Planning Challenge 1: Commercial Aggregation and Subdivision (Part 3)
This post is the third part of a three-part article on an original (as far as I can determine) idea for regenerating large commercial or industrial sites into healthy city. The idea is as yet untested, a thought experiment. I look forward to your comments; please pass it on where you think it will do some good in stimulating conversations.
At the dawn of the 20th century we are seeing a resurgence of cities in America and the explosion of urban populations around the world. Many cities and suburbs seeking economic growth and infill development face the conundrum of how to manage the redevelopment of large disused properties such dead malls, vacant factories; balancing civic goals such as affordable housing, street connections, and public open space with the needs of developers to build profitable buildings. This three part article proposes a novel tool for managing such projects: “Commercial Subdivision.”
In the first part of this series we discussed the theory, mechanics, and value of the subdivision process, typically associated with carving up farms to make suburban houses. The second part focused on how developing big parcels as single developments can create problems for urban vitality in the future. In this, the third part, we will walk through how the practice of subdivision might lead the way to a new tool in managing urban redevelopment.
To illustrate how commercial subdivision would work, let’s walk through a prospective project: converting a mall into a mixed use urban area. These sorts of strip mall retrofits are popular amongst New Urbanist circles, though challenging to realize. The city’s interest in the redevelopment include trading overabundant parking and low rent storefronts for mid rise mixed use development providing higher tax revenues, new housing choices, and public amenities. Another important civic goal is reducing the size of these superblocks by reconnecting streets (as discussed in Part 2). The developer’s interest is in getting certainty and flexibility so they can invest in and build profitable buildings.
Step one is to identify the existence of large parcels suitable for subdivision. The city’s planners would write new zoning regulations creating subdivision guidelines for commercial sites. Depending on the real estate market, developers interested large, underutilized properties are attracted to the site.
In step two, a developer having purchased an interest in a site comes to the city to inquire about the development potential. The city’s planners tell the developer that they may redevelop it at a certain low level of density or they may subdivide the property in exchange for significant bonuses to density. The developer and the city now negotiate the general plan of the subdivision, the locations of the new lots and new streets, the zoning classifications and the new uses. At this point the developer’s costs are still limited should the project prove politically undesirable, unlike a regular special permit process where the developer may have already spent millions on engineering and architectural drawings before receiving a yes or no from the planning board.
Once the city and the developer agree on the subdivision plan, and it is approved by the board, the developer, still having spent relatively little, knows that they will be able to build at least something on the sites, though additional approvals may be needed down the road. In exchange for trading some land for public streets and open space they have received additional density on the remaining land. Unlike a planned unit development or other negotiated zoning arrangement, however, the site now consists of a number of new, smaller parcels which can be developed independently, sold, and evolve more organically overtime. Rather than opaque special negotiated zoning, existing city zoning districts are used (multifamily over here, commercial over there) achieving finer grained mixed uses without the added complexity of a single parcel split between one or more zones.
In step three, the developer builds the infrastructure stipulated in the subdivision plan and either builds on the newly created lots or sells the subdivided lots to other developers. A new urban landscape is created; not only can small lots be assembled, but large ones can be subdivided. Flexibility and diversity are improved and we can hope: urban health.
As far as I know, this idea has never been tried before in the United States, but to date I have found no fundamental reason – legal, political, or economic – why it couldn’t work. The idea for commercial subdivision came to me while working on a comprehensive plan and zoning amendment aimed to better manage large commercial developments. In the end, we did not take this approach; the impression of those that I shared it with was that it was too uncertain, too unprecedented. None the less, I think it could develop into a viable tool in the future and would love any feedback or comments.