Alton Place

Creeping Suburbia: Alton Place Village

Last week, a few large-scale development projects were announced for the western edge of Hilliard. The one that caught my eye the most – and the one I’ll talk about today – was Alton Place Village, a mixed-use development that would include housing, offices, and retail at the northwest corner of Roberts Road and Alton Darby Creek Road. Alton Place Village didn’t catch my attention because of its $275 million price tag, or the fact the proposal pushes development even closer to the vulnerable Big Darby Creek. Instead, I was rolling my eyes at the ever-irritating suggestion that such a development was in any way “urban”.

Now, McCabe Companies, the developer behind Alton Place Village, is hardly the first to call a project urban when it clearly wasn’t. Casto, the originator of the strip mall, did it not that long ago with its Hamilton Quarter project on the far Northeast Side. It’s become something of a running joke to hear a local developer breathlessly expound upon the great “urban features” of their projects while showing off renderings of typical suburbia. In previous articles, I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon, but I wanted to go into greater detail here as to why a project like this so thoroughly misses the mark as good urban development.

Mixed Messages

Take a look at the animated video by McCabe showing the development’s proposed layout.

Let’s put aside the quality of the development for a moment. The video begins by showing an area of woods, fields, wetlands and natural areas within the Big Darby watershed. It looks like a promotional video for the Metro Parks system. Then it erases all of it by plopping down a massive development on top and trying to suggest this is an improvement. It all seems a little tone deaf.

The proposed site as it looks now.

The land for this development falls under the Big Darby Accord’s jurisdiction. The Big Darby Accord is a multi-community agreement that regulates development near and within the Big Darby Creek watershed. Big Darby Creek is one of Ohio’s only state and national scenic rivers, not to mention that it is one of cleanest and most biologically diverse. Communities implemented the agreement in order to manage development interests that could potentially harm it.

The site after construction of Alton Place Village.

The video tries to make it seem like Alton Place Village will be a lovely oasis full of buildings that peacefully coexist with nature. There are the sounds of running water and chirping birds, all set to a soundtrack that seems to have found its way from an old episode of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. No amount of pretty renderings or soothing music will make that true, however. Even if a significant portion of the site remains green space, the development still puts further pressure on the Big Darby ecosystem. In fact, the waterway may already be suffering due to approaching development.

Bob approves of the video.

Walkability

The video also gives a good idea as to the main problem with Alton Place Village’s supposed urban features – it is not walkable. “Walkability” is an urban concept that promotes dense, mixed-use development with high levels of nearby amenities. Residents in these communities are therefore able to get around using forms of transportation other than the personal car, primarily by their own feet.

Developers adopt the term often these days, even when they seem to have no real understanding of its meaning or have little experience implementing it. They label their projects walkable, perhaps thinking it may make them more attractive to young adults. In misapplying the term, however, they have watered it down to the point of near obsolescence.

So why is Alton Place Village not walkable? The video and renderings do show what McCabe refers to as a “town center”, something not commonly found in suburban developments. So they have that going for them, I guess. That said, the implementation leaves much to be desired. The town center itself is too limited in scope, representing only a very small portion of the overall development. The buildings within it are relatively small at only 3 stories, further limiting just how many amenities can exist there.

Renderings also show the town center located in the far southeast corner of the site, the farthest possible place to walk for the majority of potential residents and workers. The distances are not necessarily far at half a mile or less, so residents can indeed walk to it if they so choose, it’s just a strange choice to not make the “town center” be the actual center of the development. It almost seems like an afterthought in planning.

Even if the town center was moved to a better location, the walkability problem still wouldn’t be solved. Aside from its limited scope, the layout otherwise consists of pretty standard suburban sprawl, with mostly single-family housing on large lots. This is particularly true for the western half of the proposal.

There are smaller sections of attached housing and apartments to the east, but even in this section, urbanity is sacrificed by street setbacks and large, interspersed surface parking lots. Real urban neighborhoods don’t typically have setbacks at all, and surface parking lots are discouraged when compared to garages or even transit options. All this starts adding up to a low-density, car-oriented development despite the token attempts to do something different.

Why It Matters

Some may be reading all this and wondering why any of this is important. After all, Hilliard is a suburb, and it’s hardly surprising to see such developments there or in similar suburbs across America. This is how it’s been done for generations now. Ignoring the environmental concerns in this particular case, we are still left with a developer who, while not getting it quite right, still attempted to incorporate some urban-ish elements in the design of their project. This is not something we would’ve seen at all not so long ago. Progress, right? So what’s the big deal?

The big deal goes well beyond just this or any single project. Ohio is running out of road funding and faces a potential gas tax increase to help plug budget holes. Because of this, even if one ignores local and global environmental concerns, such as with climate change, it’s becoming ever more critical to start looking at how we can build differently.

It’s long been known that dense urban centers subsidize road building in suburban and rural areas. This is because fewer residents living along those outlying roadways are much less likely to be able to cover basic maintenance costs year to year, let alone those of initial construction. So money is taken from areas that do – namely cities – to cover the difference. Every time a new subdivision or rural roadway gets built, urban residents pay. More than that, the budgets to take care of all roads get that much thinner, regardless of where those roads are. If we’re not going to invest in transit, and if we’re not going to make politically unpopular decisions like removing some roads altogether, then we have to at least build to where roadways serve the greatest number of people.

The future of some of Ohio’s roadways?

This idea may not sit well with those who enjoy lives well away from the hustle and bustle of city life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with living in a low-density area if that’s what people choose. There are, after all, neighborhoods and environments for everyone. The suggestion is not that people can’t live where they want, but rather that they should have to pay any related costs of that choice. If all development costs were truly passed on to everyone, perhaps there would be a much greater push for building to a more urban configuration in more places.

As mentioned above, while Alton Place Village is hardly a fantastic example of being either urban or walkable, the fact that the developer tried to incorporate some of those concepts into the project is, ironically, a good sign. If developers are thinking about these things all the way out on the fringes of Hilliard, word is certainly getting out that such ideas can be very successful, particularly in the post-Bridge Park era. The problem now may be in convincing developers to take those concepts a lot further than they have been willing to up to this point.

In the meantime, Alton Place Village will have little trouble finding plenty of residents once built. If nothing else, the rapidly-growing local population and short housing supply guarantee it. Regardless of that success, it’s time to stop watering down both the concepts and words of what it truly means to be “urban”. Our futures – as well as our wallets – deserve better.

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