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Can Mixed-Use Developers Break Into New York's Suburbs?

George Washington University Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis chair Christopher Leinberger

Members of New York's development community are embracing the idea of walkable growth in the city's suburbs.

Developers, an economist and the director of a New York community group gathered to discuss the exhaustive George Washington University School of Business Center for Urban Development and Analysis study that found only 2.5% of the Tri-State region's land is walkable urban at the presentation of the report's findings at 4 World Trade Center this week.

The report served more as a plan of action and rallying cry for developers to focus their energy more on downtowns of rail-linked suburbs, rather than in the already walkable New York City center of the region. It called for a breakup in urban planning circles with the suburban/urban dichotomy of thinking, instead focusing on development centered on improving local walkability.

Although the report identifies Chinatown as the most walkable area of the region, Asian Americans for Equality equality fund director Isabelle Leighton warned that the demand for walkable space is causing urban gentrification, and Chinatown is gentrifying very quickly.

"Citywide we have seen that over the last 10 years, rents in New York City have increased by 22%," Leighton said. "But in gentrifying places, that number is 35%."

Additionally, Leighton said she wants to see more services for low-income people to go with walkability in increasing high-density housing along transit corridors.

Taconic CEO Charles Bendit

Taconic Investment Partners CEO Charles Bendit said he took particular interest in the finding that real estate values in walkable areas were on average two and a half times the value of drivable suburban areas. The developer and real estate operator said that he has observed firsthand the mismatch of demand for walkable and drivable suburban real estate.

"I have not seen any change in office rents in many New Jersey suburbs and Westchester in the last 30 years," Bendit said. "But my firm bought a building in New York City in the 1980s which first rented for $45/SF that now fetches nearly $400/SF. That shows the incredible demand for walkable real estate."

Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson

Redfin economist Nela Richardson said she endorsed the report's finding that walkable development leads to social equity. She said social equity means everyone living in a community has access to opportunity and an ability to take advantage of regional economic growth.

"We have to frame this into an economic issue, rather than an affordable housing issue," Richardson said. "The pie is growing bigger, but we are making it so that people who work can't afford the pies."

Neighborhoods in the United States most open to people of all walks of life need to have the most diverse housing types. Richardson used Takoma Park, Md., as an example for others to follow; the community has the most varied housing stock and it close to Washington, DC.

While the development community could be eager to branch out with walkable development, it seems there is a lot of public education to do before the findings of the report become accepted by the greater community especially, those in suburbs who may not want to see change.

"We need to go to these communities and transform NIMBY into YIMBY," GWU CREUA chair Christopher Leinberger said.