Two decades after many millennials started moving downtown to be near their jobs, developers mastered what was needed to entice new urban dwellers: a good location, transit, retail, and swank multifamily buildings with amenities. Over time, all the development led to congestion and fewer affordable, close-in buildable sites. Apartment and condominium buildings became expensive for many. Developers and millennials alike asked the next question: Where now?
The answer was to look at suburban sites that were still available and affordable. And although many millennials avoided migrating to the suburbs as many of their parents had, they began to view the trek as palatable, if enough stars aligned: more square footage, outdoor space, walkable neighborhoods, good schools (for those who had children), and the same amenities once only available in cities and smaller metropolitan areas, says Mary Cook, a commercial interior designer and founder of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates. If their friends were willing to move, all the better. “Few want to move to the suburbs alone,” she says.
Though the emerging suburban hubs may never have the plethora of attractions that urban downtowns do, many have enough “pockets of urbanity” to make a dynamic, live/work/play life possible, says architect Joshua Zinder, of Princeton, N.J.–based firm JZA+D.
“They’re never going to resemble Los Angeles or other cities that big, but they can be pedestrian-friendly environments with enough going on,” says Jose Sanchez, DLR Group’s design lead focused on retail and mixed-use, who works in the firm’s Los Angeles office.
The phenomenon of a suburban locale with urban vibe earned the moniker “surban” from Irvine, Calif.–based John Burns Real Estate Consulting. As these sub-hubs multiply across the country, what’s clear is that no single prototype will work since suburbs vary from tiny communities with a single stoplight to large ones considered small cities. Yet, the locations most likely to thrive share the common denominator of being hybrids that borrow some parts from their lively urban counterparts and retain their bucolic and other suburban advantages.
To achieve this mix, developers are wise to heed the following seven lessons.