Not Urban, Not Suburban: Why Surban Living is Here to Stay
By Lenny Tartamella, COO of Larken Associates
Since the moment the first subdivision was built, the debate defining the residential and multifamily development process has been centered around the core question of, “Where do people want to live?”
As we look to answer this question in 2021, the answer is not as clear as it seemed only several years ago. It is obvious that the living preferences of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 who at 70 million now represent the largest segment of the U.S. adult population — and the generation after them, Gen Z, will be a key piece of the answer.
Similarly, and not to be forgotten when we are answering this question, the preferences of seniors and those nearing retirement age will also factor heavily into how our multifamily communities continue to evolve. While the differences between those two groups already make answering the core question behind multifamily development difficult, the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to how we live, work and play have only added further complexity to the answer.
However, as we move towards a post-pandemic future of a live-work-play lifestyle, a new word is entering our lexicon that precisely defines where this multigenerational group of decision-makers is hoping to call home in the years to come.
“Surban” is quickly becoming a buzzword in the commercial real estate world — and for good reason. Not quite suburban but not quite urban, surban living combines the best attributes of urban and suburban living into one concept to offer the ideal mix of affordability, density and accessibility that is increasingly in demand among our nation’s cross-generational population of home seekers.
At one time, the prevailing wisdom was that millennials would continue to gravitate towards urban living. The mix of a wide range of dining and nightlife experiences, coupled with walkability and accessibility to others in their age cohort, provided an easy transition from college into life as a young professional.
In the Tri-State area, this fueled the rise in popularity for places like Jersey City and Hoboken as millennials began migrating from their parents’ homes in the suburbs to locations closer to New York City. For seniors, the opposite was true, as aging in place was the long-time norm with strong preferences for residing in the same home and community well into their golden years.
Recently, however, three factors have contributed to the partial reversal of that trend.
According to data from the Urban Land Institute, the national population in the family-formation years (aged 30-49) will increase by 8.4 million. As millennials begin to start families and settle down, the idea of raising children in an 800-square-foot walkup apartment in the heart of a large city will become an ominous proposition.
Furthermore, the difficulty of completing everyday tasks such as grocery shopping in an urban location only adds further challenges to raising a family in a dense urban core.
For many, a move to an urban area was inspired by easy mass transit access to a job in a large city. As COVID-19 upended the traditional idea of working nine-to-five, five days a week in a physical workplace, many workers began to rethink paying a premium to be within easy commuting distance of a city they no longer commute to.
While life will return to normal at some point, the days of spending Monday through Friday in an office may be behind us. This will only make the affordability and flexibility of suburban living more attractive.
High Cost of Living
While not as much of a national trend, the rising cost of living in the Northeast has made both ends of the homeownership process difficult to afford. For many first-time homebuyers, the high cost of housing in states like New Jersey, paired with high property taxes and rising student debt burdens, can make homeownership nearly impossible.
For seniors on fixed incomes, rising property taxes and an increasing cost of living make it difficult to maintain a high quality of life in their long-time homes. Additionally, the McMansion and larger home trends that defined the ‘80s and ‘90s have caused many seniors to suddenly face the daunting task of maintaining large, mostly empty homes by themselves.
Surban Marries Both Worlds
Although we are seeing a reversal of the urbanization trend that defined real estate development through the aughts, that does not mean that millennials want to completely leave behind the benefits of living in an urban setting and establish roots in the suburbs.
In a strictly suburban setting, having access to parks, restaurants and other conveniences means getting in the car and driving. That sense of immediate community found in urban locations that is prized by so many millennials can often be more difficult to come by in the suburbs.
Also, in a period defined by uncertainty in how we live and work, the permanence and cost of buying a home in the suburbs can be a challenging prospect for many who might have just finished paying off student loans or remain unsure of their career paths. Where suburban or urban living are not great fits, surban communities’ blending of the best attributes of both offers the ideal living experience for many in this age group.
Furthermore, on the other end of the age spectrum, almost 70 million Americans will be above the age of 65 by 2030, an increase of 64 percent from 2015. Surban living offers this growing senior population an opportunity to downsize to a home with less maintenance and costs while keeping the sense of community they might have enjoyed in their former homes.
What Defines Surban?
While the design and layout of surban communities will differ greatly based on their locations, these communities all share similar features built around the demands of a cross-generational population.
With the reversal of the urbanization trend, the key to creating a surban community is identifying where prospective residents want to live.
Since these communities seek to blend the convenience of suburban living with the feel of an urban lifestyle, our site selection process prioritizes areas that promise the ideal blend of density with easy access to nearby shopping, dining, entertainment and other points of interest.
Larken Associates currently has four surban-style communities under construction in Lopatcong, Hillsborough, Readington and Bordentown, New Jersey, as well as one in York, Pennsylvania. Each of these communities is strategically located less than a mile from a bustling commercial area with easy access to local highways.
Additionally, they all provide mass transit access to New York City or Philadelphia should a resident need to head back to his or her office in those locations full-time or just a few days a week.
Once the location has been determined, amenities must be among the next considerations in the design of a true surban community.
In these types of communities, amenities can no longer be limited to a fitness center and conference room. Amenity packages should bring a wide range of experiences to residents and be as diverse as the population that developers are hoping to attract.
At the heart of these amenity decisions lies a need to integrate amenity spaces into the community as deeply as possible to match what one might find in an urban area. For us, this means adding community pools, tot lots, bark parks, pet spas, walking and biking trails and private amenities geared toward senior residents throughout our properties. At our Hillsborough Village Center project, for example, we are adding ground-level retail space to tie the project into the area’s established commercial corridor.
Other surban communities across the country have seen the addition of manmade bodies of water with a variety of active and passive aquatic activities. Others have seen the creation of pedestrian plazas and parks with the community.
Not as tangible as a bark park or tot lot, a sense of community is perhaps among the most important amenities for residents when they are searching for a home.
The feeling of community can be created in several ways. One such way is in the physical design of the property. By adding walking trails that facilitate movement and interaction throughout the development, the opportunities for organic socialization among residents grow. At each of our communities, we provide ample connectivity from residential buildings to shared amenity spaces.
Additionally, the isolation we have experienced over the last year has further underscored the importance of providing easily accessible green space and walking opportunities in serene environments for residents to enjoy.
Another way to foster a dynamic sense of community is through engaged property management professionals that continually look for opportunities to bring the community and the surrounding area together. This could take the form of organizing opportunities to give back to area nonprofits, or it could be something very different, such as creating unique community events like public pet adoptions or bringing in local food vendors. Regardless of the idea, experienced property management teams are tremendous assets in cultivating a meaningful sense of community at properties that extend into the towns in which they are located.
A primary part of the appeal of the suburbs has long been the ability to start and grow a family. As people move into surban communities, they will be looking to these communities to scale with their life stages.
While a one-bedroom apartment with a pool and fitness center is great for a 20-something single resident, it is typically much less desirable for a married couple with a newborn. Surban communities should be scalable to allow people to transition from one life stage to the next within the community.
We take this into account as we design each of our residential communities. The goal is to provide a wide range of residential units from the traditional one-bedroom garden-style unit to large three-bedroom garage-style units to ensure that our communities can grow with our residents.
Additionally, the changing nature of work means that apartments are no longer places that residents live and play in; they have become our offices as well. Developers of surban communities must keep that in mind as they design residential units and community spaces. Whether that means larger units or shared working spaces, residents want to make sure their homes do not quickly become too small and restrictive for their needs.
The Future of Surban Living
Much like many of the residents who will one day reside within these communities, the term “surban” is still in its infancy. However, the early success seen in surban communities shows that the future is bright.
As the concept is further refined, these communities will only be better designed to blend urban energy and walkability more seamlessly with suburban affordability and density. In some cases, these communities will become downtowns in their own rights, with a diverse mix of live-work-play options available to residents and visitors alike.
The term predominantly speaks to for-rent communities. However, it is easy to imagine the addition of a for-sale component to these projects wherein someone could enter a community as a single 20-something renter and continue to live there as they enter their family-formation and homebuying stages.
Regardless, what will not change is the value of experience and creativity in bringing these projects to life. With over 1,000 surban units scheduled to come on line over the next year and several additional ambitious projects in our development pipeline, our team continues to help pioneer the introduction of surban-style communities in the Garden and Keystone states.
As experienced developers and property managers, the best practices we have acquired over our last 50 years, mixed with our understanding of modern community design and our ability to identify suitable target markets, will continue to provide us with the tools we need to create these in-demand communities for years to come.