Cities

Primary Drivers of Place: Mixed-Use Developments & the Human Habitat

A well-worded line in an article for Fortune magazine circa 1958 from famed urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs describes “the smallness of big cities,” as a hopeful ideal for place-makers to visualize.

Jacobs’s study of sidewalks and parks, retail, design, people, and self-organization celebrated cities as integrated systems with their own distinct rhythms and logic. Her work took a community-focused approach to urban landscapes and honored the improvisational action on dense streets and corners of the mid-20th century.

The line above, along with much of Jacobs’ wisdom, remains top of mind and translates beautifully for today’s developers as they attempt to tackle ambitious projects across the U.S. and beyond.

Much of what Jacobs was getting at can be encapsulated by the magnetism of mixed-use developments—“three-dimensional pedestrian-oriented places that layer compatible land uses, public amenities, and utilities together at various scales and intensities,” writes the Urban Land Institute. “This variety of uses allows for people to live, work, play, and shop in one place, which then becomes a destination for people from other neighborhoods.”

Mixed-use development in San Diego, California.
A mixed-use development in San Diego, California, featuring 96,000 retail square footage and 608 apartment units. | Photographer: Roaming Panda Photos | Source: Shutterstock

The Motivation for Mixed-Use

Of course, fashioning that depth is easier said than done.

“You have different types of populations to serve in cities,” says Kate Wittels, partner with HR&A Advisors, where she counsels governments, developers, and businesses on leveraging technology and forging connections to craft districts, workforces, and economies that are future-ready.

By encouraging mixed-use projects, she says, “You extend your markets. If you just have the office space uses … retail and restaurants can’t survive on 9-to-5. By moving residential in, it extends the market to dinnertime, and now you have customers on the weekends.”

Mark Falcone, founder and CEO of Continuum Partners, is the maestro behind a collection of mixed-use projects across metro Denver, including Denver Union Station, the downtown revitalization of the 19.85-acre historic train station originally opened in 1881.

Denver Union Station.
Photographer: Phillip Salvador | Source: Shutterstock

Falcone time-travels to traditional neighborhoods within pre-World War II U.S. cities that had “residential cheek-to-jowl with commercial uses and other things.”

“You had circumstances where you had heavy industrial immediately adjacent to residential, so in the interest of trying to protect people from heavy chemical production adjacent to neighborhoods and children, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. People like Jane Jacobs and other urbanists observed that the suburb was a massive marketing machine that produced the American dream. But when you looked close, peoples’ behaviors didn’t create community support and infrastructure.”

Building for the Neighborhood

Wittels, a New Yorker, stresses that, “You need an active place to be able to survive. There needs to be demand for people using the time and space.”

Presently, Wittels and her team are repositioning a 15-acre site in Midtown Houston alongside Rice University, originally pitched as a site for the U.S.-wide Amazon headquarters competition, dubbed HQ2. Her team imagines an innovation hub, an accelerator and maker-lab, restaurant space, and possibly office, hotel, and residential units to anchor the district.

“There’s a range of different stages in the business lifecycle there,” Wittels says. “They’re all sharing ideas and innovation.” She alludes to comparable projects such as Kendall Square in Atlanta, Georgia, and Madison Square Garden in New York City.

MSG in New York City, a mixed-use facility.
Madison Square Garden, a multi-purpose facility in New York City | Photographer: littlenySTOCK | Source: Shutterstock

When asked how city-builders go about conjuring up such a project, she notes that “it depends on the existing supply. What is the primary driver of the place? Then ask yourself what are the ancillary businesses that can attract the primary driver? That’s how you need to think about the mix.”

Wittels adds that ground-floor units are increasingly reliant upon creating an experience.

“Authenticity is important,” she says, noting retail should reflect the place it’s situated within. “That’s going to be what makes certain projects thrive more than others.”

Falcone concedes that mixed-use projects are also “much more expensive to build. You lose a lot of efficacy with production and scale,” he says. But, “There’s more resilience in … integrating as many different uses within the neighborhood scale.”

The Gentrification Problem: Ensuring Inclusive Development

In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

When developers plan a luxury project—whether a new-build, mixed-use complex, or a renovation—they sometimes neglect a few vital pieces of the puzzle: working-class residents and the retailers that are displaced or priced-out as high-end businesses cluster.

The complexity of gentrification requires that developers and city governments consider the consequences of each new project while also looking to drive economic growth in a given area.

Wittels suggests mixed-income housing to combat the challenge. She notes that New York has mandatory inclusionary housing, a zoning tool that requires developers to include affordable housing.

She further recommends that developers thoughtfully evaluate who they lease to. Workforce development is another tool “requiring businesses to recruit differently, making sure the companies that are coming in will recruit from the neighborhood. There’s a real alignment of interests there.”

Wittels says the innovation district projects she’s worked on, from Baltimore to St. Louis to Brooklyn and Chicago, all have workforce components baked in.

“The pandemic accelerated a lot of trends that were happening before,” Wittels says, musing that the test is the “tension between capitalism and the people who are going to be living and occupying these places. There’s a multitude of needs.”

As Falcone sees it, “We manufacture the human habitat. Just like in other biological contexts, monocultures tend to be vulnerable to collapse.”

Looking forward, he believes the term, “’mixed-use’ will be out of the vernacular.”

He hopes the momentum he and his peers are driving toward results in a future that returns to the idealized urban nooks that Jacobs once observed and commemorated.

“It won’t be necessary anymore when we’re going to think of healthy functional neighborhoods as having a diversity of use and activity.”

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