Tag Archives: land development codes

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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The Use of Design Codes for Buildings: Are They Enough?

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2006

The following thoughts were penned after I read a newspaper article today about tacky buildings and Design Codes.

I had just returned from Santa Fe NM — perhaps the city in North America most known for having strong building design codes to ensure consistency (even the Hilton Hotel and Exxon Gas Station use adobe design there).

My take on their building consistency efforts is that while it is certainly impressive, visually, I don’t believe that such a regulation is the be-all-and-end-all of retaining unique character, ensuring quality of life, and avoiding the Anywhere USA syndrome. Even in their compact, fairly walkable downtown area, Santa Fe has a number of recent buildings that are pulled WAY back from the street by a huge asphalt parking lot out front. There are also a number of large surface parking lots at street intersections (perhaps the biggest urban design blunder a community can make, and one sure to destroy place-making).

I’m sorry, but even if the Hilton uses beige adobe for its building facade, the fact that it joins a number of other buildings downtown by being behind a sea of asphalt trumps all efforts to be walkable and unique through consistent building design.

The BUILDING DISPOSITION (how a building is sited on the property) is the urban design imperative. Give me a building abutting the sidewalk. The exterior appearance is much less important. Buildings at the street create unique, walkable places. This is NOT achieved by calling for “attractive,” “consistent” buildings. Such buildings can easily end up only being designed for happy cars.

Note, too, that a community that requires buildings to be properly located at the street typically create sufficient civic pride. Because of their quality urbanism, they usually have citizens who know that they have a unique place to be proud of. One that will attract visitors and investors and quality immigrants. One that does not have businessmen who need to lower themselves to santa-fe-new-mexico-02creating novelty by building cartoon buildings. It is the quality urbanism that creates the attraction.

Santa Fe
has blundered by thinking that building consistency is the key to walkability and uniqueness. By not regulating building and parking location (and having too many high-speed six-lane roads), they are little more than a Disney cartoon that is best seen by car.

Even if the Shell gas station looks like a Pueblo.


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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Getting Out of Our Own Way to Design a Better Community

By Dom Nozzi

It has been said that the great cities were built before planners and land development laws. This is absolutely true, and the shock value of it helps us see that we need to get out of our own way, so to speak.

I’ve been harping on this point for several years in my books, writings, and speeches.

In 2006, I came upon a quote from the “Smart Growth Network,” where the leader indicated that the “free market” will not be able to deliver us quality of life. My response to this is to reference an outstanding book I read a few months before. The book is by Jonathan Levine, who was the Director, at that time, of the University of Michigan Department of Urban & Regional Planning. The book, called Zoned Out, points out that pretty much every community in America has land development laws that set up enormous obstacles to “smart growth” in every single one of its ordinances.

Almost to the complete exclusion of other community quality of life objectives, our land development laws overwhelmingly care about creating parking lotconditions for happy car travel: strict separation of land uses, minimizing residential densities, and providing ample free parking for cars.

Each of these anachronistic commandments, of course, strongly promotes car-dependent sprawl and, ironically, worsens our quality of life. Such rules may have been important when they were first established 100 years ago, since cities were crowded with tenement housing, and many businesses were hazardous to health and needed to be kept away from residences.

Today, those problems don’t exist in any meaningful way in America. So why do we not fundamentally reform our land development laws?

Indeed, because Baby Boomers and especially millennials are much more interested than older generations in “city” living (higher density, 24-hour, mixed-use, vibrant, walkable), there is a growing demand for the development community to provide such development.

But as Levine importantly points out, when developers want to build these types of development — what is now called Smart Growth — they are forced to fight tooth and nail against development laws, elected officials and town planners who fight them until they revise their development plans to give us dumb growth.

This is despite the fact that a large percentage of elected officials and town planners pay lip service to smart growth.

We have met the enemy, and he or she is us.

Therefore, despite the quote from the Smart Growth Network, that the free market cannot deliver quality of life, I’d argue the reverse.

Today, the free market (if we can get rid of the huge market distortions for roads, parking, and gasoline caused by enormous subsidies) can indeed more effectively provide quality of life.

We just need to get govenment (ie, the land development laws) out of the way.

It is an awful realization for me that after almost 30 years of working in a profession that I expected to be focused on improving communities, it turns out that I am part of a huge force that is subverting our quality of life.


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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia

Protecting Local Government Land Development Regulations from being “Watered Down”

By Dom Nozzi

An important point is often made that for effective, durable implementation, land development codes (the rules that local developers need to abide by) need to be “bullet-proofed” to survive subversion (being “watered down”) from staff, elected officials, or citizen review boards.

While I agree with the need for bullet-proofing (and always strive to achieve it in the codes I write), my experience over the years has been that even the best land development regulations we adopted in the city I worked for in Florida were frequently unable to survive significant suburbanizing pressure from staff, officials and board members (which ends up giving projects and urbanism a black eye).

By “suburbanizing,” I am referring to the century-long American tradition of revising land development regulations to make it easier, more convenient, and less costly to drive a car. Densities, Floor Area Ratios, and building heights are reduced. parking_seaRequirements for the amount of car parking are increased. Setbacks are enlarged. Streets are widened. Intersection turning radii are increased. Sidewalk requirements are weakened. Mixing housing with offices or retail is minimized. Car parking is allowed in front of buildings.

Besides the graphics-supported, relatively objective urban codes I prepared, my city had urban land development regulation “overlays” prepared over the past 10-15 years by Dover-Kohl and DPZ (“overlays” are regulations that are applied to unique locations which “overlay” the underlying development regulations that apply elsewhere in the city). In my opinion, many of those overlay codes were better than average.

But because most all of the planners and engineers working for the Florida city I was employed at (as well as elected officials and board members) were rather “suburban” in their preferences, the City often ended up with development site plans that were degraded by appalling, transect-violating suburban design strategies in walkable, town center overlay areas (places where compact, walkable design is appropriate and dispersed, drivable design is inappropriate).

These modifications to the design requirements were clearly are in conflict with the compact, walkable standards within the overlay. For example, excessive car parking and excessive building setbacks were regularly imposed on the proposed development, which were shockingly in conflict with the walkable intent of the overlay regulations.

Note that sometimes, it is not so much a clear (objective) violation of a development standard so much as a “creative (subjective) interpretation” of the standard.

It is true that a potentially useful tool is to write a code that does not allow variances or exceptions for the crucial walkability standards. But there end up being so many conditions that allow relief by variance (such as oak trees, which I found I was the only one in my community willing to sometimes sacrifice for better walkability), that it was very difficult to protect walkability standards from variance in the code. The suburbanite insurgents nearly always found many ways, in other words, to suburbanize a proposed development as a way to ease car travel. Even in a location proposed for walkability.

The question, therefore, is this: Is it even possible to “bullet- proof” walkability codes from suburban pressure? Or is it perhaps necessary that a community establish TWO SETS of staff reviewers and citizen boards? One set would be villagewalkability staff reviewers and a walkability citizen board which would only review site plans in town center locations, and another set which would be suburban, drivable staff reviewers and a suburban citizen board which would only review site plans in the suburban transect zones.

Note that I find it enormously undesirable to create two sets of these groups, due to costly administrative and bureaucratic nightmares a dual system would amplify. However, I don’t know if there is another option if we seek to effectively protect compact, walkable development regulations from being watered down in the name of easier car travel (and, therefore, worse conditions for walking).

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking