Mixed-Use Developments: A Nod to the Small Towns of Old

The 1980s was a great time to be in the real estate market. After many years of recession, a dynamic recovery fueled by deregulation flooded the real estate market with tons of fresh money. The end result was a boom in both commercial and residential construction. We have seen a similar boom over the last four or five years. The difference this time is the prevalence of mixed-use developments.

Back when Reagan was president, the emphasis was on building separate developments. Residential housing was isolated in neatly organized suburban neighborhoods with winding streets lined by sidewalks and trees. Separate commercial zones housed strip malls and restaurants, while downtown remained a haven for mom-and-pop businesses.

Modern developers seem to have abandoned that model to some degree. Today, they are more likely to propose mixed use developments that place housing and business in close proximity. In some urban mixed-use projects, businesses occupy the lower floors of a high rise while upper floors are turned into apartments and penthouses. Is all of this a nod to the small towns of old?

Another Project in Huntersville

Huntersville is a small community just fourteen miles from Charlotte, NC. As a bedroom community, its population of just under 60,000 relies heavily on the bigger city. But for how long? City leaders recently approved a proposal for a mixed-use development that will turn 37 acres into a small community featuring 300 homes, several office buildings, a hotel, and additional commercial space. Furthermore, this is not the first such project in Huntersville.

An overhead drawing of the project depicts the plot of land almost like a small town. The question is, why go mixed-use? Why not continue separating residential, light industrial, and commercial zones?

The appeal of mixed-use developments is the ability to offer housing with desirable amenities close by. In one area of the community, you have a nice selection of single-family and multifamily dwellings. But shops, stores, and office space are all within walking distance. You create a neighborhood that feels more like a community than a suburban housing tract.

The Way Things Used To Be

Sparano + Mooney, a Utah architectural firm with offices in Salt Lake City and Park City, says that mixed-use developments are all the rage among architects and builders. They say the developments are a snapshot of what America used to be like before the industrial age.

What we now call mixed-use development used to be the standard way to build a town way back when. New towns started as single streets lined with all the businesses needed to support the local population. Housing grew up around it. The thing is that each little town was self-contained and self-sufficient.

Modern mixed-use developments are nowhere near self-sufficient, but they still offer the same kind of feel. They offer that small town environment that encourages people to get to know one another and spend time together. They encourage more walking and less driving; more socializing and less hiding indoors; more dependence and less independence.

A Simpler Way of Life

Builders and architects will tell you that mixed-use developments make good financial sense. Indeed, they do. But that’s only true because homeowners are willing to buy the houses and businesses are willing to lease the commercial space. Understanding their motivations is key to understanding why mixed-use developments are now so popular.

The developments point back to the small towns of old. They remind people of a simpler way of life. We might never be able to re-create what once was, but even providing a glimpse of it is attractive.