Suburban Retrofit

How to Transform Industrial Sprawl into a Compact Neighborhood Supporting Manufacturing

April 9, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Introduction

It has been encouraging over the past couple of decades to see many suburbs begin to transform from car-dependent, land-use-segregated enclaves to more compact neighborhoods that promote walking, cycling and a mix of uses. However, our towns and cities remain surrounded by many areas hosting light industry, which under-utilize adjacent infrastructure, turn their backs on nearby neighborhoods and fail to meet the growing interest in health and wellbeing.

Yet these island-like, unsustainable and amenity-deprived areas can be catalysts for innovative ways to address changing workplace expectations, logistics consolidation, sustainable urban systems — heat island mitigation, multi-modal connectivity, responsible water usage — and housing affordability. The ambition is not to displace industry but to introduce a mix of uses that will not only co-exist with it, but also benefit local industry and workers.

NBBJ researched one of these typical sub-urban areas to explore how it might be transformed, as a prototype for future developments in similar areas. We selected Woburn, Massachusetts, less than 20 miles from Boston, for its close proximity to regional public transport, adjacency of light industrial and residential uses, evidence of natural systems, and clear lack of amenities and services.

 

Case Study: Woburn, MA

The industrial park in Woburn, bounded by Interstates 93 and 95 and straddling the rail line that serves Anderson/Woburn station, typifies the conditions of the low-density, light industrial suburb. Our goal was to explore and demonstrate how this area can be retrofitted such that it will support a walkable, cyclable environment that supports living, working and recreation, and takes advantage of its close proximity to the train station. In particular we focused on opportunities to connect with natural systems and exploit their potential as a connected and civic realm.

The ambition of the project was to propose a prototypical spatial approach to retrofitting under-performing or soon-to-be-redundant light industrial areas, recognizing the socioeconomic implications of any proposed interventions. Critical to the study was the retention of light industry or potential for new manufacturing, research and biotech labs to co-exist with a mix of uses. As manufacturing and warehousing businesses compete for workers, being located in a context that offers amenities and services will increase their attractiveness.

 

Guiding Principles

We first conducted research to gain an understanding of Woburn as it compares to other towns in the region in local demographics and employment. Then, through a combination of on-site observation and informed conjecture, we considered rail usage and audited the businesses that occupy the site to gain an understanding of their logistics requirements.

The outcome of the study was a set of principles/objectives for this type of sub-urban site:

1. Connect to Nature

a. Integrate residential, civic, and commercial uses with pedestrian and green links. Pedestrian pathways and natural systems provide fluid connections between neighboring residential and commercial areas. Community uses like recreation fields, a senior center, multi-family housing, a civic center or library can provide transitions between commercial and industrial areas and residential areas. Similarly, the forging of a bicycle and pedestrian network connecting places of business to the commuter rail station provides modal choice for both workers and residents.

b. Use natural systems and materials to ensure the transformed industrial park is, indeed, more park-like and environmentally sustainable. Reimagine storm water infrastructure as a green amenity; mitigate heat islands through tree-planting and white, blue or green roofs. Sports fields and parkland serve local employees before or after work or at midday. Culverts, drainage systems and tree canopies should be seen as part of a cohesive natural and ecological systems network that links to and, where possible, provides green amenities with both recreational and connectivity benefits.

2. Diversify Land Uses

a. Integrate and expand community-facing uses into existing or former industrial buildings. Industrial buildings can include community amenities by incorporating related public-facing spaces and programming, such as convenience stores, F&B establishments or pop-ups that relate to the manufacturing/commercial activity. Capitalize on existing community-serving assets such as healthcare, education, daycare facilities, recreational facilities and gymnasiums by expanding their footprint and influence to contribute to active street-facing frontage and green/blue open space.

b. Identify opportunities to intensify with diverse residential types and development models. Provide residential choice, with a use mix and flexibility reflective of today’s needs, in order to address living and work space affordability and retain and attract a younger population that will lay down roots.

3. Create a Coherent Block Structure

a. Intensify the existing built form and open space. Add frontages onto buildings with large setbacks to activate streets. Define blocks to create separated routes, concentrating logistics routes and servicing on the interior of blocks. Stack storage vertically to open up building frontages for more active uses.

b. Catalyze adjacent densification through corridor improvements. Creating welcoming streets —generous sidewalks, tree canopies to mitigate heat islands, street lighting — will catalyze densification on adjacent blocks. Increased foot traffic and decreased car and truck speeds will encourage new development and more street-facing uses.

 

Precedents

There are few relevant precedents that attempt to intensify uses at the scale of an industrial district with the same qualities as our case study AND attempt to integrate residential. Similar projects are those that strive for a complete area-wide rebranding and reconfiguration to create an innovation district — a trend sweeping across Western cities that, encouragingly, recognizes that the lines between different activities are blurring. The Netherlands has been quite progressive in redeveloping industrial districts while allowing for the coexistence of manufacturing and housing, often focused around a single repurposed large-scale building that acts as a catalyst for wider redevelopment.

Econinnovation District (Uptown Oakland, Pittsburgh) presents a slightly different context from Woburn, as some residential and commercial exists in a site area characterized by surface parking lots and derelict buildings. However, the initiative is promoting rezoning to allow for a mix of research and work space, housing and community uses.

INIT (Amsterdam) is a multi-company building in the inner-city Oostenburgereiland, a former industrial area. INIT, housing meeting rooms, auditorium, fitness center, restaurant, childcare, exhibition and cultural space, is expected to catalyze the redevelopment of the industrial district and the renewal of a 19th-century neighborhood with housing, offices, culture, leisure, hotel and new bridges. Being situated near to a waterfront is obviously an asset.

Buiksloterham (Amsterdam) demonstrates how an existing industrial area can be intensified and transformed into a mixed-use area containing light industry, offices, culture and housing. The city is promoting an emphasis on sustainability and the circular economy, and (acknowledging that these types of sites are opportunities for diverse development models) self-builders are invited to build their own houses. Again, this site is situated on a waterfront, undoubtedly increasing its attraction.

Northside Studios (Andrews Road, London) accommodates five double-story light industrial units with on street lay-by access and a tight rear vehicular access. The 10 residential units above are set back from the road, minimizing the visual impact of activity associated with the industrial units below and creating a generous terrace. The units are adequate for many businesses, although they will be of limited use for noisy businesses or noxious operations.

The BDM Logistics Management (Royal Albert Basin, London) warehouse component left a plot available for residential development along a blank facade. Separate industrial access routes will be maintained with yard space on the opposite side from residential development, so the warehouse itself will shield noise from truck movements. The administrative elements of the BDM building are to be placed to bring human-scale activity along the street elevation.

 

Conclusion

The suburbs are abundant with places similar to the study area in Woburn — nearby to commuter transportation and employment hubs, developed in an environmentally unsustainable manner, transforming in their industrial needs, with residential neighborhoods in close proximity and natural systems untapped as a connective resource.

These are areas of opportunity, places that can cater to middle- and lower-middle-income households. Similarly, these suburban areas can offer affordable, diverse and flexible workspace — from makers’ spaces to biotech labs to healthcare and learning space — as businesses and institutions, like residents, are priced out of many cities.

It is paramount that we continue to explore typologies and neighborhood structures that allow light industry, workspace, housing and community infrastructure to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

Research credits: Carolyn Angius, Charlie Smith (NBBJ interns); Rodrigo Guerra, Kathryn Firth, Chris Herlich (NBBJ staff)

All images courtesy NBBJ, except aerial courtesy Google Maps.

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