The 15-Minute City Is Coming, Even In Car-Crazy Texas
Yet experts say these “hyperproximate” communities are coming eventually — even to car-centric Dallas, Houston and Austin, driven by pandemic shifts in how people live and work, new lifestyle demands from rising generations, and climate imperatives the building and design community must start reckoning with.
The concept calls for development that enables residents to live within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or transit ride of everyday needs like grocery stores, restaurants, schools, workspaces, healthcare facilities, parks and green spaces, and essential services. That might not seem a natural fit for the Lone Star State, with its wide-open spaces and sparse public transportation infrastructure. But developers and design professionals are slowly coming around to the idea many say is inevitable and are taking steps toward a more local and connected future.
Multifamily developers are starting to do their part to implement much of this within apartment buildings. In some cases, it’s small things, like reducing parking availability or eliminating it altogether, shrinking apartment floor plans below 500 SF while adding community-friendly amenities like retail, art galleries and bike lounges, and creating outdoor spaces that are wired for WiFi and offer built-in ports for electronics so residents can work and recreate unconfined by walls. In others, it is entire communities inspired by French academic and new urbanist Carlos Moreno’s vision for the 15-minute city.
“One of my favorite projects right now is a project in Austin called East Village,” Hitchcock Design Group Senior Principal Trent Rush said at the DFW Bisnow Multifamily Annual Conference on Nov. 16 in Dallas. East Village is a $1B, 425-acre mixed-use project rising across from Samsung’s headquarters in the city’s Tech Ridge area. “When you're talking about the 15-minute city, being able to create and curate this 400-acre activity hub out in the suburbs, where you can get all your services — it's going to have 1,800 units of multifamily, a ton of commercial, restaurants, three hotels and 1M SF of office — it literally is going to be live, work and play out in the suburbs.”
In Dallas and other Texas locales, new developments are beginning to take cues from the 15-minute city model in areas that are walkable and offer plenty of nearby shopping, restaurants, entertainment and green space. Rush has noted a trend toward less parking in new multifamily developments and pointed to one project five minutes away from the Central Business District where developers cut parking spaces in half mid-project and another in San Antonio that was completed with no parking at all and was nearly immediately fully leased.
Leaning on this concept allows developers to build much smaller apartments, in some cases units of 400 SF or less.
“Millennials, they like that 15-minute city concept, and if you can provide them the restaurants, the nightlife, the pop-ups, the parks and the open space within that 15-minute walk, they'll live in a 350-400 SF unit because they're going to spend most of their time outside enjoying the city,” Rush said.
Douglas Elliman Texas CEO Jacob Sudhoff is seeing the same thing, and said some of the firm’s developer clients are even buying hotels in dense, urban areas and adapting them into small multifamily units. Sudhoff said he thinks many developers are stuck in the past, developing 850 SF one-bedroom units one after the other, but demographic research conducted by Douglas Elliman has identified a major gap in the market for what he called “true efficiencies” of 350 to 550 SF.
“When you dig into the research of it, you're actually going to find out that there's a need for the 450 SF units and you're actually going to get a higher price per SF for those,” he said, adding one project he is involved with near Houston’s Texas Medical Center is seeing small efficiencies rent for more than $4.20 per SF versus about $2.86 per SF for an average one-bedroom unit.
The live, shop and work local lifestyle is also showing up in the mix of amenities renters are demanding, said BKV Group partner Jonathan Delcambre, who has been involved in a number of office to small apartment conversions.
“One thing that is changing is thoughtful design,” Delcambre said. “Our projects usually start with involvement in the community, really understanding the community, and how this building fits into the fabric of what we can give them, how we can partner with them, in some instances bringing in pop-up retail, like local coffee shops, local bike shop operators … and more and more of these are becoming more mixed-use now with people working remotely and the office being embedded into it.”
Some of the appeal of the 15-minute city is based on nearly two years of living with a pandemic, according to Moreno, its most famous proponent, who argues the crisis altered the way people work, travel, consume and socialize. There will be no going back, he told the BBC.
“Many people never visited shops close to their homes before because they were busy,” he said. “They didn't know their neighbors or the parks nearby. The pandemic made us discover this. We have rediscovered locality, and this has improved quality of life.”
A new generation demanding a new kind of living experience is also driving the movement, panelists said. Generation Z and younger millennials are willing to trade parking and roomy apartments for accessibility to lively urban life and an array of shared features like indoor and outdoor workspaces, a variety of lounge areas, a mix of on-site retail and quirkier amenities from dog washing stations to valet cupboards in each unit to allow e-commerce deliveries.
To attract these renters, Hitchcock Design Group designed exterior spaces with Instagrammable moments in mind, making sure residents and settings would look their best in iPhone photos at a 16:9 aspect ratio, Rush said. Delcambre said projects he’s involved with have infused spaces with the best of the hospitality industry, giving them the feel of high-end hotels with plenty of spaces to people-watch as residents work and socialize. And Sudhoff said developers are working hard to “activate spaces,” whether that means hiring a DJ for the pool area, launching an on-site art gallery or putting in gaming centers “for those young folks that just love to stay up until 2:00 in the morning playing games.”
“It's that socialization aspect,” Bright Realty CEO Chris Bright said. “The younger people in our organization are having to teach some of us that this is part of what the design needs to incorporate today.”
Another goal of the 15-minute city concept is cutting greenhouse emissions by reducing the need to use a car for most errands. The average U.S. citizen spent more than 200 hours a year commuting in 2018, with passenger vehicles accounting for more than 45% of all transport emissions, according to earth.org.
Not everyone believes metros made up of 15-minute cities are right around the corner or that they can do much to help save the planet in the short term, however. Bright called the model “more of a thought process than an actual achievable thing in today's marketplace,” noting, for instance, he has not personally seen any slackening of demand for parking spaces, with new projects still in the 1.5 to 1.6-vehicle-per-unit range in DFW.
“I would like to see that trend happen, but we're not seeing it so far,” he said. He said solving the region’s transportation deficiencies is key to the future of true hyperlocal living. “I've heard all the stuff about cars and the Ubers … But it was supposed to happen three years ago, it was supposed to happen five years ago. We've watched the autonomous car deal in Frisco that they abandoned, we've watched all of these types of things, and I'm still seeing people in their cars.”
Bright said he believed it would take at least a decade to separate urban Texans from their vehicles. Others countered the influx of new residents from the coasts, especially California, which accounts for the bulk of corporate relocations pouring into the state, could bring change even faster.
Delcambre said new residents to the state expect true live-work-play environments. And they are willing to pay top dollar to live in walkable communities that reduce dependence on cars.
“Unfortunately, Dallas seems to be a bit behind that curve,” he said. “It's not as progressive as Austin or Minneapolis or areas on the West Coast,” he said. “So I think until Dallas really embraces that, and it really focuses on these nodes and density, there's going to be a challenge.”