The Rise of the “Urban Burb”

Options for sprawl repair

It’s 2019 and as dedicated trend seekers what do we see?

Well, here’s one prediction based on what we are reading and seeing.

Look for the rise of the “hipsturburbia” or “urban burb”—suburbia with a touch of the city meaning walkability, mixed use development and multi-family housing.

As the Urban Land Institute says: “The first phase is millennials moving to the suburbs for larger, more affordable homes and access to schools, so adequate single-family and multifamily housing will be necessary. Retail follows rooftops, so retail development to meet the new residents’ requirements will follow. Finally, you may begin to see more emphasis on employment centers as residents decide they want to work closer to where they live.”

Sounds good. It also sounds logical.

Pick your nickname but the trend of urban suburbs is playing out all around us.

Consider The Delray Marketplace (which would be so much better with housing), a slew of urban (lite) “lifestyle centers” in Broward County and future plans for places like the old IBM campus in Boca, the old Office Depot headquarters in Delray and the prospective rezoning of the Boynton Beach Mall. All are moving toward a walkable, mixed use environment in which people can live, work and play as they say.

Live, work and play has become a bit of cliché, but there’s a lot of wisdom and traction in the concept.

As the world becomes more technology dependent, there is a blending going on. If you are like me and many others, our work life doesn’t end when the whistle blows at 5 p.m. anymore. We are accessible before and after traditional office hours and business is conducted at all sorts of hours.

My colleagues at Celsius, the Boca-based beverage company, work all sorts of hours as they interact with partners and distributors in China, Sweden and other parts of the globe. As a result our lives tend to meld—we live, work, learn and play wherever we are these days so doesn’t it make sense to make these activities convenient, walkable and accessible.

While I was born in borough of New York City, I spent the majority of my childhood living on the North Shore of Long Island. Levittown—America’s prototypical suburb—was a short car ride away. In fact, we lived mostly– in Levitt Homes—in traditional suburban neighborhoods in which everything we did required a car.

It was an idyllic life in those days and traditional suburbia certainly has its attraction. But it’s also the definition of urban sprawl, not great for the environment, not the most efficient use of finite land and designed for cars not people. As a result, urban planners often frown on the traditional suburbs blaming it for congestion, sedentary lifestyles and even segregation.

As a result, some cities are responding with policies to promote more diversity, density, affordability and sustainability. Minneapolis recently banned single family zoning districts—a remarkable policy that will promote duplexes, triplexes and other forms of housing in once traditional suburban neighborhoods. It will be interesting to see how the policy plays out in the real world.

I’m a fan of New Urbanism which is really a throwback to how cities were traditionally designed before suburbia became so popular. New Urbanism promotes walkability, a mix of uses and supports density as long as it’s well designed.

So I cheer the advent of urban burbs or “hipsterburbias”—even if the brand names are borderline obnoxious. I do question how many “mini downtowns” markets can absorb especially with the headwinds facing retail these days.

While big box generic retail seems to be a goner these days (so long Sears, Kmart etc.) experiential retail is all the rage. But again….how many retailers will be talented enough to give us enduring experiences and how many location can they serve?

As we begin 2019, it will be interesting to see where this all headed. Two things we can count on: first, the innovators will find a way to succeed and second it is becoming far riskier to offer the same old, same old. The times are changing and the bar has been raised. That’s a good thing.





Walkability: The Killer App

The Beatles understood walkability and walked eight days a week.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal last week that went viral.
The piece talked about how “walkability” has become the hot new rage in car-centric LA.

The reporter wrote about how walkable neighborhoods and developments are fetching higher prices and have become a top preference of baby boomers, millennials and just about anyone who can fork over a fortune on housing close to shops, dining and cultural amenities.
In other words, what we have in downtown Delray Beach.

Our walkability is not only desirable and unique in sprawling suburban South Florida it has created value for neighborhoods within striking (or golf cart) distance of the downtown.
And yet, while we as people value walkability for the quality it brings to our communities, we sure put up a fuss when it comes to enacting policies to enable it.

As a result, there is a shortage of such neighborhoods– not only in LA, but in Florida and all points in between. Because of a limited supply of walkable neighborhoods, everything from housing to commercial rents have skyrocketed in urbanized spaces.  It’s the simple law of supply and demand: when there is more demand than supply prices spike. Hence $100 rents on Atlantic Avenue and really high prices on downtown condos in Delray, Boca and yes LA.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Why can’t we enact policies to encourage more walkable and bike friendly neighborhoods?
After all, walkability is sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Well…in order to create walkable neighborhoods you can’t have policies that preference the car. You need policies that encourage the pedestrian.
Usually that means compact and dense development, the opposite of sprawl.
Hence, the angst.
Sadly,  has become a dirty word and that’s a shame. Because density done well, density deployed strategically creates magical places. It’s all about urban design and placemaking.

But many communities get caught up in a numbers game instead of a form or design based discussion. As a result, they fight density and perhaps unwittingly support policies that preference the auto over the person. They also– I believe unwittingly–support expensive and ultimately unsustainable development. The Strong Towns movement is devoted to lifting the veil on this issue and teaching communities that by promoting sprawl they are hastening their financial ruin. They offer case study after case study using basis math to prove their thesis. To learn more, visit but fair warning, you can get lost in their website, it’s that good.

Another stumbling block is parking. So much development is driven by parking.
Parking requirements drive design and uses and because structured parking is expensive, we often end up with a sea of asphalt, hardly conducive to placemaking and walkability.
The developers I know struggle mightily with this, especially since we keep reading about automated vehicles and about how the advent of self driving cars will free of us of the tyranny of the parking lot/expensive deck.
Alas, we are not there yet. And the last thing you want to be is “under parked” which makes it hard for projects to succeed.
It’s just not easy.
And yet…
We should try.

Try to learn lessons from Donald Shoup widely regarded as one of the best minds in parking around. He came to Delray a few years back and reminded us that there is no such thing as free parking. Somebody’s paying for it. If you pay taxes, guess what? It’s you.

We should also try to embrace the idea that design and form mean more than numbers and that prescriptive codes won’t allow for creativity and will hinder investment not encourage it. But form based codes enable great design if we push developers, planners and architects. And if we educate elected officials.
Walkability and placemaking are possible. But only if we aspire, incentivize (through zoning, not cash) and insist on it.

Remembering someone special

There has been a lot of loss lately. It least it seems that way to me anyway.

Last weekend, we attended a memorial service honoring the life of Susan Shaw who spent 7 years working for the Delray CRA.

Susan was the first person you saw if you went to the CRA’s offices on Swinton Avenue and the cheerful voice you heard if you called the agency.

She retired only a few weeks ago, took a bucket list trip to New Zealand, posted wonderful photos on Facebook, came home, took ill and sadly passed away.

The news devastated her family, friends and colleagues who considered her family.

Susan was a vibrant, friendly, warm soul with a great spirit. She volunteered at the Caring Kitchen and was devoted to animal rescue. She was also active at Unity Church.

Her fellow prayer chaplains and friends gave her a wonderful send off at her memorial. Unity is a special place. The sanctuary is spectacular and the warm feeling you get when you enter the church defies description. It was an apt place to celebrate Susan Shaw.

CRA Director Jeff Costello gave one of many touching talks about Susan. And it reminded me that it takes so many parts to make a village work.

Susan Shaw wasn’t a department head, her photo won’t hang on the walls at City Hall, but she was a vital part of a team. A team dedicated to building community.

She will be missed by all who knew her.


When Building a Vibrant City Each Thread Counts

Editor’s Note: Please keep a close watch on Hurricane Irma. Be vigilant and be prepared.

“There’s an energy New York pulls out of people. Nowhere else has this kind of energy. It always feels like there is something going on that you want to be a part of.” Gregory Zamfotis, founder Gregory’s Coffee.

When it comes to building great cities and great places, energy and vibrancy is the holy grail.
It feels good to be in a place where something desirable is going on.
Sure there are times when we seek solitude and great places offer that as well.
But you need both. You need energy and a place to renew.

Although I haven’t traveled as widely as I once hoped, I find myself gravitating to places that offer energy and solitude.
Asheville has a vibrant downtown  but in minutes you can be in the mountains.
Portland, Maine feels like a big little city but in minutes you can find peace along the beautiful Coast.
Boulder, Colorado offers an amazing downtown ringed by golden mountains.

Delray Beach is similarly blessed.
We have energy. It seems like a fun and vibrant place. There’s a lot going on.
But if you want to hide,  there are spots on the beach and in Lake Ida Park and out west at the Morikami or the Wakadohatchee where you can disappear and find a quiet place to walk, read and think.
We are truly blessed.

But it takes vision and effort and planning and investment to create an energetic city. And once created you have to tend to your city, like a garden.
You need the right scale, the right mix of businesses to make it work. You also need art and music and culture and great parks too.
It needs to be walkable, safe, clean and authentic.

You need festivals and restaurants and sidewalk cafes and you need the intangibles too.  The intangibles make all the difference.
Strong local leadership, a shared community vision, creative problem-solving, and ideally an inclusive economy. You also need cross sector collaboration and a set of civic values.
Sound hokey? Well, try building a great place without those things.

You simply can’t.

The Attraction of Walkability


There was a great article posted recently in the Huffington Post by noted urbanist Kaid Benfield.

The article talked about the increasing desire of home buyers and renters who want to live in walkable neighborhoods near urban amenities.

But Benfield, who interviewed several real estate brokers lamented that in many communities, there simply wasn’t enough product to meet the demand and more worrisome is that many cities fight policies that would promote more walkable neighborhoods. They really shouldn’t.

If you think that a desire to live where you can walk to stores, offices, services, restaurants and cultural amenities is going away—guess again.

Millennials prefer urban amenities more than their predecessors: 50 percent consider it “very important” to be within an easy walk of places “such as shops, cafes and restaurants,” according to the results of a nationwide survey released earlier this year by the National Association of Realtors and Portland State University. Among baby boomers, the portion considering walkability to be very important is 38 percent.

According to Benfield: “Earlier survey research has found that 31 percent of millennials want to live in a core city, as opposed to only 15 percent of baby boomers and 18 percent of generation X. (Forty-two percent of millennials prefer living in a suburb, and 25 percent prefer living in a small town or rural setting.) But, even if they want to live in a suburb, most millennials still want walkability; 71 percent of all millennials reportedly want their home neighborhood to be walkable. Moreover, seventy-eight percent are looking for diversity; this is a generation that grew up with more diversity than its predecessors and has come to expect it where they live, in housing types and in the incomes and ethnicity of their neighbors.

It’s not just millennials who are driving demand for walkable neighborhoods, of course. In addition, a large number of baby boomers – the second largest generation in American history – are seeking new places to live as they downsize, and many of them, too, want to be able to walk to shops and amenities.”

Writing in the Washington Post reporter Ylan Q. Mui put it this way: “Roughly 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each day, and recent data show that half of those who plan to move will downsize when they do. Many are seeking the type of urban living that typically has been associated with young college graduates — so much so that boomers are renting apartments and buying condos at more than twice the rate of their millennial children.”

So what is a walkable neighborhood? Benfield says it has three characteristics:


  • Well-connected streets: The smaller the block size, and the more intersections, the better. This makes potential travel routes shorter, more direct, and frequently safer, since well-connected neighborhood streets can provide quieter alternatives to walking along high-speed arterial roads
  • Things to walk to: Simply put, people walk more when they have places they want to go within walking distance. Research has also shown that people who live in neighborhoods where homes are accessible to shopping walk more and actually weigh less, on average, than residents of automobile-dependent neighborhoods, even when other potentially relevant factors such as age, income, and ethnicity are discounted in the analysis.
  • Good infrastructure for safe walking: Sidewalks are important, as well as safe street crossings and nearby motor vehicle traffic moving at nonthreatening speeds.

Sadly, Benfield says these types of neighborhoods are scarce, mostly found in inner cities and there are not enough of them being built to meet demand.

Benfield recommends using form based codes and LEED for Neighborhood Development to foster walkable neighborhoods.

Form based codes de-emphasize the regulation of building uses and focus instead on the size and positioning of buildings and their physical relationship to each other and to public spaces such as streets and sidewalks. As the Form-Based Codes Institute puts it, building form standards regulate things such as “how far buildings are from sidewalks, how much window area at minimum a building must have, how tall it is in relation to the width of the street, how accessible and welcoming front entrances are, and where a building’s parking goes.”

The idea is to create rather than inhibit a walk-friendly environment. A Form Based Code is less concerned with separating uses and shies away from prescriptive rules in favor of a how a neighborhood should look and feel. Delray Beach’s Downtown Master Plan came close to this ideal, but the most recent effort to update the downtown land development regulations—while originally sold as a form based effort—actually took a step back by becoming more prescriptive. Its failings were painfully evident when a new Aloft Hotel on US 1 proposed a 600 foot wall (two football fields) and it fell within the new code. A form based code would have prevented that scenario; unless of course you hoped to design a canyon.

LEED ND establishes criteria for development that prioritizes things like access to shops and services, streets and sidewalks that interface with buildings to create a comfortable walking environment, transit access, efficient use of land, affordable housing, and environmentally sensitive building practices. Planned or built development meeting the system’s set of prerequisites and optional credits are “rated” and, if they qualify, rewarded with certification at the certified, silver, gold, or platinum level.

While scores of cities are using form based codes and LEED ND, there are many, many others that are not despite the market demand for walkable neighborhoods.

According to the Land Use Law Center, there are about 40,000 local governments and most have at least a few polices that serve as barriers to walkability.

Clearly, there is a lot of work to do, but an amazing market opportunity for cities and developers to identify neighborhoods where walkable communities can be created.

So where do we stand? Well, downtown Delray Beach is a “walker’s paradise” with a Walk Score of 91 on a scale of 1-100.

Overall, the city as a whole rates a 36, which means that if you live outside the downtown you are car dependent.

Boca Raton also scores a 36 overall, according to Walk Boca’s most walkable neighborhood is the Villa Rica apartments, which scores a 64 meaning residents of this eastern neighborhoods can access four restaurants within five minutes on foot.

We can do better.


Creating Livable Cities

Building Livable and Engaged Cities is the goal of the Knight Foundation.

Building Livable and Engaged Cities is the goal of the Knight Foundation.

I’m a huge fan of the Knight Foundation.

I wish we had more foundations that invested in our local communities.

Way back in 2001, when we were embarking on the downtown master plan, we were able to attract the support of the MacArthur Foundation. They not only paid for the creation of the plan, but they provided intellectual resources and connections that were invaluable.

Their local program leader, David Harris, was a big a fan of Delray Beach, and he encouraged us to expand our thinking by including the West Atlantic community and our northwest and southwest  neighborhoods in our vision for a sustainable downtown. MacArthur invested in some of our community leaders and as a result we travelled to conferences and events where we were able to connect with other communities and learn from their successes and their missteps.

Around this time, we had conversations with the Ford Foundation and a few other large and small groups who were intrigued by what they were seeing in Delray Beach. Our diversity, our ambition, our ability to work together impressed foundation leaders coast to coast. We were America in 16 square miles, with conditions that ranged from third world poverty to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

While we stayed close with MacArthur we never quite closed the deal with some of the others and that’s a regret, because a great foundation would have a field day with the promise and the potential that is Delray Beach.

Still, when we were building and visioning we made some connections that proved to be invaluable to our progress. One of those connections was an urban thinker by the name of Carol Coletta.

I discovered Carol through her radio show “Smart City” which was a weekly talk show on NPR that spotlighted the best of what was happening in cities around the country. One of my greatest thrills was appearing on Smart City where I was able to tell a national audience about what we were working on as a team here in Delray.

When we decided to do a Cultural Plan, we engaged Carol whose firm had done landmark work in cities across the country. Carol and her team didn’t disappoint, the cultural plan was a great vision because it articulated Delray’s strengths and our place in South Florida’s cultural landscape.

Our brand was authentic and intimate—and Carol urged us not to compete with the Broward Center’s and Kravis’ of the world but to create experiences that people could not find in larger cities or larger venues. Her work, which was adopted by the City Commission a decade ago, inspired the Arts Garage and also influenced the evolution of the Delray Center for the Arts and one could argue the CRA’s decision to purchase the Arts Warehouse which has helped to grow “Artist’s Alley”, an amazing nook in our city near Third Street and Third Avenue.

That’s what visions do…they inspire, but they also take you in directions you never thought possible.

Last week, the Knight Foundation, where Carol now serves as Vice President for Community and National Initiatives, released a report on “Livable Cities”. It ought to be required reading for policymakers, city staff and all those who care about making their communities better.

Knight lists Four Pillars for Livable Cities. They are:

WALKABILITY: To design streets for everybody, design for pedestrians first – slow speeds, raised crosswalks. Next, make streets interesting for walkers.

BIKEABILITY: Success isn’t more Spandex; it’s a woman biking to a business meeting dressed exactly as if she were driving. First step:  Make bikers feel safe.

PUBLIC SPACES: Parks, walkable streets and other public places are great equalizers; they bring people together, and they can energize people through recreation.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: High-speed buses with dedicated lanes are the most cost-effective way to move people, though offering choices to commuters is best of all.

It’s a great list, isn’t it?

And all of the pillars come with suggestions and rationales for implementation.

For example, walkability:

Key Points

  • Lowering the speed of cars is essential. An accident at 20 mph has a 5 percent mortality rate; at 40 mph the mortality rate climbs to 85 percent.
  • Adding medians to streets lowers accidents by 56 percent.
  • Giving pedestrians the walk signal six to seven seconds before the light turns green makes them visible to turning cars.
  • Encouraging each block to have multiple establishments instead of long facades makes the streetscape friendly and interesting.
  • It’s possible to prioritize pedestrians and still allow cars, but prioritizing cars rarely works well for pedestrians.

The report concludes with a calculator that enables you to type in your city and receive a walkability and transit score on a scale of 0-100. Delray scores a 91 on walkability, Boca rates a 53, Boynton a score of 57 and West Palm leads the pack with a score of 95. All four cities score 0 on transit.

It’s a worthy read and we suggest you dive in by visiting:

Kudos to the Knight Foundation for their work.