ULI Washington News

ULI Washington 2016 Trends: Creating the Authentic Suburb

The sharing economy is impacting suburban jurisdictions as well as more urban places. With more single use districts, less connectivity between places, and rising poverty, the suburbs are having to rethinking their futures. Ideas to create mixed use nodes with a 18-hour per day uses, focus on alternative transportation beyond highways and cars, and sustainable design and recreational amenities are all elements of making the suburbs more vibrant and economically viable.

Barbara Byron, Director of Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization, moderated the discussion, and kicked-off the discussion with the importance of partnerships and new projects. She turned the conversation over to Jean Komendera, President of Gold Dog Communications who focused on the significance of branding to build strong, authentic suburbs.

ULI2016-1594Jean focused on four main issues for branding: perception, core values, a solid story, and a strong platform for experiences. She suggested that the perception of the suburbs with big parking lots and aging strip malls could and should change. There is the opportunity to connect with nature, create iconic places, and have strong connectivity to the region. Humans crave collaboration, and developers in the suburbs should figure out how to make places where people will put their phones down. For core values, she said to “honor the dirt” and create an authentic place that helps foster collaboration. It is also important to create a solid story, that doesn’t just tell people facts, but gives them the story of the place. This helps to create trust with customers. All of these things help to create the strong platform for experiences that give people a reason to go back to the development or the suburbs.

Next up was Vanessa Rodriguez the Director of Marketing at the Howard Hughes Corporation in Columbia, Maryland. Vanessa focused her discussion around Columbia, a large master-planned community in Howard County, Maryland. She started by giving some of the history of the development which will turn 50 in 2017. It’s interesting that the core values promoted by Howard Hughes 50 years ago are still relevant to the development today: diversity, respect the land, human growth, lifelong learning, and connection. Columbia has grown up to be a great suburb. It is a city in the garden with great schools, open space, and a large amount of development.

Columbia is currently developing within the downtown core. Downtown Columbia is approved for approximately 13 million square feet of development. Vanessa talked about the current development, and the plans to integrate a more walkable experience into the downtown area. They are pursuing mixed-use, and keeping it within the framework of the city in the garden. This will bring residents to the downtown area. Columbia has worked with Howard County, and is excited to include an innovative library in the downtown core.

ULI2016-1587The final speaker was Kathy Bonnafe, President of Combined Properties (yes, it was an all woman panel!). Kathy focused on the redevelopment of aging strip malls around the

region. Most of the projects are 7-10 acre parcels. She stressed the challenges associated with this type of development. Some of the main challenges are that the aging strip malls are typically leased and creating cash flow (making it very hard for developers/owners to tear them down and lose the cash flow) and that the properties are controlled by the leases, which are sometimes as long as 50-60 years.

Combined Properties started thinking about redevelopment of strip malls 15-20 years ago. They picked properties where the land was in a good location, but that the retail would become functionally obsolete. They chose four properties for redevelopment. She has been working on them for the last 15 years. They set up the “fold date” on each of the projects, the time beyond which the brokers were not allowed to lease.

Kathy discussed Scout on the Circle in Fairfax. There will be 85,000 square feet of retail and 400 apartments. They are designing them for young families and divorcees. It will be a cool place to live in the suburbs with strong amenities. Challenges there include the need to get the grocery lease for entitlements and financing, and different fold dates for large tenants. Due to their large portfolio of strip centers, Combined Properties was able to move the tenants to different strip centers. She talked about three other properties as well, many with similar issues. All in all, she stressed that these projects are complicated and take a long time, and that developers/land owners who pursue them need to have staying power.

Key trends to watch for in the suburbs include the Millenials moving to the suburbs and impacting the demand for real estate; customization of retail products (like Converse shoes); experiential retail experiences, and community building.

Barbara Byron, Director, Fairfax County – Office of Community Revitalization

Kathy Bonnafe, President, Combined Properties
Jean Komendera, President, Gold Dog Communications
Vanessa Rodriguez, Director, Marketing, The Howard Hughes Corporation

Recap Written By Melina Duggal

Click here for an audio recording of the panel.

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