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Why Florida’s great untapped opportunity lies in its suburbs

September 02, 2022

By Jared Beck

Good planning practices will guide the future of commercial districts, housing, and transportation

I live in a state with a rich history. Yet, Florida is also a state that has developed over the last five or six decades and one that has always leaned heavily on low-wage industries. We grew fast and without a real business plan—and today, we’re living the result of it.

Florida is largely a suburban state—our communities are often defined by vast roadways lined with retail strip centers and large intersections flanked with big box retail and gas stations. It’s not alone in this designation—many communities look similar.

Megatrends are reshaping how people want to live and work. Forward-thinking cities can reshape their community, protect their tax base, meet unmet existing community needs, and set themselves up for long-term economic growth.

Unaffordable urban housing can be an economic driver for suburbia

A few generations ago, Florida was considered an inexpensive state to live in. Earlier this year, we ranked as one of the least unaffordable places to live by Realtor.com. Since 2010, property values have risen every month throughout South Florida and statewide—ballooning to 135% in the last decade. During the COVID pandemic there was no stop to the increase. Over the last 2 years, property values rose more than 25% in many parts of the state. 

Stantec helped Greenpointe Communities LLC plan a walkable mixed-use redevelopment on Sarasota’s waterfront. Smaller cities and towns can plan mixed-use solutions to scale with their community.

As housing costs grow rapidly, it’s created a gap between the cost of housing and incomes. Today, the median single-family home price in South Florida (Miami Dade and Broward Counties) is $591,000. The median household income in South Florida is $53,975, or one-tenth of the median home cost. The old rule of thumb that your house should cost three times your income no longer works.

So, what’s the solution for South Florida communities? Suburban communities have the potential to tap into the urban demand that downtowns are experiencing, which is also where the greatest growth in population and housing costs are occurring. In the United States, downtowns are having the greatest growth they’ve seen since World War II. Beyond the lifestyle appeal and convenience, over the next 20 years 80% of net new households will be singles and couples without children. Many traditional single-family home buyers won’t see the need for a big house or yard.

With a shift in how we see suburban communities, cities can attract investment while also adapting to the housing crisis. By removing minimum square footages and density caps—and instead focusing on building height and the ground-level experience—we can create compatible multifamily development.

An even better approach is embracing mixed-use and mixed income. Adding commercial to a development project increases the opportunity for revenue. By not regulating minimum size, the developer has more ability to incorporate workforce and affordable housing. Take that one step further and remove all the exemptions or “outs” in our codes that give developers a choice to avoid including workforce and affordable housing units. 

With a shift in how we see suburban communities, cities can attract investment while also adapting to the housing crisis.

Roads and retail: technology disruption is forcing change

Florida’s retail centers have a long history of adapting to the demands of consumers by coloring the roads with mile-long commercial strip centers, big box retailers, gas stations, and warehouses. We’ve continued to build infrastructure that supports commercial strips, which limits the creation of pedestrian-friendly retail centers.

However, the pandemic showed us that given the choice to avoid driving, we would. Retail centers and mall owners have responded by shifting their conventional suburban strip center model by focusing on creating an experience. These retail centers are a place that blends varying types of stores, restaurants, attractions, and activities—they’re urban. They’re also walkable and surrounded by denser housing that offers a built-in base of spenders. For those working remotely, or retired, venturing out onto the roads no longer needs to be a daily chore.

Could we create this in our suburbs? Absolutely. Our large strip center and big box developments support the acreage to create scale-appropriate urban destinations within all our communities. Great big intersections can be reshaped as those urban nodes and centers so many of us talk about, creating destinations and helping to shape the area’s identity.

They also provide opportunity to better connect our communities. We are working with places like Miami on the Swiftmile Mobility Hubs and St. Petersburg on the urban/suburban fringe connectivity. The same micromobility opportunities apply in the suburbs. We can plan for off-street pathways for traditional bicycles and pedestrian use, along with e-bikes and e-scooters, while creating opportunities for trolleys or shuttles to farther-out neighborhoods. It's key that we design to include drop-off locations for ride-hailing use and charging stations for electric vehicles. Ultimately, we can reduce the reliance on personal vehicles. 

Stantec is working with Swiftmile and the Miami Parking Authority to expand micromobility options in South Florida.

Make it easy to realize the benefit

The cost of development relies heavily on the developer. So how can cities support the creation of mixed-use and mixed-income communities?

  • Incorporate zoning codes that support the big vision. It’s height not density, shared parking instead of single-use, and the ground-level interface that creates an experience.
  • Conduct market studies that highlight mixed-use and mixed-income developments that focus on our large commercial areas. Prove the market.
  • Adapt pedestrian and bicycle master plans to include micromobility for future urban centers and commercial corridors. Explain how they better connect our communities.
  • Program for utility and infrastructure improvements to support the private investment.

The remaking of our suburban commercial models around the country are already happening. It’s up to each community to decide if they want to embrace this movement—and the investment in money and people that will come.  

  • Jared Beck

    A project designer and planner, Jared has typically worked in urban design, redevelopment, and public places.

    Contact Jared
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