Friday, July 31, 2020

Post #9: Building Mixed Use Density - Part 3

In my two previous posts in this series, I explained why I believe that midwestern cities need to raise their overall density and I discussed some key issues in the design of mixed use districts.  Although what I’m advocating isn’t really “high density” when looked at from a big city perspective, in most midwestern cities it is likely to perceived as high density because it is likely to be substantially denser than what most people are used to given the low density sprawl to which we have all become accustomed.  Consequently, these mixed use developments should be carefully placed in locations where they really make sense, not scattered willy-nilly across the community if you want to minimize community opposition and maximize the chances for a successful development.  Evaluating locational options will be the subject of this post.

Before I get into the details of what constitutes a good location for mixed use density, there are two concepts that decision makers need to understand.  One deals with the profit motivations of developers and the other deals with the default assumptions underlying many NIMBY arguments.

The easiest way to make money.  The value of land in an urban area is generally defined by the amount of development potential that the land holds.  The higher the development potential, the higher the price per square foot of land area.  There are obviously a lot of practical considerations that go into making this determination such as the market demand for the type of development being proposed, the capacity of adjacent roads and utility infrastructure, or the shape and topography of the land itself.

But there is also a regulatory component as well which is the way in which the land has been zoned by the city, and the way in which it has been designated in the city’s long-term plans.  The zoning designation generally places very specific limits on development potential through both use and density restrictions that apply to any new development.  A city’s long-term plans come into play when a zoning change is contemplated since zoning changes should (in theory at least) be in compliance with those long-term plans adopted by the city.

The simplest way to make money in the development business is to find a parcel of land that meets the practical needs of your development idea but which has restrictive zoning limitations in place.  Those zoning restrictions limit its perceived development value to “X” dollars, but that can change if the developer can convince the governing body of the city to change the zoning designation to allow more intensive development.  One vote by the governing body can change the value of that parcel from X dollars to 2X or 3X or even 4X, and make a great deal of profit for the developer without moving any dirt or building any buildings.

This is why development proposals often seem to be coming “out of left field.”  While it is certainly possible that a developer has identified unforeseen potential in property that will make the community better as well as make the developer a profit, it is equally possible that the proposal will benefit only the developer and end up being disruptive for everyone else.  City leaders should be skeptical whenever a proposal requires a zoning change that is dramatically different from the existing designation or the adopted long-range land use plans.

Why does everyone oppose everything?  The world is changing, and that change is happening at an accelerating pace.  In my opinion, we are reaching the point at which change is happening faster than the average person’s capacity to adapt to change.  The result is that many people feel that their current lifestyle is threatened and they are scared that the future will be worse rather than better.  Scared people seek refuge, and for many that refuge is their home.

Little wonder then, that development proposals often stir up neighborhood opposition because they are seen as threatening that last refuge.  The status quo may not be perfect, but it is a known quantity.  Far better than a hard-to-understand development proposal brought forward by developers assumed to be self-serving and greedy, and approved by politicians assumed to be corrupt or easily swayed by big business.

I believe the level of neighborhood animosity is as much related to the level of the perceived threat brought on by societal change as it is by the specifics of the development proposal.  A bad proposal, of course, will rightly anger the neighbors, but even relatively benign proposals can generate opposition from those who are simply tired of change.  This often takes the form of an irrational nostalgia for the “way things used to be” paired with highly exaggerated assessments of development impacts such as traffic, noise or crime.  The end result is an increasingly rabid level of opposition that is resistant to logic and reasoned discussion.

If left unanswered, this type of opposition can lead to the election of local leaders who are so anti-development that they vote against virtually all development proposals that deviate from the way things were done in the past.  While this might be popular with those citizens threatened by change, in my opinion it is disastrous for cities trying to prepare for a future that almost assuredly will be different than the past.

Where moderate density, mixed use districts make sense

 I think there are three keys to finding good locations for mixed use density.  They are not all necessarily essential, but the most successful projects tend to have some elements of all three factors.  There may, of course, be local issues that also come into play and can eliminate an otherwise promising site.  I don’t mean to ignore local issues, but I’m going to focus on more universal concerns that I think apply across virtually all midwestern cities.

Build where infrastructure already exists.  In previous posts, I have talked about the dire financial conditions that many cities find themselves in and the need to increase tax density in areas that already have municipal infrastructure and services.  Moderate density, mixed use districts have a much higher tax value per acre than traditional, suburban style development.  But to maximize the benefit, it needs to be built where infrastructure is already in place which means we are typically talking about the redevelopment of an older part of town rather than new

development on the edge of town.  As is generally the case with redevelopment, there may be a need for some selective infrastructure upgrades, but these are almost always far cheaper than extending infrastructure into areas where nothing currently exists.  In nearly every midwestern city, infrastructure was designed and built with excess capacity, which means that density increases can almost always be handled without significant problems.

One type of infrastructure deserves special attention and that is alternative transportation systems.  One of the important lifestyle benefits that can help mixed use developments be successful is the ability to substitute walking, biking or transit for what would otherwise be an auto-based trip.  Some people may not take advantage of those options while others might reduce their car usage by 10 or 20 percent.  In either case, the value of having alternative transportation options is real and the target demographics for this type of development will pay for that value.  This means that moderate density, mixed use development should be located on or near existing transit services, or at least be located where future transit service is seriously contemplated.  It also means that they should be located in areas with good sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes or bike routes.

Build near other interesting stuff.  The concept of building a new town from scratch has intrigued planners ever since the inception of the profession.  It has been done, but it is hard work and it takes a long time and a lot of money.  The New Town at St Charles is a midwestern example that has been at least moderately successful.  The problem is that building a “new town” on the fringe of a metropolitan area may appear urban, but it really is just a slightly different form of suburban sprawl.  Almost all of these developments end up being expensive to live in and very auto-dependent.

A far better approach, in my opinion, is to build or redevelop in a much more “close in” location and in a more incremental way.  Finding a location that is near employment, cultural, shopping, or entertainment opportunities will make each development project more successful and will build an economically sustainable mixed use district much faster.  This is why old warehouse districts on the edge of traditional downtowns often get converted to art galleries, loft apartments and coffee houses.  The old warehouses offer cheap and flexible space, but the nearby office buildings and cultural institutions make the location marketable because there are thousands of people who are already drawn to the area. 

This approach is also likely to attract multiple developers who each want to do their own project.  Not only does this speed up the creation of a critical mass of development momentum, but it also brings a creative diversity that tends to energize the area.

Build where there are clear signs of economic distress.  This final point may be a bit counter-intuitive.  Wouldn’t it be better to build in an area that is already successful?  Adding onto an already successful district is fine, but if you really want to maximize the impact on your city, find an area where mixed use density can be an economic shot in the arm that turns a declining area into a vibrant area.

This approach has two added advantages.  First, land is likely to be cheaper and land owners more willing to sell.  In most midwestern cities, building mixed use density is riskier than doing standard suburban development so finding land at a discount makes it easier to attract investors and financing.  

Second, existing businesses and residents are likely to be more receptive to something different and more intensive if they can see that their area is in decline.  As noted above, some people may be yearning for the area to return to its former glory regardless of how unlikely that may be.  Their opposition, however, will have far less impact if more intensive redevelopment is pitched as an economic revitalization strategy.

At first glance, it may seem like I am referring only to traditional central city locations but that is not my intent.  While declining downtowns and the surrounding commercial and industrial areas can be successful locations for mixed use density, more suburban locations may have potential as well.  Many of the early suburban shopping centers, for example, are now either largely vacant or occupied by third tier retailers that pay relatively little rent.  Most of these centers are never going to be successful as retail-only developments, but they might be successful if the parking lots and some of the retail space can be converted to residential, office and entertainment uses.  To be clear, I’m not talking about adding a couple of small office buildings and an assisted living facility to a failing 500,000 square foot mall.  To be successful, it is likely that the density will need to be increased by a factor of five or more which means hundreds of residential units and 100,000 to 250,000 square feet (or more) of non-retail uses such as offices, medical facilities, or entertainment uses.

The bottom line

Over the past several decades, cities have painted themselves into a corner with low-density, auto-oriented suburban style development.  Continuing down that path will lead to a slow but inevitable spiral of declining neighborhoods, vacant storefronts, crumbling infrastructure, economic irrelevance and reduced governmental services.  Cities need to increase density -- in selected locations and with a careful design approach -- to build a more robust tax base and to offer their residents and business owners a broader range of options for places to live, work and play.

Thoughts?  As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at  Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting?  Send me an email with your name and email address.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Post #8: Building Mixed-Use Density - Part 2

In my previous post, I explained why I believe that midwestern cities need to raise their overall density.  The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to develop mixed use neighborhoods of moderately high density.  I am not advocating that density be increased everywhere and in my next post I intend to talk about identifying where the most logical places for increased density are likely to be.

I’m also not advocating for areas of extreme density -- for example, an area where most of the buildings are 20 stories or taller.  If that happens, it isn’t necessarily a disaster, but given that land values in most midwestern cities are relatively low I generally don’t think it is a wise use of resources and I don’t think it does much to enhance the character of the city or the well-being of the people occupying the building.  I certainly would be reluctant to provide any public financial assistance to “skyscraper” types of projects.

And finally, I am not advocating for high density, single purpose districts.  Whether it is a suburban office park or a downtown dominated by financial institutions and government buildings, I think it should be clear by now that single purpose districts produce a boring, sterile environment that in the long run is not as productive or adaptable as it should be.  While they may be efficient in the short term, when demand or societal needs change these types of developments have a difficult time reinventing themselves to stay economically relevant.  How many huge shopping malls are vacant or struggling now that the department stores that were their “anchors” are out of favor with shoppers and going bankrupt one after another?

So now let me pivot from what shouldn’t be done and discuss what I think should be done.  One of the reasons there aren’t more successful mixed use districts is that they are difficult to do.  There are lots of design details that need attention and there is an enormous amount of coordination that needs to take place.  Consequently, it is difficult for the private sector to build a good mixed use district without a strong, long-term partnership with the local municipality.  This is often difficult for both the public and private sectors to accept.  The private sector hates the messy and unpredictable nature of the democratic decision-making process and often doesn’t trust that the input from the public sector is in their best interests.  The public sector is often uncomfortable with the reality that nothing will get built unless nearly everyone on the private side is making a profit from the end result, and may not understand that there are limits to how much largesse can be included in a development deal.  Both sides need to get outside of their comfort zone to make it work.

The remainder of this post is going to contain design recommendations that I have grouped into three general categories.  I am not going to get into the details of who should be responsible for fulfilling each recommendation -- that is the “partnership” piece that will vary from situation to situation.  In reality, the balance and participation in the partnership will often change over time.  At some points, the city will need to be the dominant player and at other times that will shift to the private sector.  My point is that someone needs to be paying attention to the issues discussed below.

Streetscape Design

Planning for any neighborhood or district should start with the public spaces that are in between the buildings, not the buildings themselves.  The relatively recent zoning innovation known as Form Based Codes has emphasized this approach and I think it makes a great deal of sense.  Historically, streets were treated in a very perfunctory and systematic manner -- a couple of standard street designs would be applied across entire cities without much thought about the unique needs of different neighborhoods.  While some consistency is needed, there is probably just as much about a street that should be localized as there is that needs city-wide consistency.  Allowing the character of a street to be localized is a significant mental shift for most cities.

A second important shift is to start thinking of streetscape design primarily from the point of view of a pedestrian.  For the past 50 years, streetscape design was focused on the perspective of the driver or passenger in a moving vehicle.  But the goal of a good moderate-density, mixed-use district should be to increase the amount people can do without getting in a car, and that requires placing the needs of the pedestrian on an equal footing with the needs of vehicles.

Within a mixed use district, a good place to start is by categorizing all of the streets by their primary functions.  Some streets, for example, may need to be used primarily for moving vehicles -- but this is generally a far smaller number than most people would expect.  A strong grid of streets that can accommodate a moderate level of vehicular traffic is normally sufficient to meet demand.  

Some streets may serve primarily utilitarian uses such as loading docks, parking garage access, utility infrastructure, or drive-through service.  You don’t want or need very many of these, but the insistence of some planners that all streets be designed as a pedestrian paradise while relegating any utilitarian function to an alley is unrealistic.  All streets should have sidewalks, but for streets in this category the sidewalks and pedestrian amenities can be very basic.

All of the remaining streets should be designed to be very pedestrian friendly, which means wide sidewalks, frequent and highly visible crosswalks, and appropriate street furniture and landscaping.  There should also be clear accommodations given to bikes and scooters that are separate from sidewalks, and preferably separate from vehicular traffic lanes and on-street parking.  The exact balance between the various modes of movement can vary but in most midwestern cities it needs to shift dramatically away from the current bias towards cars.  

The Netherlands developed a street design known as a “woonerf” that focuses on the street as a social space that allows movement of nearly all types but does not prioritize movement.  Other places have had success with pedestrian only streets, or streets where vehicular traffic is severely limited.  The point is that most streets should be thought of as a “place” where people will want to congregate, so we need to design that place to be as interesting, safe and enjoyable as possible.

As important as it is to make walking safe and convenient, it is also important to plan for people who want to stop or linger.  Restaurant seating areas, outdoor retailing, and public gathering areas such as plazas or courtyards should be encouraged and perhaps mandated in some situations.  To enhance the experience of being in the street “place,” there should be an explicit plan for art in virtually all its forms.  Sculptures, murals, street performers, creative fountains, decorative plants and more should all have a place.  Mixed use districts need to have a distinct sense of fun and discovery as a part of their character.  Unfortunately, neither cities or developers are particularly good at “fun” or “surprising” so the rules need to be flexible enough to allow creative people to express themselves in unexpected ways so that the district takes on its own local flavor and each visit holds the potential of stumbling across something new or unexpected.

Building Design

Most architects probably dream of getting a commission with such a large construction budget that they can indulge their wildest design fantasies.  Unfortunately for them, the reality is that most buildings have to be designed to meet very tight constraints.  Architects often have little option but to design a utilitarian box with some decorative elements applied to the outside.  When it comes to a mixed-use district in an urban area, having a limited budget is not necessarily a bad thing because when architects have a big enough budget to indulge their fantasies it generally results in a building that does not blend well with anything else around it.  Although cities generally should not push for “iconic” designs, there are a few things that cities should lobby for strenuously.

Frame the streetscape.  In the paragraphs above, I made the case for thinking of most streets as a “place” where people want to be rather than just pass through.  For that to happen, the street space needs to be enclosed or framed by the adjacent buildings.  This means that the buildings generally need to be at least two stories in height, with three to five stores being preferable.  Single story buildings are not necessarily a disaster, but they should be avoided if possible and should have as tall a front facade as possible if they cannot be avoided.  It also means that each building needs to be designed to work with adjacent buildings to form walls around the streetscape place that are as continuous as possible.

Build up to the street.  This need to enclose the street space generally means that buildings should be built either on the property line adjacent to the street or at least within a few feet of the property line.  Typical suburban zoning regulations often require that buildings be set back from the street 15 to 30 feet, and many building owners want a parking lot in front of the building which means even more distance between the building and the street.  Newer zoning regulations aimed at mixed-use developments have replaced the building setback requirement with a requirement that buildings be pulled up to the street (called a “build-to” line) with parking

typically tucked behind.  This requirement is definitely beneficial, although it is often written in a way that is too restrictive -- I think that buildings could be allowed to deviate from the build-to line by 6 to 8 feet and still create the sense of enclosure that is desired.  Gaps, such as a driveway leading to a parking facility, should be kept as narrow as possible.  The primary exception should be for spaces designed as pedestrian gathering spots.  Pedestrian plazas or courtyards can provide public or semi-public spaces that can accommodate events or uses that don’t fit well in a normal street space.

Focus on the first floor.  Buildings should be designed from the perspective of a pedestrian passing by, which means that the design emphasis should be on the first (and perhaps second) floor.  Urban buildings are only occasionally seen from a distance great enough to allow the entire building to be taken in, and even that is generally only for a few seconds.  People in vehicles are typically too focused on traffic to pay much attention to building details, so that leaves pedestrians in close proximity to the building as the only ones who are likely to care about building design -- and all they are likely looking at are the first and (maybe) second floors.  So that’s where the highest quality materials should be, along with any decorative elements that provide visual interest.  In addition, the first floor should be as transparent as possible so that pedestrians can see what is happening inside.  It will make retail space more successful, restaurants more inviting, and office buildings safer, and it makes the entire streetscape a more interesting place for pedestrians to be.

Build for 100 years.  We tend to design buildings for a single purpose even though our ability to predict what our society or our economy will need from a building is limited to maybe 10 or 20 years.  Really useful urban buildings have the ability to be periodically renovated or reinvented to serve a new set of occupants with needs that are different from what was originally conceived.  The adaptability of a well designed building is what allows a bank to become a library, an office building to become residential condominiums, or a warehouse to become an urban marketplace.  In particular, building systems (wiring, plumbing and communications) need to be expandable and reconfigurable -- and occasionally, capable of being completely replaced with the newest technology.  And yes, we should design buildings that are energy efficient, but the “greenest” design element is a building that can last 100 years or more because it can be adapted to new uses rather than torn down and replaced.

Design a hierarchy of spaces.  If we have learned anything from the pandemic and the gradual re-opening from the lockdown, it should be that we need a finer gradation of spaces rather than just fully private or fully public.  The buildings that were the most comfortable to live or work in had indoor and outdoor spaces that could be semi-public areas for small to mid-sized gatherings.  Small, private spaces (such as your residence) were necessary during the lockdown but became claustrophobic over time.  Large, unrestricted spaces (such as a park or a plaza) gave us relief from the claustrophobia but were scary.  Mid-sized spaces that had some control over who was there gave us a place to reopen social channels in a responsible way.  We need to make sure that all new buildings keep that in mind because the current pandemic probably won’t be the last pandemic.

Design Features for a New Age

Some of you reading the first two sections may think that I am calling for a return to the way things used to be built 50 or 80 or 100 years ago.  While there is much to admire about that era of urban design, we can’t afford to get lost in nostalgia.  It is great to learn from the past but the future holds new challenges that cities didn’t have to deal with 80 years ago.  We need an urban design approach that provides solutions to these new challenges.  

Take transportation as an example.  Transportation in 10 years is going to be markedly different than it is today and it would have been inconceivable to developers in the early 1900s.  New mixed-use districts need to not just accommodate transportation change, but be ready to embrace and optimize the new mix of travel options.  The paragraphs below describe six additional design challenges that urban areas should be ready to address.

Accommodating pets.  I have to confess that I am not a pet person, but seemingly everyone else is.  Pets are everywhere and they will need to be accommodated by not only residential buildings but commercial buildings as well.  If you don’t see this coming, look at the rise in the number of people traveling with pets.  Taking pets to work or on your shopping trips are nascent trends now, but I predict they will be mainstream in 5 to 10 years.  I don’t know exactly what building adaptations will be needed, but businesses and building owners better give this some serious thought.

Adapting to new work environments.  Even before the pandemic, the ability to work remotely was a job perk that had significant value for millennials and Gen-Z.  Now everyone wants that ability.  I think some type of hybrid work schedule will become the most common option, but I’m not sure that it really matters.  Residential units will need to include an office nook that can be customized for work if not a separate room that can be closed off for privacy and concentration.  Commercial buildings will need to be able to accommodate office “hoteling” and will probably need more spaces designed for collaboration in small groups.  All of this will be driven by expanded wireless communication systems (both WiFi and 5G) that will need to be both robust and ubiquitous -- and at the same time secure.  

Curb space will be the new gold.  Cities have traditionally used curb space for on-street parking often without much thought or analysis, but with the number of package deliveries skyrocketing, that may no longer be the best use of that increasingly precious commodity.  UPS, FedEx and Amazon trucks often opt to double-park and block a lane of traffic when no loading zone or delivery dock is available.  As a result, they pay millions of dollars in fines each year to major cities.  Add taxis, Uber/Lyft drivers, Grubhub/DoorDash, and transit buses to the mix and there clearly is not enough curb space to go around.  Cities will need to actively manage their curb space even in areas of moderate density, and that process will undoubtedly be contentious.

Not only is the volume of deliveries likely to continue growing, but eventually autonomous vehicles will need drop-off/pick-up areas for their passengers.  Autonomous vehicles will bring the added problem of rush-hour peaks.  Apartment buildings, schools and offices are all likely to cause a surge in pick-up/drop-off demand during a very limited window of time.  Not only will cities need to dramatically increase the amount of curb space dedicated to loading areas, but they may need to regulate which kinds of services are allowed to use the loading areas during certain times of the day.  This will require an incredible amount of coordination and communication between all of the various players.

Finding green space.  Probably the largest part of the “mix” in most mixed-use districts will be residential units.  And with a growing resident population will come a need for more park space.  Cities have always provided some park space in even their most dense districts, but that space will be in demand for an increasingly wide array of uses from kids playing, to yoga classes, to community festivals.  Cities will need to develop urban park designs that are different from the suburban park designs they are more familiar with, and they will need to be more compact than the sprawling “Central Park” designs that were popular in the early 1900s.

Electric car charging.  Just a couple of years ago, the global sales of electric vehicles topped a million units for the first time (a little over 1% of total sales).  Expect that number to grow exponentially over the next 10 years.  In two or three more years, the unsubsidized cost of an electric vehicle will be roughly equal to a traditional gas vehicle.  As the durability and cost efficiency of electric vehicles becomes more obvious, they will become the default choice for certain segments of the market -- particularly affluent adult households that are often the target demographic for urban residential projects.  Those projects should be planning on having 5 to 10 percent of their parking spaces served by charging stations within the next few years, and that could grow to 20 or 25 percent by the end of the decade.  Public and commercial parking structures should probably also add a few charging stations, but overnight charging at your residence makes so much sense that I think the majority of charging capacity belongs there.

Managing underground utilities.  Most midwestern cities have been fairly lax in managing the maze of water, sewer, gas, electrical and communication lines that are essential to all forms of urban development.  The result is quite frankly an inefficient mess that increases service costs and results in some streets being almost continually under construction as repairs and upgrades are made in a haphazard fashion.  As density increases, it is my opinion that cities should take a much larger role in mapping, coordinating -- and in some cases dictating -- where utility lines are placed.  Many utility providers have only a general idea of where their underground lines are located and much of this infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.  Cities should develop standards for where each type of utility line should be located and constructed with an eye toward simplifying long-term maintenance and minimizing utility conflicts and traffic disruption when upgrades are needed.

Thoughts?  As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at  Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting?  Send me an email with your name and email address.