Mixed-use urban living

Aug 14, 2017

Smaller housing within walking distance to essentials and amenities is appealing to both the young and the old.

We’re listening closely to the market desires for our West 2nd District Project here in Reno. We’re observing some interesting trends relating to millennials and retirees.

A significant number of new jobs, many of them with technology firms (e.g., Tesla, Panasonic, Apple, Google, Switch, etc.), are being filled by bright, young millennials relocating from California and other states. Most of these transplants are coming from urban settings. They are not coming from single-family homes, but from apartments or condominiums in cities, where they can walk to their favorite café, a grocery store, a pharmacy, the hair salon or barber shop, and other conveniences that make for an attractive lifestyle.

And, we’ve had many inquiries from the older segment of our population whose children have left the family home, which is larger than the empty-nesters want to maintain at this stage of their lives. While they also claim to need a garden to putter in, most of them (like my wife who mourned the loss of her garden when we moved into a high-rise Reno condominium) rapidly adapt to the beauty of no-yard-to-take-care-of, no-gardener-to-pay, and no-sprinklers-to-maintain. There’s lots to say for the freedom to lock-it-up and go traveling for a while.

That’s what is being planned for West 2nd District, including a much more walkable planning pattern. We hadn’t expected the immense interest we’re seeing from (about-to-be or already-are) retired baby boomers. Like many cities in America, Reno has a dramatic shortage of this urban, mixed-use pattern of development. And by walkable, I don’t mean a gridiron street plan where pedestrians and automobiles often make for an uncomfortable interface. In West 2nd, we’re closing a number of streets, making them into paseos with fountains and sidewalk restaurants and public plazas. All parking structures will be fed from the perimeter to avoid pedestrians having to wait for cars entering or exiting the parking garages.

We’re finding there is a finite time for this generation of seniors to live in their new urban home. There’s a robust market for active senior housing, smaller in scale, with a different set of services. We’re curious about whether old and young people are okay living in the same neighborhood.

The condominium my wife and I live in has 380 units with a broad age demographic, from college students and young professionals to seniors like us. And, by the way, everything in between. We have a few families in the building with school-age children. We’re a pet-friendly environment with lots of diversity. It makes for lively conversations and friends that cross generations. What our building lacks, though, is that walkable, urban setting. We’re on a busy street. Sidewalk cafés and restaurants are blocks away, and there are few retail convenience shops. Finally, 10 years after the building was completed, a small grocery store is being built across the street.

I’m seeing an increase in demand across the country for this mix of uses and planning pattern. As we look at other projects around the Reno area, we’re hearing people speak positively about what West 2nd District promises. The community is debating how these characteristics can be incorporated into lower-density housing and retail developments. Most of our buildings range from 10 to 25 stories, with one 40-story tower in the center. Can these same amenities find their way into a four- to six-story environment? We believe so, and are beginning to study a few suburban sites that can be anchored around a village center with many of the conveniences and a small grocery store, and an environment that provides the same walkability attraction as the central-city development.

As autonomous vehicles begin to displace the need for a three-car garage (two cars plus a boat), we think the pattern is going to shift, and walkability – to the grocery store and other conveniences we drive to today, as well as work and school – will become a more desirable way to live than the current pattern of suburban tract houses with wide streets and sidewalks no one ever walks on.

Let me know what you’re seeing in your city. If you have good examples of these patterns, send them to me. I’ll accumulate them and publish them in some form.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.

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