment? What practical and political challenges have you found?

Adam Lovelady is a School of Government faculty member.

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