Regulating Big Box (Large Format) Retail

By Dom Nozzi

March 2007

In 2006, I was assigned the task of preparing Big Box (large format) Retail land development regulations for the City of Gainesville, Florida. My hard work researching this effort unfortunately went into the dustbin, as I believe the City opted to simply mimic Walmartthe much more lax and largely ineffective Alachua County regulations for such retail.

Therefore, as a way to rescue my suggestions from oblivion, the following is what I recommended Gainesville adopt as regulations to manage new Big Box Retail.

Establish 3 “context zones” for large format retail with design standards that become increasingly oriented toward the use of relatively small, human-scaled dimensions for things such as block size, street and driveway width, and required parking. This method would be focused on delivering a quality public realm as the location shifts from a highway/sprawl zone to a walkable urbanity zone.

The three context zones for calibrated regulations:

  1. Town Center and surrounding, relatively walkable neighborhoods.
  2. Areas outside of #1 and #3.
  3. Properties adjacent to major, high-speed, multi-lane roadways.

The primary reason for three context zones is that if (as is so often the case) one-size-fits-all regulations are used, the inevitable result is mediocrity, since the design features that urban designers seek in walkable areas are inappropriate, and therefore disregarded and ultimately abandoned in drivable areas.

Eventually, the one-size-fits-all approach means that walkable areas get only what makes sense in drivable areas (lowest common denominator regulations). In other words, such walkable, compact areas get nothing that promotes or protects walkability. Instead, it gets design that undermines walkability. For example, since it is nonsensical to require large format retail to place its parking behind the building or install first floor windows when near the Interstate, such essential design features end up not being required in the town center either.

Proposed Context-Sensitive Regulations:

In zone 1, the maximum size for large format retail is 15,000 square feet. Low-speed street and intersection dimensions and geometry required. Building setbacks and facades based on context of neighborhood.

In zones 2 and 3, the threshold is 50,000 square feet.

Connectivity to adjacent properties required.

Abandoned large format retail buildings (very common for such a retailer to abandon a building) must be demolished and have site restored.

Mixed use residential required.

A long list of encouraged and discouraged architectural features to be used in design review.

At least two public realm amenities (such as a pedestrian plaza or clock tower) is required from a list provided.

The result of this calibrated approach is more calibrated, appropriate, fair, and politically sustainable design regulations for Big Box Retail.

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