The back-to-the-city narrative that took hold in the years after the Great Recession described a new generation — millennials — eschewing suburban life to ride public transit back into the urban core of America.

It wasn’t to last.

The upward trend peaked in 2012 and waned toward the end of the 2010s as suburban growth outpaced that of major cities.

But many younger people still want urban amenities, such as local shops and restaurants, a sense of place and a measure of walkability, and suburbs have in turn raced to create their own downtowns. In some cases, it’s revitalizing an area that thrived before the automobile. More often, “downtown” is a new creation providing a city center with town squares, walkable zones or mixed-use spaces to a formerly shapeless place dominated by subdivisions and strip malls.

“The first part of the last decade people were writing about the return of the city, that people flocking to the city is the future of America,” said William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. “I was a little skeptical of the whole thing. Suburbs have grown faster than cities since they invented the car.”

Statistics back up Frey’s words. Just four of America’s 80 largest cities lost population in 2011 and 2012. That grew to 20, or one in four, from 2015 through 2018. The suburbs have always been a value play, offering a bigger house and usually better schools at the sacrifice of commuting to the city for work, sports and cultural offerings. As millennials follow in the steps of their predecessors, suburban downtowns aim to once again provide the best of both worlds, with a mix of urban amenities at a lower cost.

Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University professor who specializes in urban issues, says the novel coronavirus could drive millennials to the suburbs even faster, thanks to anxiety about spreading infection on public transit and in shared workspaces, with more people telecommuting and stay-at-home orders making big backyards all the more valuable.

“People will be less likely to want to take transit,” he said. “Some will eventually go back, but transit ridership was fading anyway. People are also finding that telecommuting works pretty well. They’re finding out they can do work as a financial analyst, media member or programmer from [New York City suburb] Putnam County in a place that costs one-third of the rent in Manhattan and is much nicer.”

As more suburbs create a sense of place and better amenities through downtowns, it could become just one more factor in their favor, he contended.

“People still want places to hang out, they still want cultural events, still want a shopping experience, and that’s where you get these changes in the suburbs taking place,” said Kotkin.

The city center, rebuilt in the suburbs

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Snellville, Ga., joins a host of Atlanta suburbs launching or renovating their central spaces. The city has proposed an $85 million downtown development dubbed The Grove at Towne Center. Construction is slated to begin this summer on the mixed-use project, which will feature a library, 250 apartments above ground-floor retail, restaurants, green space and trails. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Suburban renewal

Stephanie Wallace McDonald loved growing up in Snellville, a suburb 25 miles northeast of Atlanta. It’s in Gwinnett County, which grew in population from 166,903 in 1980 to an estimated 927,781 in 2018, according to the Census Bureau.

McDonald, 34, fondly remembers a combination of small-town feel and urban amenities, including easy access to Atlanta. Today, she owns Snellville Performing Arts, a studio for young dancers, artists and musicians to sharpen their skills.

Aiming to keep people like McDonald and bring in more residents like her, Snellville has proposed an $85 million downtown development dubbed The Grove at Towne Center. Construction is slated to begin this summer on the mixed-use project, which will feature a library, 250 apartments above ground-floor retail, restaurants, green space and trails. In doing so, Snellville joins a host of Atlanta suburbs launching or renovating their central spaces.

McDonald left Snellville as a young adult, living in Hawaii, Nevada and Massachusetts before returning home in 2016 following a spate of deaths in the family that left her reconsidering her priorities.

“It was time to come home,” she said. “We missed Snellville, missed the way of life around here, seeing the same people all the time. I can’t tell you how often we will go to the grocery store and see three or four different people that we know.”

Many of her high school classmates moved back, too. Others reside elsewhere, especially in the hot Atlanta neighborhoods around downtown, midtown and Buckhead.

She’s a fan of The Grove, but says the project is generating debate around town. The apartments in particular attract controversy, with some Snellville homeowners, often older residents, seeing them as a home for transient residents with few local ties and a threat to their property values. Her perspective is different.

“A lot of younger people — we’ve gotten out of college and are dealing with student loan debt,” she said. “College cost a lot more for us than it did for older generations. For a lot of us who are struggling more financially, not buying houses and not starting families, we’re facing a different version of the American Dream and we really love seeing affordable apartments come in.”

One older resident who backs the plan is former Snellville mayor Jerry Oberholtzer, whose interest in a downtown for the city dates to the late 1980s. He was part of a plan that fell victim to the Great Recession, and supports the current one while worrying whether leaders are doing enough to truly urbanize and provide non-automobile options.

“I’d love to ride a bike to city hall from my house, but I don’t want to become a hood ornament on a car,” he said. “My feeling is you might build this thing [The Grove], but you’ve got to do a lot of other things to really make this work.”

Jim Chamberlain and Chuck Hull of Smallwood Architects are designing The Grove, and previously worked on another suburban downtown, the City Center in Alpharetta, Ga. As automobile traffic chokes metro Atlanta, they see the suburban projects as, in part, a return to the way human beings have always lived.

“Looking at the history of human settlement, it was one of mixed-use and walkable environments,” said Hull. “Why did people live that way? Because travel was arduous either by foot, riding in a buggy or on horseback. . . . The automobile enabled the suburbs. Now things have devolved and travel has once again become arduous. We’ve come full circle in a way.”

It’s not just an Atlanta phenomenon. The Washington area has been a leader in the trend, with Reston Town Center in Virginia, now more than 20 years old, often considered the first suburban downtown in America. More recently, Waldorf, Md., embarked on plans to create a city center known as Waldorf Station.

In March the Austin suburb of Leander began building a 115-acre downtown project centered on a light-rail station linking it to the capital, and construction has continued in spite of the coronavirus. Leander's population is exploding. It has reached 60,000 , up from 8,000 in 2005. The population is projected to soar to more than 100,000 by 2030.

Yet Leander exists mostly as a bedroom community. That could change through Northline, a new downtown area with 2,300 apartments and townhouses, a pair of hotels, retail and office space, all centered on the transit station.

“Being on the rail line presents a unique situation for Northline compared to so many other areas within Austin,” said developer Alex Tynberg, president of Northline Leander Co. “This is a transit-oriented development. That was so important in the decision to go with this location.”

The rail line also played a role in attracting a hospital and community college campus. Tynberg sees Northline as a way to bring in not just educated young professionals but their employers as well. Apple and other tech companies have announced major developments in the Austin area, and he hopes at least a few of them will take a look at downtown Leander.

Southfield, Mich., was a leader in suburban downtowns the first time around. Northland Center opened in 1954 as one of the first postwar suburban shopping malls. The malls catered to cars while draining resources and revenue from urban downtowns across the country.

Hailed as the future of shopping at the time, Northland expanded several times before falling victim to retail shifts. It closed in 2015 and was demolished three years later.

Now, the city and its 74-year-old mayor, Ken Siver, want to create a walkable downtown along Evergreen Road. Southfield is rich in office space, and Siver wants to add more residential to that mix. He also envisions art installations, bike racks and trails to create a better place to live, with luring young professionals a chief goal. The hope is to keep people in Southfield not only for work, but after 5 p.m. as well.

“Our aging population wants to stay here, but they don’t need a four- or five-bedroom house,” said Siver, who has written three books on the history of his city. “We want younger people who are starting a family to occupy these homes.”

For others seeking another kind of living situation, a few office buildings have been converted into loft apartments, and an empty school is scheduled to be converted into condos. Pairing better walkability with cheaper rent, the suburban value play is thriving once again.

“There’s a lot of new housing going up in core cities. That’s happening in Detroit, and there’s a certain level of gentrification, but not everybody can afford to live there,” he said. “Since we’re 15 minutes from downtown Detroit, I see businesses and people moving here because they either can’t afford it there or they want amenities in the suburbs that aren’t readily available in the city.”