We Could Fit Lots of Homes in the Middle of Old Strip Malls

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How to Scale Up

If retrofits like Woburn Village are so great, why aren’t they already happening more? Well, they’re usually illegal.

The MAPC report reads: “Perhaps most often, the primary barrier toward redevelopment is regulatory—despite demand for mixed-use development throughout the region, many zoning codes prohibit or severely restrict the ability for redevelopment to occur.”

Some jurisdictions don’t allow homes and businesses to mix on the same lot. Even when they do, restrictions on what can be built can prevent redevelopment. Just like strip malls, restrictive zoning codes can be found in every pocket of the country. Let’s look at a couple of the biggest barriers the MAPC report notes:

“Height and density limits may make development impractical, financially infeasible, and less impactful.”

How many homes can fit on a site? Taller buildings split the costs of land, construction, and permitting across more homes. In Beaverton, a project underway to replace a mid-1950s shopping center with 509 homes and 56,000 square feet of commercial space was only possible because local leaders changed the local zoning code to raise height limits near transit and increase allowed building size.

“The cost and space needed to satisfy excessive parking requirements may make it impossible to build, especially on smaller parcels.”

At nearly 300 square feet per stall, parking can quickly take up more space than a home or business itself. A case study highlighted the conundrum faced by a third generation owner of a small 0.8-acre retail strip in Dedham, Massachusetts. Local parking requirements had increased since the building was originally constructed, ruling out several new uses the property owner was considering, like a bank or a grocery store. Like many other property owners in his position, he had no prior development experience and wanted to work within local zoning codes. The city codes required more space for cars than stores, at one space per 200 square feet of retail, and an additional 1.5 parking spaces for a residence. The cost of accommodating all this space for automobile parking was rolled into the rent. The result: Dior Dedham, a luxury apartment complex with ground floor retail. If cities want to add new businesses and less expensive homes to old strip malls, they’d need to avoid restrictions like those that boxed in the Dedham property owner into building the Dior Dedham.

Zoning reform on the local level is slow going. Even when city planners know what code updates would allow developments like this, it can often require an uphill political fight. That’s why the MAPC report authors suggest strong statewide incentives for local jurisdictions to make changes that would legalize these redevelopments.

A Guide for Getting There

The MAPC report’s statewide incentives wish list points a way for states to increase housing supply in their own underused retail strips. That’s the type of thinking that could benefit Oregonians, for instance, who need to find a way to double housing production for the next 20 years to meet demand. The squeeze has resulted in shortsighted proposals to make construction in wetlands easier and to expand the urban growth boundary.

But do we really need to do that to get the homes we need? Or can we get more creative with the infrastructure we already have? This report out of Boston is a good reminder that we already have the space for abundant housing—if we allow it to be built.

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