Opinion » Letter From The Editor

The Death of Suburbia



There was a fascinating series of stories on the Business Insider website last week called "The Death of Suburbia."

That phrase will no doubt create immediate outrage among many Flyer readers, especially those living in booming Memphis 'burbs such as Germantown and Collierville. "We're not dying; we're thriving!" they'll say. And they're correct.

But those places are not so much suburbs as self-contained towns that existed long before the suburban housing boom. The BI articles document the problems facing neighborhoods that were created by urban sprawl, neighborhoods that have no real core. And the future of those communities is not bright, to say the least.

The reasons for the decline lie in the initial genesis of these neighborhoods just outside the urban core, subdivisions comprised of winding streets filled with similarly constructed houses built within a few months of each other: instant neighborhoods, more or less. These housing developments were constructed with the thinking that bigger is better. They were built around schools and malls and were designed for an automobile-centric lifestyle, dining at fast-casual restaurants, and shopping in chain and big-box stores. Now, malls are shrinking and dying as Americans increasingly turn to shopping online, or alternately, focus on "shopping local."

New developments are being designed with walkability and environmental concerns at top of mind. Instead of "subdivisions," developers are creating "communities." And, not so shockingly, McMansions are losing value.

The real estate site, Trulia, defines a McMansion as a home built between 2001 and 2007 that has between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet of space. Trulia released data last August that showed that the premiums paid for McMansions have declined significantly in 85 of the country's 100 biggest cities. Real estate experts told Business Insider that younger homebuyers value efficiency more than size and think that McMansions are impractical and wasteful.

Speaking of impractical and wasteful ... Malls are major economic generators for the suburbs, providing jobs as well as dining and shopping options. When they shutter, they leave a large empty footprint, comparable to the gutted downtowns of small-town America that resulted from Walmart-ization a couple of decades ago. That trend seems to be reversing. BI reported that commercial real estate firm CoStar estimates nearly a quarter of the malls in the U.S are at high risk of losing an anchor store. Dozens of malls, large and small, have shut down.

Another trend that is hurting the suburbs is the migration of corporations and big companies back into the center city. Since 2015, McDonald's, Kraft Heinz, Conagra Foods, UBS, and General Electric, to name just a few, have moved from suburbs into downtown office space. Here in Memphis, the same thing is happening. See ServiceMaster coming to Peabody Place and the development of Sears Crosstown as two recent examples.

Other factors cited by Business Insider include the death of golf courses, a trend which has reached an epidemic level since the course-building boom of the 1990s. Most suburban courses were designed as centerpieces of housing developments. There is little charm in living in a McMansion on a dead golf course.

And fast-casual restaurant chains, long the mainstay of suburban dining, are in trouble. BI cites Sbarro, Cinnabon, Jamba Juice, Panda Express, Ruby Tuesday, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Grill, and Buffalo Wild Wings as all facing financial crises.

And cities are now facing increasing problems with trying to provide services to their sprawling suburban neighborhoods. As the malls shrink and die, sales and property tax revenue shrinks. As houses are sold off, the tax base further decreases. Increasingly, as is happening in Memphis, de-annexation becomes an option.

It's a problem that all of us — city and suburban dwellers alike — will be forced to confront in the coming decade. The good news is, if you've always wanted one of those big ol' McMansions, your odds of getting one on the cheap are getting better with every passing year.

Bruce VanWyngarden

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