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We have been documenting the before-and-after transformations of these low-density, auto-dependent, single-use suburban formats into urban places and the roles of the public and private realms in affecting these changes.4 Some of the changes have in fact been incremental and indicative of both gradual demographic shifts and public efforts to induce change. For instance, every one of the original Levittowns has added not only countless additions to individual houses but also multi-unit housing for seniors as inhabitants have aged. A decade after Boulder, Colorado, revised zoning and setback regulations along suburban arterials, new mixed-use buildings with sidewalk cafés appear cheek by jowl with older carpet-supply stores set behind large parking lots.
Across the country those older stand-alone retail buildings are also increasingly being adaptively reused for community-serving purposes. A dozen Wal-Marts were converted to churches between 2002 and 2005.5 La Grande Orange in Phoenix is a reborn strip mall whose locally owned restaurants and shops have become so popular that it has its own T-shirts and is regularly mentioned as a selling point in real estate ads for the neighborhood. Daly Genik Architects made an L-shaped mini-mall into the award-winning courtyard-focused Camino Nuevo Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles, with plans (largely realized) for converting more buildings on the block into schools. The addition of sidewalks and pervious public green space figured into both Meyer, Scherer, and Rockcastle's elegant transformation of a Food Lion grocery store into the North Branch Public Library in Denton, Texas (see figure 1) and The Beck Group's award-winning conversion of a Super Kmart into His Hands Church in Woodstock, Georgia. Many other vacant big box stores have been converted to call centers and office space — including the headquarters for Hormel Foods which includes the Spam Museum in a former K-Mart in Austin, Minnesota. There are countless additional examples of this kind of recycling that show welcome but minor improvements to the physical and social infrastructure.6
However, retrofitting's greater potential goes well beyond incremental adaptive reuse or renovation. By urbanizing larger suburban properties with a denser, walkable, synergistic mix of uses and housing types, more significant reductions in carbon emissions, gains in social capital, and changes to systemic growth patterns can be achieved. On emissions alone, new research asserts that “It is realistic to assume a 30% cut in VMT with compact development.”7 The key to achieving this target is the appropriate balancing of uses so that, once on site, residents, shoppers, office workers, and others can accomplish several everyday tasks without getting back in their cars. This allows mixed-use New Urbanist greyfield retrofits to routinely achieve projections of 25 to 30% internal trip capture rates. In turn, this means that a balanced, walkable mixed-use project will generate 25 to 30% fewer net external trips on nearby roads than a conventional project of equivalent density.8 Such “capturing” of internal trips is dependent upon achieving the critical mass associated with instant cities, not with incremental changes to the suburban pattern. Are these projections to be trusted? Atlantic Station, an example of compact mixed-use development adjacent to midtown Atlanta on a former steel mill site, is generating far greater reductions in VMT than initial estimates projected. In a region where the average employed resident drives sixty-six miles a day, employees in Atlantic Station are driving an average of 10.7 miles a day and residents an average of eight miles a day.9