Suburban communities looking to strengthen their economy should mimic the walkable real estate development that boosted downtown West Chester, according to a new study.
"You need to urbanize your suburbs,” said Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors. "There are many, many market segments that don’t want to move into the city for many reasons. But they want a walkable urban lifestyle.”
The greater Philadelphia metro region ranked 13th among the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas for "walkable urbanism," according to a joint study from LOCUS and George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis.
The study ranked the country's largest metros based on the number of large commercial districts -- more than 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail space -- in walkable areas.
The Philly metro region had 17 walkable commercial locations, making up just 19 percent of the total area's square footage, the report shows.
In top-ranked Washington, 43 percent of the metro’s square-footage is composed of walkable commercial developments. New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago round out the top five ranked metros, the study shows.
West Chester was one of the few locations within the Philly metro, yet outside city limits, to meet the walkability and commercial square-footage standards, Leinberger said.
"From an economic development point of view, this certainly has a major impact on future growth," said Leinberger, who pointed to a strong correlation between walkable urbanism and education level, as well as a connection to the local economy. "The more walkable urbanism of your area, the higher education of your workforce and higher [gross domestic product] per capita."
And office space in walkable commercial districts commands 74 percent higher rental rates than offices in traditional business parks, he added.
In the West Chester Borough, market value increased nearly fourfold since 1999, according to the West Chester’s Business Improvement District (BID). A square-foot of commercial space went for $153.15 last year.
Other signs of an improved economy -- the 1.8 square-mile Borough gained 241 businesses and more than 1,000 new residents in the last 13 years, said Malcolm Johnstone, BID’s executive director.
"Their interest in moving to West Chester is they can park their car and forget about it," he said.
Downtown West Chester has fewer parking lots today than it did 10 years ago and construction has added high-density residential developments alongside the business district, he said.
"People can walk from these residences to virtually anywhere," he said.
Investing in downtown led the Borough to collect an additional $320,000 in property taxes since 2000, according to the BID.
Before other suburbs model themselves after West Chester, Johnstone suggests thoughtful, long-term planning. “You can’t do it overnight,” he said.
But Leinberger reiterates the importance of rethinking downtowns in Philly’s suburbs.
"Regionally significant walkable urban places – this is the future of our country," he said. “These are the models for future development.”