After more than a generation of fleeing as fast as they could to get away from them, American suburbanites want downtowns.
People haven't stopped moving to the suburbs, of course, but they appear to want more out of their communities than subdivisions and strip malls.
"Of all the top planning issues in the suburbs, No. 1 is the core, the focal point," Cincinnati planning consultant C. Gregory Dale contends. "People want to have a place that creates a sense of identity."
At the same time, harried parents have lost interest in the malls that all but killed the older suburban downtowns: They don't have the time to drive long distances for three-hour shopping expeditions and, what's more, their teenagers also find the malls monotonous and--most damning of adolescent epithets--boring.
As a result, suburban officials are committing a lot of thought and sometimes millions of dollars to creating a downtown experience, often in an older shopping district gone to seed, but sometimes in the middle of a cornfield.
"All over the country, officials are starting to look at the issues of making city centers out of whole cloth," said Dale, who spoke on the subject at the recent annual convention of the American Planning Association in Seattle.
The trend is clearly evident in the Chicago area, where even Schaumburg, the archetypal edge city and byword for suburban sprawl, has expended Herculean efforts to make a town center, including construction of a $23.5 million library to anchor it.
But downtown dreams don't always become the alluring realities hailed by Petula Clark in her pop classic, where the noise and the hurries help you forget all your worries.
Buffalo Grove, for example, put up more than $7 million in "tax increment financing" to create an "instant downtown" in Buffalo Grove Town Center in the early 1990s. Today, the downtown area is little more than a strip shopping center with multiscreen cinema, whose "urban" brick facade can't conceal the fact that store after store is vacant.
Ironically, attempts to add more bustle to the area have met with angry opposition from homeowners in an adjacent residential section that was built at the same time as part of the overall plan.
Last year, some of them unsuccessfully fought the coming of a 24-hour Eagle Foods supermarket on the hallowed suburban grounds that it would increase traffic and lower property values.
And village officials recently rebuffed a proposal for an assisted-living facility for the center on a site set aside for a hotel and banquet facility--still to be built after almost a decade.
Elsewhere, the country is dotted with planned suburban downtowns that are more like ghost towns.
For instance, the Denver suburb of Aurora, which has a population of about 250,000, has a new 600-acre municipal center with a court complex and a jail as well as shopping. After 10 years of struggling to attract people, it now gets cited as a symbol of poor planning.
Is there a recipe for cooking up a good suburban downtown? Different urban chefs emphasize different flavors, though they mostly mention similar ingredients.
Denver planning consultant Christopher Duerksen, who decries Aurora's mistakes, said the keys to a good downtown are the right mix of uses and densities; strong financing; plazas and parks; and the right traffic patterns with good access.
Retail consultant Robert Gibbs of Birmingham, Mich., takes a high-concept approach that draws on the increasingly popular idea that consumers want "experiences" as much as things.
"People like to pretend they're in an urban setting. You can create new urbanism even in a . . . green field site," he said. "Retailing is all theater. If you have vibrant retail, that leads to good urbanism."
But Bruce Kaplan, president of Chicago's Northern Realty Co., which specializes in retail brokerage and development, doubts that pure pizazz can carry an urban center.
He calls the current suburban downtown mania "more of a sociological phenomenon than a legitimate economic phenomenon" that is attempting to satisfy residents' psychic needs without looking at the real reasons downtowns exist.
"You can't just force it and plop something down in a cornfield and call it a town center," he said. "It just doesn't work."
Kaplan's firm is a partner in a key project in the ambitious redevelopment plan for downtown Deerfield, an effort that started as far back as the 1970s and is only now coming to fruition.
When the redevelopment of the northern Chicago suburb is complete, "there's no question that Deerfield will change even more dramatically than [city officials] think it will," said Michael Tobin, Northern's managing director for development, with the evangelistic fervor typical of "new downtown" promoters.
Village officials certainly hope Tobin's not just preaching. They've put more than $21 million in "tax increment financing," money into the redevelopment and used municipal muscle to acquire land to sell to developers and to help persuade old tenants to move out.
They also fought back protests from residents balky over disruption, inconvenience, the disappearance of longtime businesses and the construction of rental units, a major red flag in Chicago suburbs.
Deerfield Village Centre, a 5.7-acre, $25 million project at Deerfield and Waukegan roads, will combine 65,000 square feet of low-rise street-front shops and restaurants; a four-story, 58-unit luxury apartment building; and a "village square" with fountains.
Across Waukegan Road to the west is Deerfield Square, a 17-acre, $67 million project that will have more than 200,000 square feet of retail space, much of which is being leased to major tenants such as Whole Foods, Walgreens and Barnes & Noble.
Both projects have plenty of restaurants.
"Dining has become the entertainment of the 1990s and the next decade," insisted Tobin.
Only time will tell whether all this development and the use of a lot of traditional masonry and stone in design plus expensive landscaping actually makes a living, breathing downtown.
Deerfield's hopes are better-founded than some. The village hall, a commuter train station and a major park are within a couple of blocks of the downtown; office space in the immediate area and a lot more nearby provide a strong daytime mix with the retail; and the apartments and restaurants should provide some evening habitation.
Access is also a plus, with the downtown being centered at the intersection of two major arteries, Waukegan and Deerfield Roads.
But at least Deerfield isn't trying to create something from nothing, as is happening, for example, in Lenexa, Kan., a Kansas City suburb of close to 80,000 people that was the subject of a seminar at the recent American Planning Association conference.
Urged by its residents to create a downtown to give their community a focal point, Lenexa chose a field of 60 acres or so near an expressway at one end of town even though the city hall, main library and a performing arts center had already been built elsewhere.
To add to the challenges, a big shopping center is already located on the other side of the expressway. There is an old city center, but it is only a block long and considered too small for a new downtown.
The city has built a boulevard through the chosen area, may build a parking garage, and otherwise is hoping that office, retail and residential developers, drawn by a strong local economy, will come in and build an urban-type complex according to its master plan.
"We're hoping for grid streets and exciting public spaces," said Lenexa city planner William Meyer. "We prefer the private sector to lead."