A walkable home
Want to attach a numerical score to the walkability of your home’s location? Go to www.walkscore.com and type your address into a window. An address on Oak Street in downtown Steamboat Springs scored 94 out of 100 points, rating it a “walker’s paradise,” based on its proximity to restaurants, coffee and tea shops, movie theaters, bookstores, libraries and parks.
Steamboat Springs An expert on the vitalization of urban neighborhoods told a Steamboat Springs audience last week that voters probably got it right last fall when they rejected the Steamboat 700 annexation.
“Focus on your downtown,” Christopher Leinberger told an audience of about 130 people in Centennial Hall on Wednesday. “Define it and draw lines around it. You’ve got to draw the boundaries and let the density go up because you need more feet on the street. Outside those lines, don’t even think about building. Build three and four stories up in the downtown. And as much as you can, put retail on the ground level.”
Leinberger didn’t come to Steamboat this week to pass judgment on Steamboat 700, which could have grown into 2,000 residential units throughout the span of a couple of decades on city’s west side. And, in response to an audience question, he said he wasn’t familiar with the details of the project. However, he was quick to say that it probably makes more sense to concentrate on downtown Steamboat than to sustain the millions of dollars in infrastructure costs of growing to the west.
During a presentation and Q-and-A session that stretched to nearly two hours, Leinberger emphatically made the case that more and more, the future of American cities and neighborhoods should be built on walkable urban environments. The era of automobile-dependent suburban neighborhoods and commercial centers is rapidly passing, Leinberger said.
“We’re living in the middle of a structural shift in how we create the built environment,” he said.
Leinberger is a visiting fellow of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and a professor and founding director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is titled “The Option of Urbanism, Investing in a New American Dream.”
He was invited to Steamboat by Mark Scully and Randy Rowe, of Green Courte Partners, developers of the Alpenglow and Howelsen Place mixed-use projects on Lincoln Avenue, along with Paul Franklin, of The Olympian at Yampa and Fifth streets.
All three Steamboat developers say their projects are seeing renewed interest early this summer. However, they continue to carry unsold condominium inventory two years after completion.
Millennials and boomers
Leinberger said the new downtown buildings (a fourth unrelated project is The Victoria at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue) are positioned to meet pent-up demand among members of the Millennial Generation and empty-nester baby boomers for lively, walkable urban environments. But he also revealed some grave concerns about the short-term future of the national economy and the housing market.
The demand would be driven by young adults eager to escape the suburban neighborhoods of the older generation, and those same baby boomers who are simplifying their lives. Both groups should be better prepared to meet their goals of consuming less energy and contributing less to carbon emissions by living in denser environments, Leinberger said.
They’ll save as much as $9,000 annually by giving up a car and sharing their heat with their upstairs neighbors.
For some buyers, it will come down to escaping the boredom of the ’burbs and homogenous shopping centers, Leinberger said.
Realtor Brian Ladd, of Prudential Steamboat Realty, said the experience of his own family in Steamboat fits that profile. Ladd and colleague Tom Wilson have the listing on unsold condos at The Olympian.
“I’ve become more urban since I came to Steamboat in 2005,” Wilson said. “My thinking then was that if I’m going to live in Steamboat, I need to be on land.”
He purchased a home in west Steamboat, and later moved to a home on Logan Avenue in Old Town.
“We realized we could live in downtown and walk to Emerald Mountain and Howelsen Hill and go fishing by walking from our house.”
As a listing Realtor, Ladd said, his challenge is to persuade selling Realtors to convert their clients to downtown.
“So many agents say, ‘My people want to live at the mountain,’” Ladd said.
Two-thirds of American households are occupied by single adults and couples without children, the natural market for urban walkable housing, Leinberger said, and that imbalance will increase during the next two decades.
“There is considerable pent-up demand if we can deliver that product,” said.
State of the market
But first, the national economy and the housing markets will have to improve.
Asked by Lisa Olson, of Prudential Steamboat Realty, when lenders will begin lending again so that the housing market can restart itself, Leinberger struck a minor chord when he talked about the amount of toxic debt that American taxpayers and lending institutions have had to swallow.
“It’s true, we’re stuck with an overhang of $3 trillion that’s being written down,” Leinberger said. “It’s really scary what the overhang is. My bet is that we’ve got a W recession. I wouldn’t have said that a month ago.”
His reference to a W recession implies one with a steep valley on either side of a peak, and with the second valley yet in front of the housing market.
“The housing market is so fragile,” Leinberger said. The U.S. saw “500,000 housing starts last year. That’s less than half of any other year. We’ve never seen that kind of collapse in all the recessions since the second world war.”
Leinberger lays a substantial portion of the blame for the Great Recession on the housing industry’s drive to overbuild traditional suburban neighborhoods.
Leinberger is concerned that the housing industry is poised to repeat its earlier mistakes. Major homebuilders are trying to get geared back up and build the same product, only cheaper, he said.
Rowe observed that suburban development is subsidized by cheap energy, taxpayer support of infrastructure and cheap loans through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He asked Leinberger if changing that situation wouldn’t also change the way consumers look at suburban, drivable housing.
“Doesn’t the market start to correct this?” Rowe asked rhetorically. “The market’s going to say (suburban housing) is too expensive.”
Fitting the mold
City Planner Jason Peasley, who played a lead role in writing a traditional neighborhood design code intended for Steamboat 700 and the west of Steamboat Springs expansion zone, said he thinks the city has made significant progress toward encouraging walkable urban neighborhoods.
“I think (Leinberger’s calls for more urban density and walkability) are in line with a lot of our community plan and a lot of code updates we’ve already done,” he said.
Peasley, who said much of Leinberger’s talk was “right on target,” pointed out that the city recently rewrote its community commercial and commercial service zoning to ensure that new buildings along U.S. Highway 40 on either end of downtown are at least two stories high and closer to the street.
Aware that Steamboat already has a pair of health food stores at either end of downtown, Leinberger said residents will have no trouble recognizing the day when Old Town has reached full stature as a walkable urban environment.
“You’ll know you’re really achieving something when a grocery store moves back downtown,” he said. “That’s when those cute bungalows within a block of here will become some of most valuable real estate around and values will skyrocket.”