2006-12-07, 11:55

Bob Kettler on mixed use: avoid the "fake experience"

By: Jonathan Groner
On Site, the quarterly real estate magazine of the Washington Business Journal, features an interview with Bob Kettler in its winter 2006-07 issue, just published. Bob Kettler is the chairman and principal owner of Kettler, a major D.C.-area multifamily developer. Kettler is now working on high-rises at Reston Town Center in Reston, Va.

Kettler said some interesting things about mixed use in the interview, as follows:


Q. Will compact town-center developments continue to surge?

A. Yes, for two reasons. The way people live their lives now -- 70 percent of households are what you would call nontraditional households now. They're more desirous of having a higher-density environment that's close to transit, close to work, and serves as an area where they can really have intellectual communication with their peers. This is the No. 1 region in the country, according to [George Mason University professor and author] Richard Florida for the creative class. The higher proportion of creative-class types in your general population, the more attuned they are to urban living. We're addressing that.

The other reason is just a land shortage. There isn't any significant amount of master-planned low-density ground left within 50, 60 miles of Washington, D.C. So the only other alternative is development or redevelopment of high-density communities that are on transit lines -- either on approved or fully developed interestate infrastructure or state highway infrastructure near employment or on rail.

* * *

Q. Is there less anxiety from lenders financing mixed-use now?

A. Mixed-use as a single-product finance is still a head-scratcher for a lot of financial institutions. Generally you have to break it down into pieces and finance it that way.

Q. Are the design and retailing of town centers becoming too repetitive?

A. If a developer is focused on how a project looks -- and what's driving it is just to have this faux environment -- then it's going to fail. If it works -- if it's got the mix of uses, the connections and relationships of places, spaces, uses that function in a real way -- it's not going to have that sort of monotonous fake experience because people are really going to walk to work, they're really going to walk to their car, they're really going to go to the movies or go shopping. It will develop character as it's used and as ownership gets divided out.

At Reston Town Center, the first phase by a single developer gave it a new and a bit sterile look. But over time, now that there are five or six developers here and stores have come and gone, you have different people on and off the boards at Reston, you have different types of governance taking care of the place and multiple owners. It's developing a patina of a real town. Places take time.

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Kettler's distinction between "real" and "fake" urban experiences is intriguing. I wonder what specific features of a development contribute to a "real" experience.

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