COVID-19, technology, and innovation have accelerated the rise of Amazon and the disruption in the retail industry in general. Change is coming to all commercial sectors! It is more important than ever that cities recognize these changes and remain sufficiently flexible to support and incubate new concepts and uses for commercial spaces. Part of that flexibility is in zoning laws.
One of the most significant challenges that many communities face is zoning and land use regulations that define permitted uses – including what gets built and where. These rules often tightly regulate downtown retail environments, using zoning as a tool to manage tenant mix.
Outdated zoning rules:
Unfortunately, zoning and regulations in many places still do not recognize the realities of the new marketplace. Many communities still narrowly define “retail uses” by very specific types of tenants (e.g., clothing stores, phone stores, etc.) or as “uses involving the sale or rental of goods directly to consumers”, when in fact the nature of retail continues to evolve rapidly.
With the rise of e-commerce and the growth in artisanal products, maker spaces are becoming the new big thing. Examples of corporate maker spaces include Nike NYC, House of Innovation where sneakers are made, or the Starbucks Reserve Roastery But spaces like these remain restricted in most downtown environments. Unfortunately, zoning codes are rather static and/or difficult and expensive to change, leaving smaller, less capitalized businesses from taking similar risks and stifling innovation in the process.
As demand for retail in brick-and-mortar spaces softens, cities with blanket requirements for ground-floor retail use across city environments must be revisited. We must mindfully adjust the areas and boundaries of retail districts as drawn on zoning maps.
Even before the pandemic, many of these requirements for ground-floor retail far surpassed these communities’ ability to fill them. Districts that were once dependent on daytime workers will likely face diminished retail demand for years and will need to pivot towards growing a diverse customer base that is balanced by both tourists, “visitors” to that area of town, and year-round permanent residents. Put simply, retail and other commercial spaces will have to adjust to the needs of the new consumer base and clientele
Permits Impending Storefront Marketing + Public Activation
A great main street is not simply characterized by a row of occupied storefronts but by vibrant retail activity on sidewalks (and curbside spaces). The rules and permit requirements that govern these public spaces, however, have often placed an undue burden on the small businesses to make a case or put in private money to transform the space to create that visibility and vibrancy. Many cities continue to restrict sidewalk planters and removable benches, while others charge exuberant fees to implement simple signage tactics like A-frame boards and creative murals. Moving forward, city government and permit offices should serve to incentivize the maintenance of storefronts rather than create barriers for business owners choosing to activate the public realm.
To ensure any kind of retail or economic development strategy is actionable, it is important that city planners, city governments, and permit offices that govern the development and design of our downtowns and cities are setting rules flexible enough to adapt to any rapid change in the commercial economy will help foster business retention and growth for years to come.