Urban Reinvention: How Unused Government Buildings Can Help Spur Transit-Oriented Development

When the history of 20th-century urban development is written, one of the hidden key factors will be the development of shopping malls. Though they are now often reduced to kitsch and mocked as sterile, malls had a dramatic impact on cities and inner suburbs starting in the 1970s (not to mention the economically positive impact they had on the the often barren areas where they were built). Suddenly, there was a space where businesses could go that had hundreds or even thousands of free parking spaces. Stores left downtowns and main streets for less-expensive rent and easy access by consumers. Many municipalities took decades to recover, if they ever did at all.

Many of these cities and inner suburbs saw their tax base shrink, which led to extraneous government buildings. These represent both a waste of money and misused space. Indeed, a California law, AB 1484, specifically requires towns to get rid of unused or redundant buildings that cost the taxpayers money. Even towns that aren’t affected by this law, though, can use this as a spur not toward retreat, but toward redevelopment. One of the best ways to do so is to reinvest in transit-oriented development.

Transit oriented development The Oakland City Center, connected to BART, is an example of transit-oriented development helping to spark urban reinvention.
Image source: Flickr CC user Allie_Caulfield

How Government Can Help Spur Sustainable Economic Development

“Transit-oriented development” (TOD) is an interesting term that has gotten a lot of buzz lately as people attempt to reinvigorate urban areas in a sustainable way. In the main, it refers to economic centers that don’t require a lot of driving. It usually revolves around a transportation hub, which can be as basic as a train station, that is surrounded by living, working, and retail development. This is not a new model – indeed, this is how all urban areas had to be before the invention of the automobile – but it is one that faded away as highways increased the distance people were able to travel to get to work.

We aren’t talking about a major transit hub, either. Transit-oriented development doesn’t require Grand Central Station, just a stop, or even bus lines. It is generally considered that a TOD zone should be within a half-mile of good public transportation. Luckily, many government buildings are, by necessity, located in areas that are easily accessible by public transportation. After all, they have to be open to the public, and that includes citizens without cars. So many of your extraneous government offices are already ideally situated to help facilitate this redevelopment. It is just a matter of selling to the right kind of businesses.

One quick note: not being near public transportation shouldn’t be considered a deal-breaker. The heart of transit-oriented development is an area that contains the necessities and is open to people without cars, or who don’t want to use them. A neighborhood that has all the amenities within easy walking distance can be considered for this, if reinvestment includes enough areas for work.

Case Study: How to Know Who to Sell To

Of course, once the decision is made to sell, it becomes important to sell wisely, so that you can achieve the kind of neighborhood and city redevelopment that you want. It is important to partner with experts on this process, as well as learn from the example of cities that successfully underwent urban transition. One example of how to do this is Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is a town that is an inner suburb of Chicago – they share a lakefront and a border, and indeed, in the early 1900s, Evanston had to fend off repeated annexation attempts. In the 1970s, its thriving downtown area was decimated by a series of glamorous malls opening up in the lightly-populated suburbs to its west.

After years of struggle and decline, Evanston used its natural resources – connection to Chicago and excellent public transportation – to create a TOD of its own, even if it wasn’t called that back then. Evanston converted many of its underused and even abandoned downtown buildings into mixed-use properties, balancing local unique businesses with affordable housing. Its proximity to trains – both Metra and Chicago’s famous El – allowed people who worked in the city to live in Evanston and have an easy, car-free commute.

The stores and shops that took advantage of tax incentives in the redevelopment built loyal customer bases from people who could come home from work and shop there without jumping in the car. On the weekends, they could go to parks, do their chores, watch their kids’ games, and do anything else required of them, all on foot. Evanston always had enormous, but isolated, wealth on the lakefront and near the university, and areas of poverty, but thanks to its creative redevelopment, it now had a thriving and upwardly-mobile middle class.

This should be your goal when selling off government buildings. It won’t do to just open one store if an area is in great need. Mixed-use buildings and affordable housing provide tremendous incentive for both younger, more environmentally-conscious residents, and older professionals who don’t want to deal with a commute. You should consult with your city planners, local officials, neighborhood residents, and other experts to find the best way to build a TOD, even if you don’t immediately have the requisite transit.

Creating a new neighborhood

The goal of this is not just to broaden a tax base, but to invent a neighborhood. The idea of neighborhoods is as old as the city, but in the middle of the last century, it began to decline. Now there is a chance to rebuild that idea. When people know the clerks at the store or the kids of their barber, they tend to stay, and want to build. When they live in a neighborhood that offers them convenient commutes without sacrificing either the necessities or the pleasures of life, they tend to put down roots.

That should be your goal when selling off government buildings. You have a chance to strengthen your city by creating a transit-oriented development zone that is not only economically fruitful and environmentally sustainable, but one the creates its own growth through loyalty, stability, and a newfound sense of community.

If you need to sell a government building, there is no need to go it alone. Turn to a real estate company that understands how to build neighborhoods and will help you in your goal of revitalizing a community. Contact DCG today to get started.