Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cracks in the Building Blocks of Mixed Use Vitality

On my recent trip surveying many recent urbanist developments in South Carolina and Georgia, one of the worrisome conditions I encountered in some of the neighborhood developments I came across was their relative lack of continuity with existing business corridors and neighborhood centers. Even the most excellent of the urbanist developments (such as DPZ's Habersham and Dover, Kohl and Partners' Glenwood Park) seemed to be inwardly focused; as a consequence, their mixed use neighborhood centers and most of their retail assets seemed to suffer from relative lack of business exposure. I just hope the depopulated conditions I encountered only reflect the post-holiday winter doldrums. Nonetheless, I was left quite discomfited by the supportability of their storefronts. The notion of empty storefronts overtaking these developments should really worry us as urbanists. The UK's High Street Blues and the empty storefronts popping up all over Manhattan, aren't exactly a great argument for Jane Jacobs style urbanism. I shudder to think how the failure of recent LEED-ND worthy development can sell urbanism to banks and developers.

There are enough special challenges to overcome in the implementation of mixed use development...enough to make even a well-meaning architect stay up at night.'s easy to build a vital city streetcape in Legoland, but in reality, it is almost a miracle to design and execute. And once realized, the vitality of mixed use buildings continues to remain tenuous, primarily because retail downstairs tends to have a much higher turnover and inherent fragility than the residential portion of the development, which places extra challenges on those wanting to invest in such real estate options.

A friend of mine, who lives in the Iveys Building on Tryon Street in Uptown Charlotte right in the shadow of BOA Headquarters, tells me BOA is desperately trying to unload foreclosed units, so right now they are going for a steal. Yet my friend recounted to me his frustrating experience finding financing to purchase another condo unit in the building, which he is eager to invest in. He can't find a willing lender as the Iveys contains retail space that is more than 20% of the total building area. FHA will not allow loans for that condition, as retail failure would impact the solvency of the HOA. The fact that the retail fronts our High Street in Charlotte bears no impact. Like the UK's boneheaded empty shop tax, FHA regulations and compliance standards pose a withering blow to the continuity of mixed use investment on Charlotte's Tryon Street. Are High Street Blues coming soon to Charlotte?


emathias said...

I don't quite follow what the point of your post is - it's kinda all over the map. All-in-one mixed-use developments aren't anything like what Jane Jacob's advocated for. She'd probably like them about as much as she liked expressway building in Manhattan - which is to say not at all.

As for vacancies on high streets, in the biggest recession in generations it's hardly shocking to see empty storefront, and it's not (at all) limited to urban neighborhoods. In the Chicago area, the ubiquitous suburban shopping centers, strip malls, carry the highest vacancy rates of any form of retail development in the area. A bad economy is a bad economy, and trying to tease out universal development truths based on that is a perilous endeavour.

Eric Orozco said...

I realize Jane cared more about the "mixture of users" creating the ballet of the street, than the vertical mixture of uses, but I doubt we can overstate her opposition to mixed use typology as such, ...if for no other reason than the kind of places she made known she admired. Like her, I'm very concerned about the accessibility of different uses in creating well-used streets.

Just in case I'm misunderstood, let me be clear that nowhere in this post am I advocating an opposition to the mixed use typology (in fact, I'm quite a fan)...I am pointing out the immense challenges that remain to the mixed use development from a number of different angles, including legal and federal barriers that challenge the economic vitality of mixed use development (in particular condominium investment in low to midrise buildings that characterize vital streets). Opponents of mixed use buildings should keep in mind the larger issues that challenge the form ...These remain special contemporary issues a proponent of urbanism should always keep in mind and should always sensitively "tease out" from existing implementations, regardless where they occur. I raise them here hoping to receive insight to addressing these challenges. ')

Daniel said...

I agree that vertical mixed-use is very challenging. Although I remain committed to it in theory, it's probably the first place I'd compromise if developers just can't get a project through the financial and legal system. Charlottesville did a zoning rewrite a few years ago that required mixed-use buildings along a Main St. corridor. There have not been many takers, and many of the lots remain vacant. The rewrite was done in 2002, so it's been in place during both the boom and bust cycle. Just recently, the planning commission has allowed developers to fudge on the mixed-use, and a couple of site plans have been approved. I think this is probably a good way to go ... for now at least.