December 9, 2004

How mixed-use can save commercial districts

  • Now is the time for cities and towns to make some strategic public investments to stimulate new private development.
    The Scott Group

    Photo courtesy
    Fairhaven Village Green is part of a revitalized ‘Main Street' south of downtown Bellingham. The redevelopment has attracted new shops and condos.

    As Seattle considers plans to significantly increase the density and height of its downtown core, a ripple effect has been felt in neighborhoods and urban centers throughout the region.

    Location, convenience and access to new transit are driving cities to re-examine their zoning, and invest in infrastructure to attract private investment to their commercial cores. And urban neighborhoods such as Ballard and Greenwood, which a few years ago were just warming up to new townhouses, are now becoming active hubs with large, multifamily projects.

    In addition to traffic, convenience and affordability, "community" is also bringing growth to urban areas. Unique shops, historic character or simply being within walking distance of coffee shops, pubs or a pet store are drawing people into mixed-use neighborhoods.

    The fear of density

    Smaller neighborhoods, as well as suburbs and small towns have traditionally been resistant to increasing density, fearing traffic, loss of views and crime. But over the past five years, many of the region's historic town centers and older commercial districts have been rebuilding themselves to feature their own special character.

    Whether it's an underutilized waterfront, a new regional attraction or a perfectly preserved "Main Street," cities are creating new commercial, retail and housing hubs in their historic cores.

    Capitalizing on their unique character may help them guide mixed-use development into a more livable and viable model. By building on their attributes, they will appeal to a growing market sector that has become tired of the homogenization of the booming suburbs.

    A variety of approaches can be used to attract both public and private investment into urban centers and commercial hubs.

    Making cities livable

    Two common negative perceptions of urban living are the lack of open space and the issue of general safety. Suburbs typically lack the conveniences of urban living, but many people are attracted by larger living spaces, open space, perceived safety and a predominantly residential feel.

    An early example of the importance of public open space occurred in Bellevue in the 1980s, a time when downtown Bellevue was seen as little more then a collection of office buildings, strip malls, parking lots and an ever-expanding Bellevue Square. The city made a substantial investment in "livable" infrastructure: the Central Park and the King County Library. These projects sparked a surge in residential investment with more than 1,000 multifamily units built primarily around these two public amenities.

    More recently, Tacoma spearheaded development of pocket parks, pedestrian plazas, bridges and a waterfront esplanade. They provide open space and link new areas of growth. These areas include the Foss Waterway, University of Washington Tacoma campus, Union Station, the museum district, the new convention center and the Link light-rail stations.

    Renton and Puyallup are also revitalizing their downtowns by providing public places where people can gather in friendly, active spaces.

    Puyallup built Pioneer Park Pavilion, an open-air structure used for local events and the Puyallup Farmers Market, and has invested in a new park and library as well as a downtown master plan. Plans are under way for a senior housing and condo project, the first mixed-use project in the downtown core in over a decade.

    Renton built a new multi-use pavilion adjacent to the bus transit center and downtown park, spurring several multifamily projects over the past few years, including a proposed senior housing project.

    A small amount of green space can make a big difference in an area's livability, a notion well understood in dense cities such as New York, Chicago and Vancouver.

    A good example of this can be found in Renton's new piazza. Within four years of the completion of this park, all adjacent lots have been redeveloped. Another example is Village Park in Bellingham's Fairhaven district. Within two years of the park's completion, up to four mixed-use projects were planned for the immediate vicinity.

    Locally, Fremont and Queen Anne are building new pocket parks in their commercial districts, while Ballard is constructing a new civic center with a library and central green space. This public infrastructure, and height and density increases, will help spur development of an estimated 1,000 new housing units over the next four years.

    Back to Main Street

    One of the strongest draws for new mixed-use development is a Main Street. People who have grown tired of the homogenous "big box" suburban architecture want to move businesses and housing back to the older Main Streets.

    In addition to the pharmacies and watering holes, the new Main Street features cafes and boutiques, specialty food shops, pubs, pet stores and spas. The historic character and lower rents have helped new businesses flourish by attracting upscale customers, and counter the flow of consumer dollars to malls and retail supercenters.

    Excellent examples of restored Main Streets can be found in Edmonds, Port Townsend and Fairhaven in Bellingham.

    Edmonds has seen a number of restaurants and boutiques open in the past few years, and there are few vacancies in its retail core. Increased ferry traffic, as well as new condos geared towards an older market, has resulted in a thriving and walkable downtown. A large hillside condominium project is under construction just outside the city center.

    Fairhaven, a virtually intact turn-of-the-century commercial hub just south of downtown Bellingham, has more than 350 multifamily units planned or under construction. With strict design and material standards, Fairhaven exemplifies the charm of a historic district. Recent additions include a Mediterranean Bistro, as well as a spa and kitchen shop.

    Village Books, an independent bookstore that serves as the "heart" of this community, recently completed a three-story expansion, which is adjacent to the new Village Park.

    Fairhaven has also waived the parking requirement for new development within its historic district, and developers have quickly snatched up numerous vacant lots abutting the commercial district.

    Ballard and West Seattle have experienced an influx of new retail shops as well as new multifamily projects on their Main Streets. The Junction, West Seattle's primary retail intersection, recently received a number of streetscape improvements through the city. Ballard has developed new signage standards to increase retail visibility.

    Along the waterfront

    Perhaps no greater resource exists for attracting mixed-use investment than access to the waterfront. Regionally, Tacoma is at the forefront, with a number of projects located along the new waterfront Esplanade. Bremerton completed a new public/private waterfront complex with a hotel, office, retail and convention center. Still to come is a bigger marina, waterfront park and several hundred new condos.

    Bellingham is currently planning to clean up the former Georgia Pacific Mill, which will open 130 acres of prime waterfront for residential, hotel and commercial uses.

    Vancouver, B.C., shows waterfronts are a strong catalyst for economic development. Cities such as Vancouver, Portland and Tacoma have maintained active ports while redeveloping their central waterfronts to accommodate mixed-uses.

    Seattle, however, still struggles with historic industrial zoning which allows only warehouses, office or biotech buildings and prohibits "non-compatible" uses such as hotels, condos or artist lofts.

    Recent development adjacent to Myrtle Edwards Park, Lake Union and the Fremont Canal have resulted in a landscape of mid-rise office parks, a use that few other waterfront cities are promoting.

    These developments tend to offer little to the public, with private open spaces and little retail, and they are exempt from the design review process. Most are empty on evenings and weekends. By encouraging mixed-uses on the waterfront, other cities are creating active and safe neighborhoods for 16 hours a day or more.

    The private sector

    Investing in emerging urban markets is a higher-risk venture, given the probability of lower initial rents or slower sales. Without development incentives, efficient permitting and flexible zoning, some municipalities may be left with costly infrastructure projects that have failed to produce the expected growth.

    Many developers and their investors are hesitant to be the first ones to build in an emerging or transitional market. It is wise to seek out the development community for ideas and analysis. Balancing input from the development community with the goals of the public sector will ensure economically feasible urban planning.

    Scott Surdyke is with The Scott Group, a development management and project services firm specializing in mixed-use development and emerging urban markets.

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