Multiuse development projects infuse communities with new life

'Unsprawl' chronicles re-envisioned housing communities in 12 case studies

Unsprawl

Drive into the Hill Country south and west of Austin, Texas, and you pass suburb development after cacti-decorated suburb development.

Like many U.S. cities in the past few decades, Austin has seen car-dependent suburbs pop up on its outskirts, leaving its downtown, until recently, an after-work-hours ghost town.

Austin Sprawl

Image of sprawl in the Austin, Texas-area Hill Country via Shutterstock.

A six-block downtown mixed-use redevelopment project has helped Austin revitalize its downtown.

It’s one of a dozen community-redefining projects in the U.S. and Canada from Portland, Ore., to Atlanta, profiled in a 229-page book published this year by urban planning publishing house Planetizen Press.

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“Unsprawl” chronicles the select community projects — including challenges, successes and shortfalls — that have succeeded in developing pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, efficient residential communities.

The highlighted projects, both downtown and suburban, have a strong sense of place — pedestrian-friendly layout, architecture that reflects the landscape, thriving multiuse commercial elements and native landscaping, said Simmons Buntin, the book’s co-author and editor of Terrain.org, a quarterly online journal highlighting the intersection between built and natural environments.

Each development case study explores how developers and city officials worked together to create integrated, revitalized communities – in short, “a wonderful place to be,” Buntin said.

The Austin project, for example, brought retail, upscale restaurants, residential housing and office space to an area that until recently was devoid of that diversity.

Redeveloped Second Street District in Austin, Texas

Night shot of redeveloped Second Street District in Austin, Texas. Image courtesy of Planetizen Press.

Other projects highlighted in the book include:

  • A project 40 miles northwest of Chicago that centered around a prairie restoration with 359 single-family homes, a hospital and open space comprising 60 percent of the development’s 668 acres.
  • A 15-acre redevelopment in Victoria, British Columbia, featuring 26 buildings, an anticipated 2,500 residents and an on-site biomass energy plant. It’s the first neighborhood to receive the internationally-recognized U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) “Platinum” designation, Buntin said.
  • A 73-acre downtown redevelopment on the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., that began in 1983 and required a highway’s removal. It features 712 multifamily units with more planned; remediated land; two hotels; 300,000 square feet of retail space; commercial space; and a mile-long riverfront esplanade.

The takeaway from these case studies is that successful projects require collaboration among developers, local governments and policymakers and can take a long time to effect, Buntin said.

“It takes decades and in some cases hundreds of years,” Buntin said.

But the result, he said, can be a redefined sense of living in a particular place and a diverse, thriving, vibrant community.

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