Suburban Blight

Austinites' Escape to the 'Burbs Backfires

Along Bowman Drive in Round Rock the fences get tagged, cleaned, re-tagged, and re-cleaned at a clip that wouldn't be shocking except that this is so obviously a suburb.

photograph by JOHN ANDERSON

"[Suburbia] is going to waste its land, despoil the very qualities that attract so many families to it, and turn it into a slum, miscellaneously peppered with houses, hot-dog stands, and factories.... We are well on the way to creating, often with official sanction, a man-made American mess." - Christopher Tunnard

This bit of 40-year-old punditry aptly describes what many likely think of as "suburban blight." That is, the term is repetitive; suburbs are by definition blighted; there is no charm or value to the tract home and highway strip. But that's not what this article is about. Instead, it's about good old-fashioned urban blight, relocated to the suburbs. Simply put, people and jobs and vitality are abandoning yesterday's American Dream communities, just as they decamped from the inner cities, decades ago, when the older suburbs' grass was still green. This is a big trend, and not really a brand new one. Austin is not exempt from it.

And what they're leaving behind - the tract home, the highway strip, old towns swallowed by sprawl - isn't amenable to the sorts of redevelopment traditionally applied to blighted urban areas. The jillions of studies and models, and zillions of public and private dollars, that have gone into fixing up inner cities, old "garden suburbs" from before WWII, or old small-town downtowns, don't offer a solution to the new suburban decline.

Current fashions in public policy and planning likewise leave the existing 'burbs high and dry. It's been decreed that postwar suburban development is "unsustainable," creates social divisions and dysfunctions, and should be discouraged in the future. It's been decided that we need regional models so urbs and 'burbs can work together to control their shared destiny. (That's what Tunnard, then-chair of the Yale planning department, argued for back in 1958.) New Urbanist and Neo-Traditional developments, mimicking the inner cities and old garden suburbs, have been envisioned as a new model - and, once in a while, actually built - in our growth zones. (Indeed, in the words of architect and eminence grise Vincent Scully, "the New Suburbanism might be a truer label... the most characteristic situation with which much of its work deals is a suburban one.")

All well and good. But what happens to the suburbs we have now, the unsustainable communities, now being victimized by the same mobility and transience, speculation and obsolescence, that gave them birth? Do we just blow them up, the way the Feds are now ceremoniously demolishing the urban-renewal projects of earlier decades? Or do we come up with a strategy, not to pepper the fringe with better suburbs, but to save the ones we have? And by the time we do, will there be anything left to save?

"As long as parts of the region can enjoy the benefits of a regional economy - its markets, transportation systems, and labor force - but exclude many of the region's social costs and responsibilities, resources and households with broad economic choices will naturally flow there." - Myron Orfield

Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator, has become famous for illustrating - with reams of data and elaborate maps - how 75% of most urban areas are being screwed by the other 25%. That 75%, of course, includes not just declining central cities but a lot of even-more-quickly declining suburban districts.

Orfield's analyses involve dozens of different variables, but you can get a glimpse of what's going on in Austin by looking at just one - median household income. Specifically, if you rank the 240 census tracts in the Austin metro area, from richest to poorest, and then look at how those rankings change over time, you can tell what neighborhoods are moving in which direction at what rate.

Nearly every block on this Round Rock street sports "For Sale" or "For Lease" signs. These neighborhoods were not built to be glamorous. Indeed, they were probably built to be disposable
photograph by JOHN ANDERSON

For present purposes, we're looking at data from 1990 (as reported by the census) and 1996 (a proprietary-data update by Strategic Mapping, Inc., a market-research firm whose Austin market study is available at the Austin History Center). Since this isn't such a long time, even relatively small changes in rankings can indicate a trend. By far the bulk of the 240 Austin tracts changed very little - one or two places - if at all. For a tract to move as much as eight places, up or down, was significant: only 25 tracts showed such pronounced movement.

And of those 25, the great majority - 21 - went down rather than up, which makes sense: If you have a tract with 100 average suburban homes, and you add 900 more just like them, the median household income likely won't change that much. To get serious upward movement, you have to redevelop lower-income neighborhoods into higher-income ones, which doesn't happen very often. Two of the four upwardly mobile tracts are actually ringers: tract 2.03, which includes Central Park (and the Triangle), and tract 16.06, the old Austin State School. The other two include downtown Georgetown and downtown Bastrop, both home to what in the inner city gets called "gentrification."

And where are the 21 downwardly mobile census tracts? In the old suburbs. If you define Central Austin (more liberally than we used to) as bounded by US183, Ben White, and MoPac, exactly one of the 21 tracts falls within the central city: 21.07, Pecan Springs. The folks there are mostly longtime African-American homeowners who are aging in place; in other declining tracts, though, people are leaving and being replaced by poorer people. (SMI also tracks turnover within census tracts, which bears this scenario out.)

The tracts that neighbor Pecan Springs to the east - 22.01 and 22.02, stretching out toward Lake Walter E. Long - saw the steepest decline between 1990-1996, followed closely by tracts in the southeast (particularly 24.12, Dove Springs). These are nonetheless suburbs, though poor ones, without the urban fabric and infrastructure that one finds in Central East Austin, Montopolis, or even St. Johns - and the absence of any of those census tracts from the list is worth noting.

There's a discernible belt of incipient suburban decline stretching just beyond the Central Austin boundaries, particularly just north of 183 and just south of Ben White (see map on page 16). But there are also some interesting outliers. For example, there's tract 19.02, which is bounded by Texas 71, Loop 360, and Barton Creek, and includes such famous pockets of poverty as Travis Country. And there are three tracts in Round Rock: two, 206.02 (along Sam Bass Road) and 215.03 (along Bowman Drive), well within the city limits, and one, 215.01, that surrounds the city to the north and east.

Though most of the declining tracts are within Austin, Williamson County actually presents a clearer picture of how suburban blight is created and, perhaps, how it's reversed. The Austin neighborhoods have the resources of a large and liberal city, with a diverse tax base and ample social services at their disposal. This isn't true in Williamson, where no community has enough money or power to control growth, let alone solve the problems that come with blight, even if the sociopolitical climate up there allowed for such things.

And Williamson offers up sterling examples of the Three Faces of Blight. There are the aforementioned neighborhoods in Round Rock, where residential decline is already visible at ground level. There's the 183 strip through Cedar Park, where older property is being drowned and discarded by the new mode of suburban commerce. And there's the city of Taylor, struggling with both the familiar problems of declining small towns and the newer problems of the have-not suburbs.

Gray areas are census tracts where the median income relative to the rest of the Austin area has declined most sharply since 1990.

"[These areas have] a mix of still viable residential neighborhoods and deteriorating highway commerce. The stores have moved to the malls... and with the deterioration of adjacent commercial property, the value of the residential neighborhoods is stressed by their comparison to newer suburban enclaves.... Prompt action is required before a large scale flight and decline in values follows the example of the inner city." - Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk

Most of the attention that NewUrbs and Neo-Trads (like Plater-Zyberk) have devoted to redeveloping existing suburbs has gone to places like Cedar Park. Drive up US 183 (Bell Boulevard), Cedar Park's main drag, and you can see why. At key crossroads - RR 620 just south of the city, site of Lakeline Mall and the Hog Farm, and FM1431 farther north - there's plenty of brand-new suburban retail, big-box stores, and power centers anchored by supermarkets and category-killers. Along these cross streets, builders are throwing up new, similar developments as fast as their little hands will let them.

And well west of 183, Cedar Park's burgeoning upper-middle-class residential districts, like Buttercup Creek and Cypress Creek, are likewise growing faster than bamboo. (Meanwhile, according to SMI's proprietary data, the older subdivisions in and around Cedar Park and Leander - census tracts 203.01 and 203.05 - have among the highest residential turnover, mostly outbound, in all of Metro Austin, surpassing even UT-student ghettos.) But in between these nodes, what is there? Prefab buildings and what the planners call "marginal" uses - roadhouses, low-rent fast-food, auto-service shops, suppliers to the building trades. The intersection of 183 and Brushy Creek Road well illustrates what Plater-Zyberk is talking about. Or, in the words of the locals, as quoted in the Cedar Park Comprehensive Plan: "183 looks `trashy' in places... the nicer parts of the City are not on 183... Cedar Park is misperceived as `fast food, warehouses, and trailer parks.'"

These are the businesses that routinely get killed by Wal-Mart and new strip centers, even more surely than the stores in old downtowns. Unlike the latter, no one is rushing to turn old corrugated-tin highway sheds into trendy coffeehouses or potpourri shoppes, not when they could instead locate in Lakeline Mall or on the square in Georgetown. And the new Cedar Parkers in Buttercup Creek have little use for their services, and ample opportunity to head for the swankier confines of Lakeline and beyond.

Normally, their fate would be clear: They get 'dozed, a new power-center takes their place, and then, 25 years from now (the age of Cedar Park), we have this discussion all over again.

That is, unless the intrinsic character of Bell Boulevard changes, which is what city leaders in Cedar Park would apparently like to happen. Their much-ballyhooed Town Center project, aiming to give Cedar Park a real downtown, is a step in this direction, one that echoes a well-established NewUrb pattern. One of the showpiece projects of the New Urbanism - designed by Plater-Zyberk and husband/partner Andres Duany, the royal couple of the Neo-Trads - is a place on Cape Cod called Mashpee Commons, which transformed a tired old strip mall into a "classic New England village." And similar shopping-mall rehabs have been crafted on the other coast by another NewUrb superstar, Peter Calthorpe.

Old and new Cedar Park: While residential suburban developments are sprouting west of Bell Boulevard (note the billboard), existing commercial property at Bell and FM1431 (Winkley's Tradin' Post) is for sale.

photograph by JOHN ANDERSON

Of course, what Cedar Park wants to do is not really re-development; the favored site for the Town Center, northeast of the 183/1431 crossing, is currently a greenfield, and the developers who overlap and adjoin it already have plans for shopping centers, hotels, apartments, and such. (Some of these are being redrawn to make them more compatible with a "downtown" concept.) So far, the Town Center has been pitched as a response to the Comprehensive Plan's calls for a "compact business district... convenient, a focus for activities." That is, more of a quality-of-life issue than an economic development one.

The two are, of course, inextricable, but they point in different directions. If the Town Center, and the parallel Comprehensive Plan goals for a more transit-oriented (i.e., light rail), mixed-use, and pedestrian-friendly city, come to happen, they should spur redevelopment of Bell Boulevard into something other than a chain of power-centers. Indeed, Cedar Park could even see some creative re-use of the actual buildings, low-end though they are. "There's always someone who can make a building work," says Williamson County real estate broker Ercel Brashear. "It's just a question of finding the right uses. The businesses between the big boxes may get killed, but the space itself doesn't."

But if - and this is a knock on a lot of New Urbanist projects - the ultimate goal is not to change the actual fabric, but simply the image and feel, of Cedar Park, then the Town Center could leave Bell Boulevard in worse shape than it is now. The "better" businesses and glamorous amenities that Cedar Parkers want would congregate in the new downtown, and the 183 strip would simply become the road to them, instead of a district in itself. Rather than reversing the incipient blight of Bell Boulevard, the new Cedar Park vision would instead, effectively, sweep it under the rug.

"Americans initially moved to the suburbs for privacy, mobility, security, and home ownership. What we have now is isolation, congestion, rising crime, pollution, and overwhelming costs... conditions which frustrate rather than enhance daily life." - Peter Calthorpe

In Round Rock, the most indicative signs of suburban blight are hard to hide. As everyone in Williamson County seems to know, Round Rock now has a gang problem, and its social needs and costs are growing rapidly. You can see this along Bowman Drive, where the fences get tagged with graffiti, cleaned, re-tagged, and re-cleaned at a clip that wouldn't be shocking except that this is so obviously a suburb.

The tagging isn't the only sign that all is not well along Bowman. The fences themselves sag and buckle and wobble like an ill-fitting foundation garment. And nearly every block in the neighborhoods that flank Bowman sports at least one, or two, or more "For Sale" or - worse yet - "For Lease" signs. One block has nine. The fact that many of the buildings are duplexes explains the high rental percentage, and speaks to the fact that these neighborhoods were not built to be glamorous. Indeed, they were probably built to be disposable.

That's ultimately why districts like Bowman Drive are the hardest nuts to crack in the suburban-blight basket. If the neighborhood were older, it would attract redevelopment interest from the This Old House crowd. (In other markets, even neighborhoods built in the 1950s are piquing the interest of the House Beautiful set.) If it were closer to where the action was, in Austin, it would become annexed to the central city and gentrified, as we're seeing in close-in neighborhoods like Dawson, Crestview, and Cherrywood, which in terms of housing stock aren't all that different from Bowman Drive.

Three census tracts in Round Rock (gray) have experienced a decrease in median income since 1990. Neighbors South of Bowman Drive are lobbying for improvements to keep the area sustainable.

If the houses were bigger and more amenity-laden, or built of better quality to start with, they'd be able to compete with new subdivisions being built by the likes of Kaufman and Broad, which promise twice the square footage at the same price. And if there were some sort of limit on growth, the market would tighten up and create a demand for even the least appealing neighborhood in Round Rock, which is what Bowman Drive has effectively become. To revisit our numbers: Usually, if a census tract gains very few new residents, it means it's well-established and that available housing is scarce. Bowman Drive has available housing in abundance, yet according to SMI, its tracts trail well behind most of the metro area in their number of new residents.

There are some small steps being taken toward making this part of northeast Round Rock more "sustainable," in the broad sense. The neighbors on the south side of Bowman have taken the initiative on getting at least some ground-level improvements - better street-lighting, more sidewalks, and so on - under way. In response to their lobbying, the City of Round Rock established a Neighborhood Improvement Project, sort of a low-fat version of Round Rock's existing neighborhood-planning process, to address these residents' concerns systematically. In periodic community meetings since the first of the year, "they've identified pages full of issues" for the city to tackle, says Round Rock senior planner Tim Jenkins. "We've had to stay with our original script, at least in part, so that we'd have a chance of being able to actually solve some problems, instead of continuing to identify new ones."

Though the project's planning area and scope are rather narrowly defined, the neighbors "really want to get beyond their neighborhood and talk about the world around them, and put their thumbprint on that world," says Jenkins. That means that they've begun to at least speculate on broader issues - such as land use, transportation, schools - that have helped shape, and perhaps strangle, the precincts along Bowman Drive. "We want to give them tools so that they can go forward and pursue those concerns. Hopefully, they'll end up in the workgroups that will help us with the General Plan update. If these issues are important enough to them, then they should pursue them. There's no corner on the market for wisdom."

The General Plan update - the original was adopted in 1990 - will likely, or perhaps just ideally, see Round Rock tackling the big structural issues that created suburban development, for good or ill. The ramifications of such basic suburban planning premises as strict, single-purpose zoning can be seen along Bowman Drive. There are no commercial properties or services of any kind along Bowman itself, or along Sunrise Road, anywhere in the neighborhood, or for that matter anywhere east of Mays Avenue in Round Rock. It's just houses and more houses; and until that changes, there's not much you can do with Bowman Drive. If racial segregation created inner-city ghettos, does it not stand to reason that use and income segregation, as enforced by suburban single-purpose zoning, would create suburban ghettos?

"The big city is a magnet.
It is terribly hard for small towns to stay alive and healthy in the face of central urban growth.... Unless steps are taken to recharge the life of country towns, the cities will swamp those towns that lie nearest to them, and will rob those that lie furthest out of their most vigorous inhabitants." - Christopher Alexander, et al.

Back in 1977, when Alexander and his collaborators wrote A Pattern Language - a sort of cookbook for what's now called "sustainable development," and a sort of Bible to planning progressives - Taylor was still one of the towns that "lies furthest out." Today, if Taylor isn't quite yet a bona fide suburb, it's the very first town beyond them. Which means it's vulnerable to both the dire fates that Alexander describes.

Gray areas indicate new developments in Cedar Park. Between these nodes of development creeps suburban blight.

Like many small towns in Texas and elsewhere, Taylor was once a booming burg, the largest city in Williamson County as recently as 1970. As you enter downtown Taylor, especially from the south along Texas 95, you can immediately see that this was once a more important place than it is now. The old commercial buildings along Main Street are far larger than any equivalents in Round Rock and Georgetown, and comparable in scale to the buildings of similar vintage along Congress Avenue. But almost all of them are partially vacant - some of them completely so - three- and four-story stone grave markers of a dead economy.

Taylor was a railroad town, an agricultural marketplace, and a manufacturing center, and all three of those economic bases are nearly gone. That's true of many towns like Taylor throughout the country. However, in small cities that really are outside the urban orbit, while the town may contract, it doesn't necessarily deteriorate across the board. Often, the people who leave are the have-nots, seeking opportunity; the folks who've managed to remain successful stay put, and the lower cost of living means that even as their means decrease, their standard of living can remain tolerable.

For Taylor, though, and other cities like it that lie within larger metro areas, the reverse can be the case. The Taylorites with means and choices - the "most vigorous residents" - are the ones most likely to decamp to new subdivisions throughout the county; the poorer residents get left behind. However, since the county as a whole is booming, the cost of living goes up, as does the eventual tax burden on Taylor, which makes the poor people even poorer. And so on, until growth actually does swamp Taylor, which in the eyes of at least some Taylorites might not be such a bad thing.

It's no secret that Taylor is the poorest of Williamson's four major cities and harbors the greatest social needs, and economic development seems to be Topic A on everyone's list. But how does downtown Taylor get redeveloped? If it were smaller and quainter, like downtown Round Rock or Salado, it would capture its share of the B&B and potpourri trade. But it's historically been hard enough to find viable uses for the big old historic buildings in downtown Austin, where the economic base is ample; filling up downtown Taylor seems completely off the radar screen. "If you're looking for a buyer who can renovate an old building, you whittle down your pool of buyers," Brashear says. "And when you renovate to the point where you can nearly replace the building for the same price, the economics don't work so well."

Replacing the buildings, of course, won't happen readily, since Taylor, like most older towns in Texas, guards its history pretty well. Indeed, what growth and renewal Taylor is seeing has come mostly from the aforementioned This Old House set. "Taylor's a little bit removed from the (I-35) corridor, so we haven't had the migration that they've seen elsewhere in the county," says Stephanie Dupree, the city's community development officer. "But we have seen some influx from Austin, Georgetown, and Round Rock of people who are looking for older homes in older neighborhoods."

Dupree notes that, while her office is working on a set of strategies to reuse and redevelop existing commercial property in Taylor - such as exists in Round Rock, where buyers can get tax abatements for renovating old downtown property - "they're still in the preliminary stages." That's likely where they'll remain until Taylor succeeds in clearing what the community sees as a bigger hurdle, getting employers to come its way. Williamson County observers feel that this is a better-than-even prospect. "As the cost of doing business in Round Rock and Georgetown continues to rise, you'll see pressure to move out toward Taylor," says Brashear. "Then Taylor's day in the sun comes closer."

"There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend - the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars - we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday's and day-before-yesterday's suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem."- Jane Jacobs

Once a booming burg, almost all of Taylor's old commercial buildings along Main Street are now partially vacant -- some of them completely so -- three- and four-story stone grave markers of a dead economy.
photograph by JOHN ANDERSON

"Modern architects, who can embrace vernacular architecture remote in place and time, can contemptuously reject... the merchant builders' vernacular of Levittown and the commercial vernacular of Route 66.... They understand the symbolism of Levittown and do not like it, [and] are [thus] unable to... analyze the forms of suburbia for their functional value." - Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

These last two quotations, from seminal works of modern urban studies - Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Venturi and Scott Brown's Learning From Las Vegas - speak eloquently, despite their age (1961 and 1972, respectively), to the barriers that still stand between us and a workable solution to the problem of suburban blight.

On the one hand, as Jacobs points out, urban renewal, as practiced in her day, was a myth, since what it produced was ultimately not `urban' at all. This has turned people off, especially in places like Williamson County, to public-sector involvement and investment in land use of any kind. But the faults and failings of the big public-housing projects are, functionally, the same ones that plague today's failing suburbs: A lack of integration - whether of ethnicity, income, or land use - and a lack of sustainability, in both the logistical and spiritual sense. "The suburb is an obsolete and contradictory form of urban settlement," Alexander wrote in A Pattern Language, and it's hard not to concede that, as a matter of principle, he's right. That's ultimately what makes suburban blight scarier than the urban blight that preceded it: The 'burbs have sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

The problem is that as a matter of reality, the suburbs are here because they serve actual needs, both physical and emotional - for space, for affordability, for anonymity, for separation from the city and its sins - ones that progressive planners, and those who follow them, too often dismiss. Although Learning From Las Vegas, with its strident call for "an architecture of the here and now," helped spawn the New Urbanism - with its concern for developments not as artifacts, but as part of a larger social and structural fabric - the elite disdain for the "dumb and ordinary" suburban development that Venturi and Scott Brown attacked back then lives to this day in the work of their progeny.

The NewUrb marquee projects are usually characterized by high, self-consciously sophisticated visual style, exactly the opposite of Bowman Drive or the 183 strip, and when pressed on the needs of the existing suburbs, progressive planning stars can lapse into unfortunate blame-the-victim rhetoric. (For example, Peter Calthorpe: "Typically, no-growth and slow-growth neighborhood groups inhibit the density and mix of uses while driving the cost of suburban development ever upward.... Foremost, the local residents have to realize there are alternatives besides no-growth and sprawl.")

But this isn't just a deficiency of architects, or even of hip community activists who've made "suburban" equivalent with "bad" - the least attractive aspect of the battle against Triangle Square. We've all jerked our knees more often than we should, because we've all, depending on whether we're urbs or burbs, defined the other as Elsewhere and written off its problems as its own damn fault. Until we all, basically, get to a point where both urban and suburban blight are seen as equally injurious to the welfare of the entire region, neither will ever go away.

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