Honing your zoning? Here are a few tips. - by Carol Todreas

June 15, 2018 - Front Section
Carol Todreas,
Todreas Hanley Associates

If you count the malls and shopping centers with stand alone street retail space there is roughly 50 s/f of retail per capita. This is approximately 5x to 10x more than in other developed countries. Note also that Internet retail sales are growing by leaps and bounds and now account for 20% of total retail sales. So even though there have been closures and bankruptcies we still have a glut of brick and mortar retail space.

The state of retail is fragile; yet, it is not all doom and gloom. On a positive note, retailers are emerging from the Internet with new concepts and some of yesterday’s grand dames are working on new models to re-energize their stores. All are taking far less space than before the deluge of the Internet and most still consider their stores an experiment–a work in progress. As far as retail development is concerned, strong demographic areas are in demand; in lesser demographic locations where retail is in low supply, developers are not able to easily make the leap, let alone bring along their investors. 

These are the market conditions and how municipalities deal with zoning greatly affects the future of their commercial streets and districts.

Ordinances need to be carefully crafted to reflect the current social and economic changes that we are undergoing at rapid pace with retail, transportation and overall consumer behavior. Never before has change been so quick and despite the plethora of Big Data, predicting any one trend with the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers is far from being error-free. So far they show little consistency in their consumer habits.

While rezoning for each municipality will obviously be unique, two key considerations should guide municipalities as they enter the updating process: 

First, the quantity of retail in most neighborhoods needs to be less than in the previous century with small-scale stores and restaurants encouraged and readily accessible to pedestrians. 

Second, required retail at the ground floor of buildings should be broadly defined to include other commercial, recreational, cultural and educational uses that reflect how residents want and need to live in their neighborhoods.

To get the best results planning consultants and civic officials should encourage an open and inviting process. With community participation, flexibility in design, and inventive approaches, zoning for retail can benefit residents with new construction that adds value to the residential and commercial real estate.

Carol Todreas is a principal at Todreas Hanley Associates, Cambridge, Mass.


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