The best way to get developers to accept urban criteria is to make the rules clear and simple.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 28, 2007
The big box industry already dominates suburban and exurban commercial development. In their search for new markets to exploit, big box developers are looking at urban centres, which until now have resisted their block busting, sidewalk smashing designs.
Constrained by rising costs that threaten their business model as well as new urbanist civic design regulations, big box stores are trying to reinvent themselves by putting on an urban, pedestrian friendly face.
An urban, pedestrian-friendly big box store in Madison, Wis. (Image Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
The Hamilton Spectator reports that CPP Investment Board, the crown corporation that owns Centre Mall, has released a $100 million proposal to redevelop the mall into a "super centre" with 23 buildings.
RTH has been following this story since the idea first surfaced in June 2005 of redeveloping Centre Mall. Early reports indicated a big box development. Since that time, the developer seems to have made some concessions to the mall's urban surroundings:
Ray Lee, acting manager of development planning, said the buildings on the site will be grouped around the edge of the property.
"It's going to create a friendly, pedestrian-oriented design, rather than a commercial island in a sea of parking along Barton Street," he said.
Well, maybe. We'll have to see more details before we can draw conclusions about whether this represents a truly urban project or mere greenwashing. After all, the current model for big box stores is already to place the store around the perimeter, with the openings facing into the interior parking lot.
Again, early signs are not encouraging. Jason Leach saw some blueprints and so far, the plan emphasizes one-storey slab buildings (except a building called the "food court", which rates two storeys).
Don't hold your breath for the city to intervene and demand better. According to a related Spec article, the city is focusing on "'nuts and bolts' issues such as the number of parking spaces, set back requirements and landscaping." Parking and setback requirements are inimical to good urban design.
To be truly urban and pedestrian-friendly - in other words, to create a sense of place welcoming enough that people will actually walk there - the Centre Mall redesign should meet the following criteria:
Human Scaling. Big box stores are notorious for their large, featureless and hulking designs (they are literally "big boxes" plonked into an otherwise flat lot). Urban big box stores need to provide architectural cues to scale: a taller, more prominent main floor, a delineation between levels above the main floor, and a height that is compatible with neighbouring buildings.
Mixed Use. Ideally, any urban block should contain residential, commercial and office/industrial uses. This reduces the need to travel to destinations, creates a built-in local market, and results in people being on the street at all hours of the day. This is better for business and the continuous "eyes on the street" is safer from crime.
Build to the sidewalk. Off-street surface parking between the street and the storefront kills streetlife dead. Parking requirements should be left up to the developer, and any parking should be located indoors or behind the buildings.
Open onto the sidewalk. It's not enough just to put the buildings around the perimeter of the block. After all, that's how most big box developments are configured today - only they open inwards into the interior parking lot.
Continuous streetwall. Big gaps between the stores destroy the continuity that transforms the street into a coherent outdoor space, while the laneways make it dangerous and unpleasant to walk.
Wide sidewalks and streetscaping. People need room to meander and browse. Narrow sidewalks communicate the message that pedestrians are not really welcome. Further, sidewalks need to be beautiful, clean and, especially, tree-lined to provide shade, fresh air, and an attractive, welcoming environment.
The best way to get developers to accept these criteria is to make the building rules clear and simple. Today, the mishmash of cumbersome, counterproductive regulations is a major disincentive to investing downtown. As the city's Residential Intensification Study [PDF] points out:
Antiquated zoning rules, especially setbacks and off-street parking, weaken the project economics by increasing costs and reducing the amount of space available for saleable units.
For direction on how to update our planning framework, Toronto's King-Spadina Secondary Plan is instructive for both the simplicity of its rules and the incredible success of its implementation.
It gives developers ease and flexibility, which lower the barriers to investment. For the community, it has the benefit of preserving those crucial design elements that create vibrant urban spaces.King-Spadina is a tremendous confirmation of Jane Jacobs' contention that the best role of planners is to set the parameters for good development and then get out of the way.
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