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With Town Center Projects, Can the Suburbs Challenge Cities Yet Again?

Chasing the widespread interest in city living, developers are exporting mixed-use urbanism to the suburbs and exurbs as "town center" projects, prompting Jonathan O’Connell to ask if "a city can be a city if it’s built in the middle of a cornfield."
September 10, 2012, 5am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Across America, builders are increasingly catching on to the value of the urban experience, and creating town center or "lifestyle center" projects (to the tune of 398 by the end of 2011) in suburbs, exurbs, and "on farmland alongside a highway." O'Connell looks at examples from around Washington D.C., such as the Village at Leesburg, where developers, "are aiming to replicate the culture and convenience of cities, minus their traffic and crime."

"Critics of town centers," contends O'Connell, "consider them soulless corporate replicas - no more real cities than Disney World's fairy-tale fiberglass-and-concrete showpiece is a real castle." As it becomes "harder to distinguish what makes a city a city," does it matter if every attempt to export mixed-use urbanism to the suburbs can't replicate the feel of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or U Street in D.C.?

"Developer and D.C. native Jair Lynch warned recently that suburban city-like centers could steal the District's thunder. 'Just like the suburbs kicked our butt on retail in the 1980s, that's exactly what's going to happen with these transit-oriented, urban neighborhoods that are coming up now,' he said." After all, says O'Connell, "At one point, even the most hardened and historic urban neighborhoods were shiny and new."

Developer Anthony Lanier, who "rebuilt Georgetown block by block," has a different perspective, however. "The feeling of walking down M Street in Georgetown or on U Street cannot be duplicated, Lanier argues, because these areas were built not by a developer with a singular vision but by time."


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Published on Friday, September 7, 2012 in The Washington Post
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