Judy Troiano, CCIM, Senior Associate
In the past, we embraced suburban sprawl – the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into low-density, mono-functional, car-dependent communities.If you look at a satellite image of New Jersey, or any state, you will see the sprawl circling the more urban areas. This was the result of the exodus of urban centers in the 70s and 80s by baby boomers and Gen Xers. Back then, people wanted space, thought nothing of driving anywhere and everywhere, turned up their nose at the thought of living on a “main” street and dismissed mass-transit as a dirty word.
Oh how things have changed. Today, a new generation of workers are on the rise. These workers are flocking to urban centers; transit-oriented developments that allow them to live, work and play within the same community. And where baby boomers assumed sitting in traffic to get to work was a necessary evil, millennials ask, “But why would anyone choose to do that”? If they can’t walk or bike to their job, they want mass transit options. It certainly does not end there…once at work, they want the same travel options in getting to any existing culture, retail, restaurant, bar, movie theatre or coffee shop. These workers are millennials and they are the future.
Unfortunately, the suburbs as we know them do not lend themselves well to this type of lifestyle. For this reason, companies that are looking to attract and retain millennials (essentially all companies) are searching for the sort of amenity-rich, walkable communities that these workers desire. This, in turn, has led many townships to double down in their efforts to retain and/or attract companies in and to their suburban communities.
Montvale is one example of a once strong suburban office market seeking ways to improve the occupancy rate of their existing office buildings. In January 2016 Montvale’s Mayor Mike Ghassali and the Montvale council members created the Economic Development and Retention Committee, recruiting professionals from various industries to establish a plan that would bring Montvale into the future.
I was asked to join the Retention Committee and share my thoughts on what suburban towns can do to compete with urban centers. One of most important things that a suburban town can do is invest in developing a “downtown” area. This is not the type of investment that can be made overnight, but it is critical to millennials and the companies that are employing them. A downtown area brings more than just retail and restaurants. It brings a sense of place to the community, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
While corporations are expecting landlords to provide more and more amenities in their office buildings, millennials are expecting corporations to provide them with a quality of life. Millennials define QoL as far more than just the ability to walk to lunch or happy hour. It means everything from bringing their dog to work to working remotely, from appreciation and support from their organization to flexibility in work hours, from global opportunities to access to the best technology for collaboration and execution, from charitable giving to a covered bike rack at the office.
Speaking of bikes, suburban markets that invest in their infrastructure and create Complete Streets have the right idea. What are Complete Streets? In short, Complete Streets are streets for everyone – they provide bicycle and pedestrian friendly roads, with safer biking lanes and easier street-crossing areas.
The amount of people who bike to work has increased 60% in the past ten years, a trend that is gaining considerable traction and will be a differentiator in your community. By implementing safer streets, townships encourage suburban residents to use their bike to get the train, their job, the local grocer or the gym, while simultaneously alleviating traffic, lessening parking issues and improving air quality. Complete Streets is a sizeable, wide-ranging endeavor but one that is very worthy of consideration.
There is no one answer to finding ways to convert the outdated concept of suburban sprawl in order to compete with urban centers that are flourishing in this new amenity-and-transit-driven economy, but there is a singular direction that towns can look towards. How can I make my town more commuter friendly, more amenity rich and more walkable? Invest in a downtown area and complete the streets.
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