Being in real estate, and because I work primarily in historic urban neighborhoods, I found this week's Style Weekly cover story especially fascinating. The title is "Neighbors In Waiting" and the subtitle is intentionally provocative - "The country's real estate meltdown hasn't just sparked a recession - it may have ended modern-day suburbia."
Now, let me say for the record that I am completely and totally one of those people who has drunk the Kool-Aid and doesn't understand why everyone doesn't want to live in a walkable, historic City neighborhood. And if I am ever consigned to the 9th ring of Hell, I'll be doomed to live in a subdivision on a cul-de-sac in a stick construction transitional in a planned community. BUT, I also recognize that some people would consider MY lifestyle and neighborhood to be the 9th ring of Hell. As my mother always says, "different strokes for different folks."
So let's start with the premise that we can all agree to disagree about what is "better," urban vs. suburban life. Any conclusion to that analysis is a morally and personally subjective one. What I found most fascinating about the article was the discussion of the possibility of a paradigm shift. Is it possible that large numbers of the population that we presume would have chosen a suburban lifestyle in the past now no longer will, because it is no longer what they want? In other words, would modern suburbia have "died" as a development model anyway, even without the market meltdowns? Has the modern suburban development model only be been rushed to a premature death by the crash of the real estate and financial markets?
I really don't know the answer. That's going to be for much smarter people than I to figure out. But what I DO know is my own experience. The demand for a historic, urban, architecturally significant neighborhood seems to be at least stable, if not increasing. One of the telling and interesting things I am seeing is this: As much as 50% of the "lookers" at Fan Open Houses are people who want to move into town from the surrounding counties. Lots of these are the empty nesters, the Baby Boomers, who no longer need to be in the suburbs for the public schools. They want to change their lifestyle. They're tired of the commute. The idea of a neighborhood coffee shop, art galleries, restaurants, museums, movies, and shops, all within walking distance, is very appealing.
We've always had the die-hard urbanites and the young professionals who want to be right in the thick of it, close to the bar and restaurant scene, and close to downtown. The VCU students, both undergraduate and graduate, are neighborhood staples as well. But here's what I've personally observed in the 15+ years that I've lived in the Fan:
- Increasing numbers of families with young children, as the word spread about how great William Fox Elementary is; and
- More and more empty nesters from other areas, be they suburban counties or outside of the market altogether.
What does that mean? Stable property values, for one thing. Even though property values have dropped to some extent, the demand for Fan real estate does not seem to be decreasing, and the supply is limited. No one can create more 19th century Victorian neighborhoods. The same thing seems to be true in Area 20 - from Windsor Farms through the Mary Munford area to Glenburnie and beyond. The same factors seem to be in play - architecture dating from the 1920s and 1930s, a great elementary school, walkable neighborhoods, convenient access to Downtown and points in all directions.
I also wonder if the Green movement, and increased environmental consciousness, is going to continue to drive this trend. I personally think so. I think my generation, and especially the generations coming behind me, are going to be more concerned about the natural environment and how their choices impact the world. I think there will be more personal commitment to the "Think Globally. Act Locally" philosophy. I think people will make different choices about transportation, and where they live, and what they eat.
But read the Style Weekly article for yourself. It's certainly thought-provoking. And that's a good thing.