A hundred years ago, the American dream was the want to be a small business owner. People flocked to America in droves from around the world in search of a better life—bringing their cultural influences with them. They opened bakeries. Corner stores. Taverns. Breweries. Ice cream shops. Grocery stores. Newspaper shops. In a suburban building surrounded by parking? Absolutely not—neither cars nor zoning existed back then. These were simple two- and three-story, mixed-use, commercial buildings that were sprinkled within dense residential neighborhoods, with storefronts on the first floor and apartments above. They were built intentionally and incrementally over time with the goal to last generations.
The exterior of these legacy shops were lovely, but what went on inside was magical. These mixed-use buildings served their owners twofold: allowing for their business to thrive and providing a safe place for their family to grow. For decades, these legacy neighborhood shops within residential neighborhoods played an essential part of our society, providing jobs, food, necessities, products, and often, a third place away from home and work where people could dance, drink, learn, and socialize.
Sadly, with the rise of the automobile and nearly every city in America adopting suburban-style zoning codes in the 1950s and 60s, these neighborhood shops became illegal. We know the arguments people had…and still have today. As a zoning board official, I can hear them now: No parking? No front yard?! A commercial space in a residential neighborhood?! No way!
So what happened? Why are so many of these mixed-use buildings often vacant today? Unloved? Non-financeable? Sadly, the adoption of suburban-style zoning codes made them illegal and that, combined with increasing car dependency and our shift to corporate big-box stores, led to the ultimate demise of many of these neighborhood shops. One by one, they closed. And with each closure, the properties declined in value and neighborhoods often lost their “glue,” causing more and more people to drive to big box stores on the outskirts of town to get the needs that were once met within walking distance. If the building doesn’t have value, the banks won’t lend for repairs. Disinvestment consumes the buildings. Neighborhoods that once contributed greatly to the tax base lose property value, which means they lose taxable income for needed services. The cycle is vicious.
Today, many Americans live in legacy cities with those old legacy neighborhood shopfronts still tucked inside residential districts. Some are vacant. Others converted to residential apartments. If you’re super lucky, maybe you have an existing legacy business from yesteryear that is still in operation.
So, what can we do to bring these spaces back to life? How do we reverse this cycle? Let’s look to Buffalo, New York, as an example.
Buffalo, like many legacy cities, has a ridiculous amount of these legacy shops in residential areas (not necessarily on a main street or commercial artery), just sitting there waiting for love. A hundred years ago, it was the Italians who came to my neighborhood and built these buildings. I counted 35 of them in my neighborhood on a bike ride once. Thirty-five! Imagine 35 small businesses contributing to the local economy. If each business had two or three employees, that would be 100 jobs in the neighborhood. That’s 100 people renting apartments or buying houses, shopping locally, going out to dinner, paying taxes, etc. The small spaces are humble, allowing for them to remain affordable throughout time. Their presence adds to the walkability of the neighborhood, which increases property values, and each little shop increases the strength and resilience of the local economy. This, in my humble opinion, is where we should focus economic development dollars in our neighborhoods—though sadly, it is often ignored.
Buffalo took a bold leap when we passed the Buffalo Green Code in 2017. Most of the Strong Towns folks know us for being the first major U.S. city to get rid of minimum parking requirements citywide. But we took many other bold actions in the code, one of which being Section 6.1.1.F, the neighborhood shops provision. With one paragraph (and some nuanced details), we legalized these commercial buildings sitting inside residential neighborhoods—allowed with a special use permit! You can read the code and the specific provision details here .
Neighborhood Shops. An applicant is eligible to apply for a special use permit to establish or expand a commercial use in the N-2R or N-3R zone where the below criteria are met, irrespective of the limitations of Table 6A: These criteria are intended to allow existing commercial buildings in residential zones to be utilized to incubate small businesses and artisans in order to serve as catalysts for neighborhood revitalization, as a tool for economic development, and as an important component of the walkability of a neighborhood.
The change in the code has, without question, led to dozens of projects throughout the city. The reopening of these legacy spaces for barber shops, bodegas, halal markets, restaurants…just one small paragraph in the code has opened the door for the American dream to be fulfilled yet again.
Here are a few examples of lessons learned from Buffalo!