By Tim Hunt
Poor downtown zoning decision should be reversedUploaded: Aug 5, 2021
Contrasting zoning debates offers insights into priorities for community leaders.
Consider that Berkeley, AKA the People’s Republic of Berzerkley, is moving to eliminate traditional single-family zoning so up to four units could be built on what formerly were single-family lots. It’s an approach being pushed by advocates of either greatly increased densities or those who contend that historical single-family zoning was designed to keep neighborhoods all white. The move significantly lessens city control.
Contrast that with Pleasanton where the city loves its single-family suburban neighborhoods and is trying to custom design its historic Main Street. Last month, the Planning Commission unanimously voted for a policy mandating 100% retail uses on Main Street storefronts. The commission’s goal was to simplify admittedly confusing language about retail uses on the first floor of buildings.
Retail across the country is suffering, whether its shopping malls such as Stoneridge Shopping Center, department stores or downtown districts. Remember that the JCPenney store at Stoneridge is in business only after the mall owner, Simon Property Co. and another major mall company bought it out of bankruptcy. Presumably, Simon was not interested in seeing one of its showcase malls in an upscale community, down to a single anchor store (Macy’s) after both Sears and Nordstrom closed.
I’m thankful to Peter MacDonald, a land use attorney and former Pleasanton City Attorney (who also holds a planning degree) for sending along a commentary and an interesting article with a different perspective. MacDonald’s letter ran in the last edition of the Pleasanton Weekly. The article by McNellis Partners offers both a historical perspective and current reality. It’s entitled, “A Vaccine for Retail?”
The writer comments, “Excess capacity — too many stores — has been American retail’s primary chronic condition for decades. In 2017, Forbes noted, “Since 1995, the number of shopping centers in the U.S. has grown by more than 23% and the total gross leasable area by almost 30%, while the population has grown by less than 14%.” According to Forbes, America has roughly 50 square feet of retail space per capita while Europe has just 2.5 square feet. We have too many retailers selling the same — let’s call it stuff — in every city in the country. “
They predict, “every city in the country will be confronted with dying malls and vacancy-pocked shopping districts.”
McNellis offers three solutions:
1. Do no harm. “…given the headwinds, it would be optimistic to assume that retail will return any time soon, if ever, to even a zero-sum game (that is, vacancies offset by new tenants). Cities zoning more retail are in danger of creating instant blight, storefronts that will never fill. To get healthy, retail needs to shrink to a sustainable size — somewhere between us and Europe’s size zero — then stabilize. In particular, trendy cities must abandon their mixed-use fantasies. Too much bad retail — space that will never lease — has already been constructed by reluctant office and apartment developers. Why? They were forced to by starry-eyed urban planners dreaming of turning their towns into Manhattan’s west side. For retail to have a fighting chance, it needs three things: great access, visibility and traffic (whether vehicular or pedestrian). Few mixed-use projects offer even one of these prerequisites.”
For a local example, look at the empty store fronts in the apartment building across from the east Dublin-Pleasanton BART station or those empty kiosks at the BART station that never have had a consistent occupant.
2. …loosen up the zoning” isn’t as catchy as do no harm, but it’s as important. Traditional retail zoning requires that a merchant actually sells stuff, hard goods like books or soft like clothing. Cities need to face the reality that those are the types of businesses on the double secret endangered list, the uses most vulnerable to e-commerce; once they go, they’re gone. Mandating only “true retailers” in a shopping district is like building a bird house for passenger pigeons. Won’t matter how pretty it is, they’re still extinct. How do you loosen up the zoning? Easy: First you shrink the retail districts themselves, then you allow in any business that has a customer, a patient, a client, a student, or any sort of visitor at all. You drop your prohibition against banks and financial services, you permit dentists, travel agents, gyms, yoga studios, doctors — even lawyers and palm readers — every personal service imaginable to occupy those otherwise unfillable retail storefronts.”
3. ““Third, cut the regulations” is less catchy still, but the fancy cities should take a page from the provincial towns that go all-out to spark development. A few years ago, we approached a small town on Interstate 5 about a supermarket we wanted to build. “When can you break ground?” was the city manager’s only question. And, true to his word, the town approved our plans as fast as we could submit them. National retailers have choices about where to locate, where to expend their efforts. Often, a given city is no more appealing than 20 others. And retailers have feelings (most of them, anyway); they want to go where they feel welcomed. Hence, the great appeal of Texas.”
These are wise recommendations that city leaders would do well to consider. Pleasanton, by planning standards, has had way too many restaurants downtown for years yet there are many that have thrived for decades. There’s also quite a churn because of the competition.