In the 1990s, many cities and towns added active ground-floor use requirements to their zoning codes. Typically, these requirements applied to one or more pedestrian-oriented corridors or business districts to protect storefronts from being converted to residences or occupied by low-foot-traffic commercial uses. When applied judiciously, this approach worked well. But, in many areas, persistent weak demand for traditional storefront retail may signal a need to rethink active ground-floor use requirements.
As Tom Smith notes in the August issue of Zoning Practice, "Activating Ground Floors in Mixed-Use Buildings After COVID," COVID changed many people's spending habits, accelerating the shift toward e-commerce. Now, many communities find themselves with an excessive supply of areas zoned exclusively for ground-floor retail. Many once-bustling retail streets are facing a post-retail future. In Smith's view, there are only two logical responses: expanding permissible uses and downsizing retail-only corridors and districts.
How Active Does a Use Need to Be?
Traditionally, active-ground floor use requirements prohibit all uses other than stores, bars, restaurants, and business offering personal services, such as salons and yoga studios. According to Smith, there are opportunities to expand these lists without undermining the intent of the regulations. In fact, allowing offices and small-scale clean industrial uses can bring more workers into the area to patronize traditional storefront businesses.
Smith notes it may also make sense to relax ground-floor transparency requirements for certain permissible uses that benefit from more privacy. For example, most people visiting medical or dental offices don't want to be on display to passersby.
Is It Really Necessary to Prohibit Residences?
Perhaps the only universal feature of active ground-floor use requirements is that street-fronting ground-floor residences are prohibited. The logic is simple: residences generate very little foot traffic. But you'd have to be living on another planet to miss the fact that we have a major undersupply of housing in the U.S. Furthermore, the shortage is acute in many areas with an oversupply of storefront spaces.
So, why not simply pare down the areas where active ground-floor use requirements apply? As Smith points out, the alternative is likely a permanent abundance of vacant storefronts, which does nothing to support the businesses that remain.
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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.