Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Ellen Dunham-Jones’ TED Talk on retrofitting suburbs into walkable communities recently came up among our contributors. Our region is an innovator and leader in this trend, and planners around the country can use a lot of what we’ve learned.

Dan Reed says there’s been some major progress since Dunham-Jones’ 2010 presentation:

The nation’s two biggest suburban retrofits are happening right here, in Tysons and White Flint. There are a few others around the country (Carmel near Indianapolis and Dublin near Columbus), but not many.

In places like the DC area, suburban retrofits are basically the default for new development: houses on small lots, a mix of house types, and recreating a street grid. New townhouse developments almost always have alleys now.

Pretty much every shopping mall in the region is either adding a mix of uses (Tysons, Columbia, Wheaton, Springfield), being redeveloped as a neighborhood (Landmark, White Flint), or at least exploring the possibility of one or the other (everyone else).

While earlier “suburban retrofits” had really traditional architecture (Bethesda Row, Reston Town Center) or fakey traditional architecture (Market Common at Clarendon, Downtown Silver Spring), you’re seeing more modern design. Mosaic District and Arts District Hyattsville are pretty good examples of that.

Payton Chung reminds us that these early examples show that retrofitting is, in a word, difficult:

Tysons and White Flint (plus others planned at, say, Landmark Mall) are also instructive because they show how slow and expensive the suburban retrofit process is. It may well prove to be a fine model for wealthy places with big investors who own the land and who have lots of resources for transportation improvements.

But that’s not the case everywhere. The gigantic approach not only tends towards blandness, but it’s highly prone to failure. A prior era of mega-scale retrofits gave our region some pretty awful places, like Crystal City and Watergate— and some, like Waterside Mall, that were so awful that they have already been re-retrofitted.

The current era of retrofits has given us University Town Center, where development stalled at an awkward stage.

Historically, great neighborhoods weren’t built all at once. Instead, they evolved slowly and incrementally, through many small investors’ actions, with time slowly erasing mistakes. Yet that approach is increasingly difficult because our neighborhoods have been given very sophisticated legal tools to resist change.

Dan Reed points to a more manageable, less pricey example:

You could call Arts District Hyattsville the anti-Tysons, as it shows how you could do a suburban retrofit on a much smaller (and less expensive) scale. The project itself is very small, just a few blocks in size, and with three-story rowhouses instead of 30-story towers.

Unlike Tysons, where development is occurring on big, privately owned parcels (which you would have for office parks and shopping malls, etc.), Arts District is taking place on a piece of land the City of Hyattsville assembled from a bunch of smaller parcels with different owners.

But the big innovation is what’s built there. Everything that’s in Arts District Hyattsville is stuff that already gets built in suburban places: wood-framed townhouses, one-story strip retail, mid-rise apartments - but was simply organized in an urban pattern with a street grid and the parking in back. The result is a place that was much simpler to build (though it still got hammered in the recession) but is still a good piece of urbanism. Germantown Town Center has a lot of similar characteristics.

“Good point,” says Chung, “but downtown Hyattsville had a relatively tight block pattern to start with since it was a streetcar suburb. For almost all other suburban sites,  the existing condition is superblocks. Infilling a street grid is tremendously expensive. Not every site is ready for that either, as University Town Center has amply shown.”

Matt Johnson adds some personal perspective on University Town Center:

I lived at University Town Center in 2007 and 2008, when the development was about a year old. One of its big problems is that it’s turned inward. The retail faces a small park in the center of the development, but residential and office development along Belcrest Road doesn’t have street-level retail and actually hides the retail from the front. Even pedestrians are hard-pressed to see the retail. Drivers never see it.

The development stalled mainly due to the recession. Despite a large student housing tower and several office buildings, there’s just not enough synergy to keep the retail alive.

The superblock nature of the area also hampers connectivity to the residential neighborhoods that surround it. Without that connectivity, the “town center” is more like a cul-de-sac, and most customers are expected to arrive by vehicle, as opposed to on foot or by transit, like might be the case in a real town center.

Still, University Town Center and the other areas around Prince George’s Plaza probably offer Prince George’s County’s best chance at a suburban retrofit in the near term.

Still, Dan Malouff says great retrofits are often about taking things a step at a time.

Look at the region’s existing major retrofit success stories. Places like downtown Bethesda and Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. They weren’t a single development. They had a grid of streets and Metro stops, so all they needed was the right zoning. With that, they developed one property at a time. That insulated them against sudden downturns, and helped them feel more authentic as urban places.

There are places in the region where that incremental approach is happening now. Look at the aging commercial corridors, like Columbia Pike in Arlington and Leesburg Pike in Falls Church. They’re becoming more urban one block at a time.

Ben Ross agrees, and frames the challenge ahead:

The incremental approach works with grid streets but not with superblocks. I think the country’s biggest unsolved planning problem (as distinct from political problems that prevent us from doing what we know how to do) is how to do suburban retrofits at more reasonable cost.

Do you have thoughts on retrofits in the area? Share them in the comments!