“Can city life be exported to the suburbs?
It’s Friday night, and you dash downstairs from your apartment to the street. You head to dinner, strolling down the sidewalk, past the brick storefronts and the couples sitting around the fountain. What will it be tonight: Italian or a nice steak? There are lots of options nearby, not to mention the movie theater and the bowling alley with the cigar bar in back.
It’s the life of a young city-dweller. Except this scene isn’t set in a city. It’s happening in the Village at Leesburg, a new neighborhood on Route 7 in Loudoun County. And 10 years from now, it could be taking place in more than a dozen urban settings being built around the Washington area where today there are empty fields, vacant industrial centers, parking lots and shopping malls.
Instead of building more typical suburban developments, in the past two decades builders increasingly have been bringing city life to the suburbs and exurbs. Street grids are plotted around central plazas surrounded by condos, apartments and shopping. Public transportation is arranged, parking garages are hidden from view, and all the things that people love about D.C. and cities like it are layered on: public art, sidewalk performers, outdoor movies, street festivals, block parties and food carts.
The spread of “town center” projects, particularly in the Washington suburbs, is making it harder to distinguish what makes a city a city. The urban neighborhood has become an exportable commodity.
By the end of 2011, there were 398 such city replicas — town center or “lifestyle center” projects — in the United States, most of them built in suburbs, in exurbs or on farmland alongside a highway. Since the 1960s, developers had promoted suburban shopping centers as safe, clean escapes from crowded cities. But with urban living back in vogue since the late 1990s, developers are trying to create it outside city limits.
The titan of town center developments locally, and in many ways nationwide, isReston Town Center, a walkable neighborhood that is one of the densest parts of Fairfax County and has become a smashing commercial success.
Robert C. Kettler had Reston Town Center in mind when he and a partner plotted the Village at Leesburg on 57 acres of shrub land along Route 7 in 2006. An expert in condo and apartment development, Kettler wanted to build an urban environment in the middle of the suburbs. He hired consultants to design a “village square” and streetscape with block lengths, sidewalk widths, planter heights and storefront windows modeled closely after those in cities.
Kettler and others are aiming to replicate the culture and convenience of cities, minus their traffic and crime. But can a city be a city if it’s built in the middle of a cornfield?”
Via: The Washington Post
Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post
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