In a previous post, I discussed why a "walkable" small town makes a lot of sense, but not always for the same reasons that it does in larger, more metropolitan areas.
The argument I made, was that creating more traditional looking downtowns (where there are sidewalks and buildings built close to those sidewalks, and where there is a mix of offices, retail stores and nearby residential) is good economic development. Sure there are some other potential benefits - some reduction in greenhouse gases if people drive less, less congestion on the roads, and even the potential for some of us getting a bit more exercise into our daily routine - but to me the argument that will win the day in small towns is the benefits for the local economy.
In a nutshell, it just makes a lot of sense to me that if you are trying to help your small businesses succeed, you would want to make it convenient for people to get to those businesses. A significant part of that goal though, is not just making it convenient to get to a single store (which is the idea behind building wider roads and letting businesses put up big signs on the side of those roads and having lots of parking visible from the road), but making it convenient and attractive for people to access multiple stores once they get out of their car. Once you are able to make it easy for people to get from one store to another, the chances that they will shop at those other stores increases.
As promised, I want to lay out a few common mistakes we have made in our small towns that work against the idea that it should be convenient to get from one store to another - or from your office to various retail stores - without having to get back in your car and finding another parking spot down the road.
1. Minimum lot line setbacks - one of the staples of a typical zoning ordinance is the idea that we need to create space between buildings. While this can certainly be appropriate if you have a neighborhood of single-family residential homes or if you are dealing with a business bumping up against a residential area, it only serves to make it more difficult to create "walkability" in areas with retail and office buildings. The further you spread buildings out, the further people need to walk.
- Solution: Allow much lesser setbacks to side property lines - something in the range of 0-5 feet. Work with your local fire department and other emergency service providers to make sure you don't create access problems to buildings and that there are appropriate safeguards in place as buildings are constructed.
2. Minimum road setbacks - while it is certainly appropriate to have some type of distance that buildings need to be from a road to assure public safety, pushing buildings more than 10-15 feet from a road begins to make an areas feel more "auto-friendly" than "people-friendly". You just don't feel like getting out of your car and walking up and down a street unless there is a clearly defined sidewalk or pedestrian area and the stores are all relatively built right up to that sidewalk.
- Solution: Instead of a minimum setback, create a maximum setback from the road in certain areas where you really want to create the "traditional downtown" feel.
3. Excessive off-street parking requirements - this is actually one of the more tricky issues for small towns. While large urban areas have at least the possibility of creating extensive public transportation systems to allow people to leave their cars at home, small towns are less likely to have those systems. Thus, we obviously cannot eliminate off-street parking altogether. On the other hand, requiring businesses to have enough parking for the Christmas shopping rush on their own lot creates large parking lots that spread the businesses further and further apart from eachother. Again, it is not likely that people will find it convenient to stop at one store and also walka short distance over to another store.
- Solution: Find areas where you can create shared parking lots - whether those are city-owned lots or private lots. When you match these up with an area where buildings are closer together, where there is a mix of office and retail, your ability to make it convenient for people to get to work and shop at multiple stores while only parking once increases significantly. It may take some time to make the transition from the more suburban style areas we have now to the more traditional downtown layouts you're working toward, but finiding areas for shared or public parking lots is an essential element to this transition.
4. Lack of sidewalks - this is probably obvious as you think about the other issues, but if you want people to get from their office to businesses or from business to business, you need some public space for them to walk on. In our suburban, big box style of commercial development over the last 20 years, we have completely done away with sidewalks - not just within developments, but connecting one commercial area to another.
- Solution: As part of your zoning codes, require that new development install sidwalks that fit into a larger network of other sidewalks. In already developed areas without sidewalks, at least make sure that you reserve the area you need to put in sidewalks later on as it becomes more practical and necessary when the layout begins to change.
5. Burdensome requirements for remodeling/reuse of existing buildings - while minimum building standards and codes can create a lot of benefits, they also have the potential of greatly increasing the costs of remodeling existing buildings. If I have to completely gut an otherwise perfectly good building just so that I can get an elevator in or make sure the doors are wide enough or whatever other standards there may be, the likelihood of an older or vacant building being returned to useful service is greatly decreased. This makes it harder to create the critical mass of stores and offices in an area that helpyour businesses thrive.
- Solution: Work with your local building and elected officials. Find ways to reduce the financial barrier to remodeling or reusing existing buildings (you may need to systematically go through your codes and consider what impact each would have on somone wanting to remodel a building). Where you are stuck with certain codes because of state laws or because you feel that particular code is non-negotiable, find ways to subsidize these costs. While we generally rail against public subsidies in most cases on TPB.com (particularly those subsidies that create the need for even more public spending), this is one subsidy that really can be effetive. For one, it is helping you to create the type of community you want, and secondly it tends toonly be necessary one time - once the building isremodeled, the costs of future remodeling can be much less and a subsidy shouldn't be necessary again.
One final note - creating the flexibility for more walkability in your codes doesn't mean you have to completely eliminate areas for the more familiar big box stores. While some communities will choose to do that, others may find that creating distinct areas within their community - one for more auto-oriented uses and another for a more walkable area - is entirely appropriate and probably necessary to ensure a good mix of businesses in your community. The idea is to create a space and the flexibility in your ordinances so that there can be a good mix of office, retail, public buildings and public spaces so that it is attractive for people to be there. Once you've created that initial energy where people want to be there, the old adage "location, location, location" will begin to take hold and you'll see businessses succeed as they locate in the areas that are more convenient for customers to find them.