Baby Boomers who want to Age in Suburbia might find a new way to do so: they will be able to cut back on their driving, but still be near the center of their favorite neighborhood and stores. The new paradigm is called suburban density. Builders of shopping centers, office parks and malls are learning to blend. Their new building sites will co-mingle apartments (or condos), office buildings, and retail centers. The design is borrowed from the cities, but customized for open spaces. One of the key design elements is to circle these new dense suburban centers with better connections for pedestrians and bicyclists.
An example of “suburban density” comes from a development underway in a suburb of Indianapolis, called Keystone. According to the Wall St. Journal, the developer plans a 198 unit luxury apartment building, next to an existing shopping center. Across the street is an (existing) upscale mall. The three properties will be connected by wider sidewalks, and with an intention to add a one-mile long trail that will loop around an adjacent lake.
It is not that suburban density has not been tried before- but it seemed to begin with the car at its center. So, the linkages between buildings depended upon driving from place to place, even if they were just ¼ of a mile, or less distance apart. Older suburbs like Silver Spring, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut come to mind. Zoning played a big role in the transportation problems- if the office building was isolated from home, and home was isolated from the shops, then there was not much reason to walk. It was easier to get in the car and drive….even if the destination was across the street. In the newer paradigm, the priority is supposed to favor pedestrians and non-motorized transportation.
So, putting an apartment building in the center and densifying the suburbs is both an old, and new, concept. It cannot come too soon for traditional suburbs, which are seeing the erosion of their commercial base and failing shopping malls. It is estimated that that 20 enclosed malls have been shuttered over the last few years and there are another 60 on the endangered list. A book called Retail Revolution: Will your Brick and Mortar Store Survive? posits that e-commerce is taking its bite and expenditures by middle-income shoppers are declining.
What may be overlooked in the declining sales numbers is that many of the middle-income shoppers are also Baby Boomers. Boomers are buying more online, contributing to e-commerce growth. At the same time, they are cutting back overall expenditures, because their families are grown and they have fewer, pressing purchases to make. Meanwhile, they need to save for retirement.
The retail community can hope that if the Boomers choose to move into these new style suburban apartments two trends will co-occur: First, Boomers will spend more of their leisure time, making purchases in the stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers. Also, some of the Boomers might hang on to jobs, and extend their working years by relocating near the office-park. It all remains to be seen, but a denser suburbia is a glimmer of change that might not attract traffic (too much). It could advance a new place for Aging in Suburbia.