Development with a View: How Urban Infill and Suburban Development Differ

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There is a lot to be said for both urban infill and suburban development, and both are often necessary in order for a metropolitan area to be healthy and to accommodate economic growth and prosperity. Yet the two, while dealing with many of the same issues, are vastly different from the viewpoint of developers and engineers who plan and design these neighborhoods.


For an urban infill project, conscientious architects and builders will analyze and study the existing surroundings and the history of the place. They will identify what has worked and what hasn't worked to draw homeowners to recently completed neighborhoods and buildings. Are the current surrounding architectural components Mediterranean, colonial, or modern?

In Delray Beach, FL, for example, the city has taken the initiative and cleaned up downtown Atlantic Avenue, which has once again become the focal point of the city and a destination for surrounding areas. The city gave entrepreneurs and developers an incentive to establish businesses and to create nice buildings by cleaning up the area and by reducing crime. The location became highly desirable, especially given its proximity to Interstate 95 and the beach.

As a younger, more professional and sophisticated crowd began looking to live in Delray, developers had more leeway to build high-end, luxury developments with real architectural styling. Savvy developers looked to the city's history and have created homes that reflect both the city's historic colonial and Key West atmosphere, with Delray's new reputation as a modern, vibrant place to live.

Suburban developments generally deal with a blank slate when it comes to design and architecture. Developers may repeat what has worked for them in previous suburban projects elsewhere, or they may choose to try and create a unique ambience and flavor for the new neighborhood. As suburban developments generally try to appeal to a single demographic — whether it's families, the over 55 crowd, or first-time homebuyers — the lack of a historical sense of place or established architectural theme allows developers to build something more of their choosing. Still, research should be done of the surrounding developments to see what has been successful — and what hasn't.

Design and Sense of Place

In suburbia, height and density can often be points of contention, even where planning and zoning restrictions are lenient. For instance, although height restrictions may allow for, say, a five story building, it might behoove a developer to build a three-story unit with a step back in front of a five-story building to give the development a gentler scale and more curb appeal. We've found this to be a friendlier approach and ultimately more successful.

Additionally, suburban developments require the developer to create a sense of place and a sense of community for each development. This may mean a clubhouse, a neighborhood pool, tennis courts, or even placing the mailboxes in a central location so that the residents meet their neighbors and feel they are part of a cohesive environment.

In urban areas, that sense of place is built in. Amenities such as movie theaters, restaurants, bars, and even public transportation options are probably within walking distance. People often move to urban areas specifically for that sense of place and for the amenities and camaraderie that density provides.

Height and density requirements can be restrictive in an urban infill project, but often the developer will take full advantage of the height and density allowances. The city wants to create a destination where people can work, live, and play in the same area, using that density as an advantage without increasing vehicular traffic. This promotes a feeling of urbanism and creates a sense of place.

However, care must be taken to create a development that city officials think is attractive and can support. While a city commissioner may never personally consider buying a unit in your development, her vote may determine whether you ever start developing your project.

Cost and Amenities

Generally, in urban areas, buyers are willing to pay a premium for living downtown. Thus, the cost of buying the unit is not going to be based on an entry-level buyer; these purchasers will be looking closely at what they get for their money, including the finishes, the appliances, and the attention to details — such as how cleverly the unit has been designed with regard to light, space, and functionality.

Again, knowing what has been successful in an area can guide developers as to whether to invest in higher-end appliances or to create fewer units with more space. Some of these things will be determined for you through a market study. For example, if each local builder is installing stainless steel appliances, for example, you know you have to do the same or better to compete.

For suburban developments, the buyers have a set amount that they want to spend, and they want to know how much square footage they are getting for each dollar and where that space goes, whether it is allocated to bedrooms or to living rooms. The urban crowd is more adaptable, whereas suburbanites, who are looking more at face value, require you adapting to them.

Amenities may mean different things to the suburban buyer, as well. While some suburban buyers are looking for the communal pool or functional clubhouse with a playground for kids, for other buyers may want proximity to the interstate or to a local school that is A-rated. Job proximity may also be a special amenity for suburbia.

Finding out the specific amenities that lure buyers to a particular suburban area is another reason why performing a market study is so important.


With urban infill developments, there's a current expected environmental impact. Electrical lines and water/sewer mains and pipes usually already exist and are in place; drainage conditions are already established. A developer simply has to adapt to what's there. It's more forgiving on the environmental scale but more limiting on the human scale.

With urban infill, you're basically building over what was there before. However, you must do your due diligence to what was there, especially with regard to hazardous materials. You could have an old parcel that used to be a gas station that may have a leaky tank under the surface, or you could be dealing with an old building that has asbestos. In such cases, infill may actually improve the environmental impact to the parcel.

In suburban areas, a developer has to be more environmentally conscious, as you're dealing with larger-scale environmental issues. Some questions you will have to ask may include, "Can I build on this area? What kind of soil does it have? Is it wetlands? Are there tree issues? Are there any endangered species present?"

For example, because the soil may have never been built on before, tests will need to be conducted. Sometimes the soil isn't capable of withstanding the load, and you may have to bring in rock to support the kind of structures you want to build.

Another example: You may have to create a preserve area or provide wetlands remediation for the land you're building on. You'll have to know what the local environmental ordinances require and what native species live on that land in order to comply with any laws that govern the flora and fauna. In Florida, wetlands are a prime example of an environmental issue that will have to be dealt with before building commences. Clearly, it's easy to have deep environmental issues on a suburban site.

Developers who are attune to the differences that make urban infill and suburban development unique from each other will be able to create successful communities no matter where they build.

About the Author

George Abadie is president of Seacoast Construction Inc., which is currently developing luxury townhomes on an urban infill development in Delray Beach as well as an attainable housing suburban development with more than 400 units in Fort Myers. For more information on Seacoast Construction, please call 786-888-8400 or visit them online at
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