Saturday, February 23, 2008

Urban living is making a comeback

In an article for the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly provocatively titled "The Next Slum?", Christopher B. Leinberger asserts that the subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life, he writes, may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.

"For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

The suburbs that he writes about are relatively new developments in the South, MidWest, and West, far from any commercial centers or public transportation. The urban centers that Leinberger mentions are places like White Plains, where a luxury condo sells for $750 per square foot, compared to a luxury single family home in suburban Westchester, which can sell for $375 per square foot. The Greater Danbury region doesn't quite fit either profile, although I recall reading last year that the newest development on the NY state line features homes that sell for over $1 million. But developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to the suburbs, and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life. "Lifestyle centers"—walkable developments that create an urban feel with narrow streets, storefronts that come to the sidewalk, and a mix of residential and commercial use, are becoming popular with some builders. In other words, they are trying to recreate the experience of living in a small New England town. Danbury never quite lost that feel, although it was touch-and-go there for a while in the 80s after the Mall was built.

So here we are on the cutting edge of the latest trend. There are already signs, with the new downtown parking garage and the restoration of 238 Main Street, which, by the way, is now accepting applications for the new apartments being created on the upper floors. There is the truly awesome news that the Palace Theatre will be partly re-opened for this year's film festival (and perhaps beyond?). I was not able to attend First Night this year, but I've seen the photos of the interior of the Palace lobby, and all the art deco trim and light fixtures that I remembered are still there. The Warner Theatre in Torrington will have nothing on us once the Palace reopens.

And I think there's still hope for that big empty parking lot that was once the site of the first Danbury Mall, and which is within walking distance of the Metro North train station and the HART pulse point. Leinberger writes that "housing at Belmar, the new "downtown" in Lakewood, Colorado, a middle-income inner suburb of Denver, commands a 60 percent premium per square foot over the single-family homes in the neighborhoods around it. The development covers about 20 small blocks in all. What’s most noteworthy is its history: it was built on the site of a razed mall."

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