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Suburbs Get Urban Makeover

Gleaming high-rises and dense development in white-picket-fence suburbia?

From Anaheim and Fremont in California to Irving, Texas; Queens, N.Y.; and Arlington, Va., development has taken a dramatic turn from cul-de-sacs to city centers that mix residences, businesses and entertainment spots.

Suburbs that had not allowed development to rise too high above the single-family homes that have shaped suburbia for decades are beginning to embrace the "urban" in "suburban."

The trend reflects the priorities of the times: saving energy, reducing traffic congestion, saving land, and promoting walking and mass transit.

In some areas, such developments also are a response to Asian influences subtly reshaping some American suburbs. The U.S. Asian population is booming and in these dismal economic times, much of the capital available comes from Asia. As a result, developments appealing to Asian sensibilities have real potential.

"It is a sociological thing," says John Clifford, a principal with GreenbergFarrow, an architecture and planning firm based in Atlanta. "People who come from Asia are very used to high-density living. Asians have been very comfortable in high-rises for a long time. So they copy it when they come."

Clifford sees the Asian influence in developments in Queens and parts of New Jersey where Indian populations have grown.

Rapid pace of growth

The trend has played out in a big way in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, where the number of minorities soared past a million this decade - most of them Chinese and South Asian immigrants.

"Providing more choices for people in suburbia that allow them to lead a healthier life with less impact on the environment is a really great thing," says Ellen Dunham-Jones, architecture professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia.

The Asian population in the USA grew 30% this decade to 15.5 million, and it has soared in some suburbs. In Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, the Asian population increased 77% to 81,289 since 2000 and now makes up 14% of the population.

In December 2005, Gwinnett rezoned certain areas along major roads to allow 25-story residential buildings. Within six months, three developers had proposed towers along Interstate 85, Dunham-Jones says.

One proposal envisioned 10 glass high-rises towering above stores, restaurants and townhouses on 36 acres. That plan was eventually scrapped, but several are still in the pipeline, awaiting financing. The county is aggressively pursuing Asian investors.

Paul Bai is Taiwanese-American and the executive vice president of Asian Village Atlanta, a 184-acre project that includes a Chinese classical garden and sections representing other Asian cultures to let people "experience Asia without a passport."

It might transform the city of Norcross in Gwinnett County because of high-rise hotels and apartments that would surround the museums, concert halls and pavilions at the core. "We started out as a railroad town," Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson says. "We were basically the country."

Norcross may be more city than country today but still, "the tallest building in Norcross is three stories, four stories at the most," he says.

Gwinnett's 2030 plan, which embraces high density and tall buildings along certain corridors, will change that. "Traditional suburban growth is not the focus," says Nick Masino, vice president of economic development at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. "It didn't work."

Masino recently went on a business recruitment mission to China and Korea with local government and business officials. Local brokers are encouraging Asian investors to take advantage of visas the U.S. gives to foreign investors to allow them to live here. @Many are lured by the prospect of a U.S. education for their children.

Looking for capital

"Gwinnett County is making a sophisticated judgment that whatever they're offering will resonate with offshore investors," says Stephen Blank of the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit group that promotes innovative development. "Clearly, there's surplus capital in Asia."

The shift from traditional suburbs to more citified places is fueled by the push for land and energy conservation. In Irving, Texas, the prospect of a light-rail line connecting Dallas, Irving and the airport is encouraging urbanized development. High-rise apartments and offices are in the works, says Gary Miller, planning and inspections director.

"The new investment is up, not out," says Robert Lang, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "You have a willingness to live in high-rises and a comfort in investing in high-rises. We're going to make our suburbs little Hong Kongs" - referring to the skyscraper skyline of the Chinese island.

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