A day of taking stock of built environment

June 25

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

More than 450 architects, developers, planners, investors, economists and other folks interested in the built environment gathered at the  Union League Thursday for a day-long forum on the future of urban development and revitalization.

The symposium was the first of its kind sponsored by the Urban Land Institute’s Philadelphia regional chapter.  Sessions covered topics from financing in a tough financial environment to bringing a much needed vibrancy to tough neighborhoods. 

Attendees heard how Camden and Wilmington are repairing downtrodden neighborhoods by reconnecting them to their rivers. They learned how Newark’s large ethnic population has helped officials market their city to Portuguese businesses, some of which have now opened their U.S. Headquarters in Newark. And many times, they heard variations on this theme: The recession won’t last forever. Use this time to plan and otherwise prepare for the recovery, because development is going to be much different this time around.

Different doesn’t mean bad.

“I’ve never felt more optimism for the future of our industry,” said morning  keynote speaker Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist who is the director of the graduate real estate development program at the University of Michigan and a native of this region.


The market demand pendulum has swung away from the “drive-able suburban” model that’s been popular since World War II and toward a “walk-able urban” model, said Leinberger, who is currently a Brookings Institution visiting fellow.

It’s not that all consumers want to live in a dense urban place where a car isn’t a necessity, he said, but about half of those who have a preference now do, and there is not enough of that type of community to meet the demand.  That unmet desire means a premium price, he said. And homeowners who don’t need to spend a significant amount of their income on a car can afford a bigger mortgage.


Leinberger went into professor mode, giving attendees a history lesson on development patterns. These patterns, he said, have always been shaped by three things: transportation, government policy and the current version of The American Dream.

In the 1880s, 49 out of 50 Philadelphians lived less than a mile from where they worked, Leinberger said. But 90 percent of Americans did not live in cities like Philadelphia. They lived in rural places. “We were an agricultural people,” he said. Then, the American Dream was 40 acres and a mule.

Industrialization brought a new American Dream – and new federal policies that supported a shift to low density suburbs with separated uses and a need to get everywhere by car, Leinberger said.

At the peak of the Industrial Age – about 1970 – about one third of all jobs in this country were related to the manufacture and sale of automobiles, he said. “You were making yourself wealthier by driving home to the suburubs in your car,” he said.  Leinberger grew up in walk-able Drexel Hill, he said. But when his mother took him to the King of Prussia Mall, “I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

The car-based culture created a situation where a 1 percent population increase resulted in an 8 to 12 percent increase in land consumption, he said.

“We in real estate have been competing with Detroit for the last 50 years, and we didn’t even know it.”

Leinberger said he often asks his students to watch movies or television shows that illustrate changes in development demand, and he shared some snippets with those who attended the Philadelphia forum.

In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox goes back to the days when his town had a busy, walk-able center. But the time traveling Delorean hides behind a billboard advertising a fancy new suburb.  When he visits in the 1980s, he goes to the Lone Pine Mall – named after the tree that was knocked down to make room for it.  Leinberger asked his audience to watch for something that has never actually happened in real life: Fox walked to the mall.


And Leinberger showed a clip from I Love Lucy in which Lucy ponders moving from Manhattan to a Connecticut suburb. She tells Ethel it would be great for Little Ricky.  Lucy makes the move and is happy about it. A few episodes later, Leinberger said, Ethel and Fred visit and decide to make the move themselves. Then they tell their friends, who also start to move there.

“The thing about drive-able suburbs is that as you add more, the quality of life goes down,” he said.

Up next: Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza chatting amicably as they stroll a New York street.  “It’s a different image, and it’s what the Millenials grew up with,” he said.

Young people are chosing walk-able urban, Leinberger said. Like the Seinfeld characters, they are delaying marriage and children. And a fair number of “gray hairs” are now empty nesters who are leaving their big, suburban houses for life in the city.

When Leinberger was a kid, 50 percent of households have children. That’s now down to 33 percent, and that number is expected to drop in coming decades, he said.

Other presenters later in the day – including those in the sustainability session – said a turn away from car-centric communities and other development features that use a lot of energy is fueled in part by rising fossil fuel costs and concern for the environment.

The new preferences shouldn’t mean abandoning the suburbs, Leinberger said, just redeveloping them into denser, more walk-able communities serviced by rail-based transit.

“Transportation drives development,” he reiterated. And then he asked everyone to take action with the Transportation For America Coalition (http://www.t4america.org), a group that is urging congress to reform transportation policy so that more money goes to public transportation.


Leinberger offered other suggestions for the region: Create more dense, walk-able communities in the region. Work closely with SEPTA and put a zoning overlay that would create walk-able, urban spaces on the 50-300 acres around each station. Create more management organizations like the Center City District. Develop an affordable housing strategy.


“During this recession, I urge you to become the place that makes you proud,” he said. “Economic success will follow.”


Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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