Recycling Cincinnati's Suburbs

Architect and urban/suburban design expert Ellen Dunham-Jones has a big idea, one that Time magazine says is one of 10 new ideas changing the world we live in right now. And it could be finding its mark in Cincinnati.

Dunham-Jones points to decaying suburbs and empty big box malls as opportunities that can be adapted into walkable, mixed-use spaces designed to have both positive environmental impacts as well as create great communities - a much better alternative than simply razing them for something new. 

"We've spent the last fifty years devoted to building sprawl," she says, and now "we'll spend the next fifty retrofitting it."

In her book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, Dunham-Jones and her co-author June Williamson share more than 50 case studies across North America of "underperforming asphalt properties" - spaces that have been redesigned, recycled, and redeveloped into sustainable vital community centers. Dunham-Jones is coming to the Contemporary Arts Center on Wednesday evening to share her insights.

"We've been building suburbs since the 1800's. Suburbia is beginning to look less and less sustainable and as it gets older it's underperforming. It's a great opportunity to remake suburbia more sustainable than it already is," she says.

Part of suburbia's decline can be attributed to the evolution of the nuclear family.

"Half of US households had kids in them in the '60s. Since 2000, only one third of suburban households have kids and that number is on the decline. The suburbs were designed to be family friendly but haven't focused on the needs of young professionals and empty nesters that are looking for more opportunities to socialize."

And that, according to Dunham-Jones, is what a lot of retrofitting is responding to.

"We actually have more empty nesters and young professionals than families now, and they're looking for someplace to hangout."

And the suburbs aren't generally that place unless you want to cruise the local mall.  And even those are getting scarce.

"While it's very trendy to have a mid-century modern home, most mid-century shopping centers are getting bulldozed," says Dunham-Jones.

Columbus' City Center mall is an example - a suburban-style mall that opened in downtown Columbus in 1989. Once a thriving retail destination, its now vacant and the underutilized space is currently being razed for park development and future residential and retail design once the economy recovers.

"We haven't opened a new enclosed mall in the past two years," Dunham-Jones notes. Instead she has observed the rise of the 'lifestyle center,'- open air malls that are equal parts retail and nightlife.

"Instead of the food court, you now have nightlife and restaurants in an open air environment," she says.

As an example, Dunham-Jones points to the Bank Block in Grandview Heights - a suburban strip mall located outside of Columbus considered by some to be the first strip shopping center in the country. Originally built in 1928, it was slated for demolition until an entrepreneurial restaurateur opened a popular dining spot there. The restaurants' appeal drew more retail and specialty shops, and the community was revived around it.

So is food is the change agent for a bland, aging suburban strip mall? It can be, says Dunham-Jones.

"Food is remarkably successful at transforming something that seems mundane and a blight, like a strip mall. With a little bit of design they can become attractive, super-hip and trendy. All you do is add paint and put in some boutique restaurants."

Dunham-Jones notes that this type of retrofit also helps these locations appeal to new suburbanites who crave urban core comforts like restaurant and bar density.

"The suburbs in general do a wonderful job of maximizing privacy for the young family but don't tend to provide third places. Home is the first [place], work is the second [place], the third is where you go to hang out," she says. "The classic example is the pub, like the television shows Cheers. Hierarchies don't apply - everyone is an equal. The postman and the psychologist are equals at the bar."

Dunham-Jones envisions further development of these strip malls besides retail and restaurants, and says housing is another key component to replicating urban design solutions in suburban spaces.

"When you start building apartments and office space above the shops then you get urban density above the streetscape and people who can live work and play without getting into their cars."

While no Greater Cincinnati suburbs made Dunham-Jones' book, there are plenty of opportunities in this region according to Michaele Pride, an Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati.

Pride notes that "Mason and West Chester are more of the classic examples of retrofitting, but Cincinnati's first ring inner suburbs like Mt. Auburn, Hyde Park, and Oakley are some of the more likely candidates to experience change for the better." Pride calls these "little opportunistic retrofits."

"Think of it as a scalpel and not a bulldozer or dynamite. There are little things you can do that can have a great impact."

By way of example, Pride notes that this past spring students with DAAP's Niehoff Urban Studio created mixed-use redevelopment simulations for the former Cincinnati Milacron site, an industrial area along the MLK/Madison corridor in Oakley. The site of a number of unimplemented development proposals like the Millworks project - it currently contains a mix of vacant and active industrial/manufacturing facilities, the Crossroads mega-church, and the Center of Cincinnati, a big box retail complex.

Pride says that this large industrial site is the type of major infill project ripe for retrofitting - it's actually larger than the Riverfront Banks [Project] in total acreage and has equally as large development potential.  Another opportunity exists at the former Nutone site at Madison and Redbank. Pride says it's potentially a large development site that could hold residential, commercial and retail development with a regional draw while still meeting neighborhood needs.

"This supports the idea of a viable region where there will be many centers," Pride says. "The suburbs are becoming more urban, at least in their content."

And the timing couldn't be better as Cincinnati embarks on its first comprehensive plan in 30 years.  Pride, who co-chairs the steering committee of Plan Cincinnati, suggests more mixed use zoning, encompassing public transit, and concentrated development could help.

"Changes to our zoning code can actually allow these denser, older areas to be retrofitted," she says. 

Dunham-Jones agrees.

"It's an enormous opportunity...They need to allow for mixed use [zoning] and more interconnected street networks. Now is a great time to look at a comprehensive plan."

Ellen Dunham-Jones presentation, 'Retrofitting Suburbia' at the Contemporary Arts Center, is this Wednesday, November 18. Doors open at 5pm, lecture begins at 6pm followed by a book signing. CAC members & University of Cincinnati students with identification are free; non-members are charged regular CAC admission.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Millworks project site
Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
Crestview Hills open air mall
Michaele Pride, Professor of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati

Millworks project site and rendering by DAAP students
Newport, KY Cotes development
Students at Niehoff Urban Studio

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