Smart growth advocates tend to use the terms “redevelopment “ and “infill” interchangeably as if they are the same thing. They are not and this mistake is doing more to stop better growth patterns than support them. Moreover, big city planners who are used to redevelopment and infill serviing as shorthand for good corridor, node and small area planning might not realize how limited that definition is.
Redevelopment is typically thought of rebuilding anew where buildings once stood, or the renovation or expansion of an existing building. Redevelopment is typically preferred in areas supported by infrastructure and transit where individual property investments will feed into a larger economic response. Infill can include redevelopment, but also includes filling undeveloped gaps in the urban fabric where infrastructure exists.
In real life, however, the term “infill” is being used broadly – really broadly - to describe the full range of activity from building reuse to brand new development. The drawing below is a replica of a presentation I saw where a developer described his project between two cities sprawling towards each other as "infill."
So what’s so irritating about this?
- We are getting sprawl mislabeled as infill
- There is a suburban focus on pad sites and outparcels - For many planners in suburbia, putting a new bank or restaurant in the middle of a parking lot is infill. What’s wrong with that? The sale of an outparcel to CVS or McDonalds is one more property owner to deal with in the future when real planning takes place.
- We are wasting nodes– The focus on individual buildings and pad sites misses the most important point for successful infill: It’s not the building, it’s the collection of sites in a planning area and how they fit together on several scales (for the region the community and interaction with each other). The photo below shows a regionally important node (Bee Ridge and Beneva in Sarasota) surrounded by higher density housing and strip malls. A grocery store just replaced its auto-oriented footprint with a new store on the same footprint and a bank developed an outparcel. Millions of dollars to build suburban product just went into one of the best areas for coordinated planning. It will be a long time before any of these folks see a payoff in coming to the planning table.
- Skills to do coordinated planning languish – Great redevelopment brings suburbs into tough conversations. First, it means they will need to identify priorities and preferred redevelopment areas. This is ridiculously hard in suburbs for reasons I don’t fully understand even after 6 years in the community. Second, a community used to working on raw soil with one large land owner and impact fees need all new skills to coordinate multiple landowners, connect various properties and figure out who pays for what.
What do we need to do?
- We need to elevate the role of redevelopment planning areas in our conversations. Enough talk about "redevelopment" or "re-doing the strip mall." Suburbs are redoing strip malls - into new strip malls! The potential for retrofitting sprawl and sprawl repair is diluted with every drive-through bank and chain pharmacy that claims a key pad site in strip mall parking lots.
- We need to be clearer on the definitions along the redevelopment/infill gradient - from building rehabilitation to entire priority redevelopment areas. This includes the opportunity costs associated with a quick project that ends up stalling economically powerful areawide planning.
- We need to help the suburbs understand the shifts in skills, local politics, planning and infrastructure finance that come about with better planning. Likewise they need to help us understand their side of the table where pressure on local budgets means less planning and more quick turnaround projects.