Rebuilding the fabric of inner cities has been a passion of mine since understanding the power of design and infill development-more specifically small-scale infill development. Small-scale infill can be classified as projects comprising less than 100 housing units and fewer that 10,000 square feet of commercial space. There a several definitions for this type development but it is my personal favorite. In the recent issue of Urban Land Magazine (City Futures, March/April 2010), Sam Newberg wrote an excellent piece entitled “Little Infill”. In his piece, he notes that 20 million attached housing units will be needed by 2025 and that some 3 million acres of greyfield sites will become available for redevelopment.
“They [small infill developments] are favorites of the planning and development industry for their compact urban scale, innovative design, and positive impact as catalysts for their neighbors.” Sam Newberg, Joe Urban, Inc.
I’ve long championed infill development, especially in smaller, less developed cities. Migration patterns have already begun shifting back to urban centers and smaller cities are positioned to take advantage of these trends. Small mixed-use infill projects do not fit most institutional investor business models. To date, I haven’t seen any REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) that focus on this segment of the market. Project cost can vary widely dependent upon product and construction type. Location also is a large factor. Cities where infill development is more prominent, financing may be less of a challenge to secure versus others where suburban (greenfield) projects are given priority. Greenfield projects are understood, safe and, in the bank’s view, offer less risk.
In an interview with Tom Powell, advertising executive and developer, he provided insight into how he found success in his development East Point Plaza. The project houses his ad agency’s offices, has 32 apartment units, street level retail and has a programmable plaza. Powell needed more space for his ad agency and his search lead to this development. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity”, says Powell. East Point is the first private investment into the Fairground community in several decades. The project cost $4.1 million to restore. It’s Downtown Suffolk, VA location is literally ‘on the other side of tracks’ and pushes redevelopment into an underserved community. Powell noted the tax credit application process took longer than actual construction which began March 2009. Occupancy permits were issued in January 2010. Commonwealth Architects served as lead designer and produced a very innovative and efficient design both the community and city embraced.
East Point Plaza and other projects like it will become more popular as the migration back to cities continue. There may be a learning curve in many communities where density is often looked upon negatively. However, if cities begin to educate and show their support of infill development, developers are likely to fall in line. In my experience developers often take the most profitable route toward a project and if there are incentives in place to make small-scale infill more attractive, we’ll be seeing more of it in our cities. Are there are any communities in your city that have been impacted positively by an infill project?