Staying Ahead of the Curve

An Iconic Suburb Remixes the Traditional Model

ARTICLE | Aug 28, 2018
by David Dixon, FAIA, Stantec
City of Dublin, OH

Dublin, Ohio, is a classic postwar suburb. From a farming town of 2,500 people northwest of Columbus, it grew into a booming community with more than 45,000 residents and 55,000 jobs. This is the story of how, after the Great Recession revealed fundamental flaws in the model that had worked so well for Dublin, city leaders broke with long tradition and embraced a new model that took the best qualities of urban—walkability, mixed uses, experiential richness—and used them to transform the community without touching a blade of grass on a single front lawn. 

What, Me Worry?

Early 2008 found Dublin at the top of its game. It boasted the second-highest household income in Ohio and one of the state’s best-educated workforces. The community sat at the top of multiple national rankings of best places to work, live, or start a business. Thanks to Ohio’s employment tax and a concentration of high-wage jobs, residents enjoyed excellent services, from top-ranked schools to a best-in-class recreation center.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

At that time, Terry Foegler, the city’s former director of economic development, met with the city council to discuss becoming city manager. The meeting didn’t go as expected. Foegler delivered four core messages:

  • Like most suburbs, Dublin had put too many eggs in one housing basket. Real estate economists voiced concern that the 60% share of all U.S. housing stock represented by single-family houses was unsustainable. In Dublin the figure was roughly 80%.
  • This put Dublin on the wrong side of a looming change in the housing market. Over the next couple of decades nearly 80% of net new households in the U.S. (the best predictor of housing demand) would be singles and couples. The result? A glut of single-family houses (mostly in traditional suburbs) and a shortage of multifamily housing—particularly in walkable urban areas.
  • The emerging supply/demand mismatch would hit Ohio especially hard, because the state was aging faster than most. Well into the 2030s more than half of U.S. population growth would be folks age 65 or older)—a group that on balance prefers to move to multifamily housing in walkable areas.
  • Foegler’s most convincing argument involved the fragility of Dublin’s tax base. An aging population meant a dramatic slowdown in workforce growth just as demand for knowledge workers was taking off. Economists had already noticed a growing pattern of businesses relocating to urban settings to follow educated workers. Dublin’s employers might well relocate to downtown Columbus, or even leave the region entirely. In fact, the struggle to find skilled, educated workers, had already gotten some talking about the possibility.

To stay ahead of the curve, Foegler concluded, Dublin would need to create a downtown—not a branded retail experience but a genuine, walkable neighborhood in which a diverse mix of people lived, worked, played and learned.

The Council gave Foegler the city manager’s job and told him to get started.

A Tough-Love Community Conversation

Working with an urban design team (which I led), Foegler launched a visioning and planning process. To be clear, most residents initially opposed the idea of a walkable, higher-density, mixed-use downtown. No one kumbaya moment turned them around, but a program of topical workshops, talks by national experts on shifting markets and demographics, and charrettes where residents debated planning proposals and presented their own ideas gradually built an understanding of the challenges Dublin faced and support for a different vision of the city’s future.

Many residents said that while they still loved suburban life, their concept of a great suburb had changed since they first moved to Dublin. They supported a downtown that provided a nearby place to meet friends, offered new housing and other choices, made Dublin more competitive for jobs and investment, and expanded tax revenue (and the services it supported).

As visioning shifted to planning, the city council formally designated an area of strip malls, older office parks, and other declining uses as the Bridge Street District (BSD), the new downtown.  Foegler later wrote that the process “helped paint a picture for the community of the [downtown] not as undoing Dublin’s suburban character but rather as adding a new ‘layer’ to it.”

More Than a Standard P3

By 2012 Foegler was directing creation of the new downtown on a full-time basis. The City and a master developer were obvious partners for this ambitious undertaking, but throughout the development process, a third partner—the community—also played an essential role by providing consistent political support for tradition-breaking regulatory changes and previously unimaginable levels of public investment.

The first order of business? Figuring out how to fund the City’s upfront investment in a street grid, great streetscape, parks, parking structures, smart city technology and other public infrastructure that the private sector can’t take on. Ohio allows communities to use tax increment financing (TIF) to fund public infrastructure, but only after they send roughly 75% of the revenue to the local school district—severely undercutting TIFs’ effectiveness. With strong community support, Foegler negotiated an innovative workaround with the school district —providing a guaranteed upfront payment and a share of the longer-term fiscal benefits of redevelopment in return for Dublin’s ability to invest a much larger share of initial TIF revenues in building the downtown.

By 2013, with its TIF in place, the City was ready to select a developer—but it wanted a partner that would do more than just develop. It ultimately settled on Columbus-based Crawford Hoying, whose leadership embraced the vision of a genuine downtown, had the financial capacity to realize the vision, and, significantly, shared Dublin’s culture of collaboration.

Together the City and developer had to gain control of the right site, and the site-assembly process demonstrated the value of a full partnership. The City had identified roughly 30 acres on the north bank of the Scioto River for an initial phase and, with strong community support, committed to buying key sites for new roads and a park. The TIF revenues proved crucial at this stage: They allowed the City to purchase land, designate portions for planned infrastructure, and then sell the remainder to Crawford Hoying at a price that would make its downtown development pencil out. In turn, Crawford Hoying bought other sites directly with the certainty that the City would permit the density and land uses needed to support those costs. By 2014 construction was underway.

Today, the partnership remains robust. Planning Director Vince Papsidero notes that the TIF, which has funded more than $130 million in public improvements—including a new riverside park and a dramatic $17 million pedestrian bridge that links the BSD to Dublin’s small historic center—has exceeded Dublin’s goals and that fiscal benefits have run ahead of projections. Crawford Hoying has invested roughly $500 million in more than 3,000,000SF of housing, offices, a food hall, hotels, a grocery store, a 4,000-seat arena, and some of central Ohio’s most inventive brew pubs. This mix of uses draws people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles who share a common downtown. And what does the community think? In a 2016 survey, 87% of residents said they supported the downtown initiative. The same proportion—many of them people who initially bridled at the idea of a “downtown”—said they thought Bridge Park enhanced Dublin’s reputation.

They’re not the only ones. A Lyft driver—working to generate cash while launching a web-design business—recently told me on a trip to Dublin: “This is Dublin? This is cool…I want to live here.”

About David Dixon and Stantec

David Dixon, FAIA, is Vice President at Stantec and leads the company’s Urban Places planning and urban design team. He is co-editor with Jason Beske of Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places (Island Press, 2018). Stantec’s Urban Places is an interdisciplinary hub that brings together leaders in planning and urban design, smart and urban mobility, resilience, real estate, mixed-use architecture, smart cities, and brownfield redevelopment. We work with clients across North America—in cities and suburbs alike—to unlock the extraordinary urban promise of enhanced livability, equity, and resilience. Are you a city manager or elected official looking to add walkable, mixed-use density in a suburban community? If so, please contact me at david.dixon@stantec.com or at 617-416-7217. I’d be delighted to discuss our experience in Dublin and similar communities that have pursued market-driven urban transformation.

Photos courtesy of Crawford Hoying, Cory Klein Photography, and the City of Dublin


George S. Masnick and Eric S. Belsky, Household Projections in Retrospect and Prospect: Lessons Learned and Applied to New 2005-2025 Projections. Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies, July 2009, p44.  www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/w09-5_masnick_and_belsky.pdf (retrieved 14 August 2018).

US Census Bureau, The Next Four Decades—The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050. May 2010. p10. www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2010/demo/p25-1138.pdf (retrieved 14 August 2018).

Jason Beske and David Dixon, editors, Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places. Washington: Island Press, 2018. p196

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