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The Trend: Building Urban Villages

Remade City Centers Find Mass Appeal

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

The old town, it seems, is the new thing. Clarendon is one of hundreds of so-called urban villages around the country that combine residential, retail and office space in a compact area, harking back to a time when city centers were thriving economic engines. As demand for the urban village rises, developers and retailers are flocking to cash in on its mass-market appeal.

The number of mixed-use projects of 15 acres or more has been increasing by about 28 percent a year since 1996, according to New Urban News. In 2004, the most recent figure available, 650 projects at various stages of completion existed throughout the country.

Businesses in urban villages generate more revenue than those in traditional shopping centers and strip malls, planners say. Shoppers spend $84 an hour in an urban village's street-side stores; in a typical enclosed mall, they spend $57.50 an hour, according to the Urban Land Institute. Some large retailers bring in almost 20 percent more revenue per square foot in a village setting.

"Retailers know the power of the place-making dividend. People stay longer, come back more often and spend more money in places that attract their affection," said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "No one wants to go to a strip mall to hang out."

Instead, people amble along pedestrian-friendly streets in places like Bethesda, Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Downtown Alexandria and Annapolis epitomize the model, experts say, weaving together the threads of an old-fashioned main street in a modern setting.

Urban villages attract a desirable set of demographics -- young professionals in dual-income households as well as empty-nesters and retirees, often with disposable income.

"What's really driving it is profit," said John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "Everybody's trying to recreate the urban form because that's what the consumer wants."

The model is not new -- it's a return to a centuries-old pattern of people settling in clusters where they live, work and socialize. But the postwar baby boom and the automobile culture created the suburban phenomenon of the 1950s, in which shopping centers and residential neighborhoods were geographically separate. As sprawl and traffic congestion mounted, planners criticized suburbs as soulless. In rebellion, new urbanism surfaced in the last quarter of the 20th century, trying to recreate walkable, mixed-use communities.

Some such communities evolve naturally. Some are built from scratch by developers and planners. Some, like Clarendon, are a combination of both.

Many urban villages take 20 years to create. Changing zoning codes and assembling property is expensive and time consuming, often requiring the involvement of local government. Arlington County began planning villages around the five Metro stops in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in 1984, placing it ahead of the curve.

The existing number of urban villages "serves only a very tiny portion of the region's total need," said Christian Nelson, Director of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia center.

He estimates that the demand for this type of development is five to 10 times higher than the current supply.

To keep a neighborhood from turning into a shopping mall -- or a carbon copy of another town -- experts say developers should concentrate on retaining local character.

"The historical and social fabric has to be retained in the place to keep it from becoming another Ballston or Bethesda," Nelson said. "Use the market revenue to sustain a piece of that memory."

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