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Bringing Commercial Uses Closer to Existing Residential Neighborhoods, Part II

photo of Winter Park, Florida, main street
Commercial uses can best mesh with adjoining residential neighborhoods when they are have attractive streetscapes and are pedestrian-oriented.

In my last column, I wrote about concerns residents are likely to have when a commercial district is proposed for the edge of their neighborhood and offered some strategies for addressing those concerns.

In this column, I want to address development standards for these districts. While the job of putting together standards for neighborhood commercial districts will largely be in the hands of your staff planner, I thought it would be helpful to provide those of you who serve as planning commissioners (or interested citizens) an overview of the types of concerns often addressed in neighborhood commercial zoning districts.

Viewed at their broadest, regulations for neighborhood commercial districts should be designed to:

  • Create a pedestrian-oriented environment.
  • Mitigate negative off-site impacts from commercial establishments to the greatest extent feasible.
  • Provide for monitoring and enforcement of any potential negative off-site impacts.

Below are some specific components that are often considered as part of the district regulations. Note that not all the items identified below will be found in the land development code. Some may be in other parts of the city or county code and some may be in the form of policies and procedures.

1. Uses — Provide certainty to neighbors by being specific in establishing appropriate uses. You can also list uses that are prohibited. For example, will restaurants with outdoor dining be permitted? Will outdoor entertainment be permitted? If so, will speaker systems be allowed?

2. Building design — Consider how important it is to regulate the look of buildings. Architectural consistency with the neighborhood may be desirable, or it may be sufficient to address certain design aspects such as the location of the front entry, the amount of windows facing the street (and whether they can be tinted or frosted), and prohibited materials (e.g., metal) or colors.

3. Building scale and intensity — Building height can be regulated by an absolute figure (e.g., 50 feet) or by proximity to other development (e.g., if adjoining one story residential, non-residential development may not exceed 40 feet). Where building lots are large enough, building heights can “step back” (i.e., building heights closer to residential lots are lower and heights closer to the commercial street are higher).

The overall mass of the building can be regulated by establishing a maximum floor area ratio. (Floor area ratio, or “FAR,” is the ratio of building square foot to lot size. For example, a 20,000 square foot building on a 10,000 square foot lot has a floor area ratio of 2.0.)

4. Parking standards — Adequate parking in the commercial district will reduce the likelihood of customers parking in the residential areas. This is particularly true if businesses will be operating when people are generally at home. Too much parking on-site, however, will negate the goal of creating a pedestrian orientated area. Consider whether on-street parking can be provided (see discussion on streetscape standards, below). It may also be possible for local government to acquire one or two lots in the new commercial district and provide a common off-street parking area.

5. Lighting — Ensure that on-site lighting promotes customer safety but does not spill over to residential properties.

6. Signage — Consider not only the size of freestanding signs, but what kind of lighting will be allowed (e.g., to prevent glare that might affect neighboring properties). Be sure to address signage on buildings as well.

7. Hours of operation — Remember to address not just business hours, but the impact early morning deliveries might have.

8. Trash and recycling — Trash containers should not be too close to adjoining residential properties, and they should also not be visible from public right of way. Often, commercial waste is collected in dumpsters, which are out of scale in neighborhood commercial districts. You will need to coordinate with the solid waste service provider on realistic solutions.

9. Loading and unloading — Typical development standards accommodate large delivery trucks. Special standards may be needed to limit vehicle size. Another option is to allow loading and unloading from the street at designated times (e.g., non-rush hour times).

10. Streetscape standards — These standards, sometimes called thoroughfare standards, regulate the public area of the commercial district. They will address issues such as sidewalk widths, design of bus stops, street lighting and signage, lane widths, on-street parking, posted speeds, and driveway and access standards.

11. Monitoring enforcement — Make sure your community has effective procedures and mechanisms for dealing with nuisances. Noise, speeding, and illegal parking are examples of potential problems that will need to be addressed.

In addition to development standards, regulations should contain a clear statement of intent. At a minimum, the statement of intent should include the aim of establishing commercial districts that are pedestrian oriented and stress the importance of regulating offsite impacts to adjoining residential areas. This statement will reinforce the significance of the standards and will provide guidance when requests are made to modify the standards for a specific project.

It is clear from the breadth of this list of issues that the development of neighborhood commercial district regulations will likely involve a number of municipal departments. Those that are used to doing things a certain way may resist change. Just as it is important to involve nearby residents early in the process of creating a new commercial district, it is equally important to get early buy-in from those agencies who will be implementing these new standards.

In conclusion, there are good reasons for a local government to create a neighborhood commercial district, but accomplishing this goal is not easy. Success will require a thorough analysis of conditions, a well-structured public involvement process, and the coordinated commitment of numerous agencies and departments.

Wendy Grey, AICP, is principal of Wendy Grey Land Use Planning LLC which works with public, private, and non-profit clients on planning and land use issues. Prior to establishing her own firm in September 2002, Grey spent 20 years in the public sector dealing with development and growth management in Florida, including ten years as Planning Director for Tallahassee and Leon County. 

Ediitor’s Note: The Creekside Project

Ted Shekell (author of Talking Behind the Public’s Back — The Ex Parte Problem) is planning director for the City of O’Fallon, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis. Ted relates one experience his community had with a commercial development proposed near a long-time residential neighborhood — which didn’t go as well as planners and the planning commission had hoped.

read Ted Shekell’s comments about the Creekside Promenade project.