Downtown Land Uses: Closing the Gap Between What We Want and What We Get

Michelle Bennett, AICP
Beckett & Raeder, Inc.

Planners and residents alike conceptualize downtowns as the heart of the city, as the pulse that gives the city life, and so planning for the uses that will be found there warrants commensurate attention. It is true that a successful downtown is greater than the sum of its parts, but in such a concentrated geography, every land use counts as a potential place maker or place detractor. Complicating this dynamic is that the value of various land uses is highly subjective, making the coordination of land uses in a two-block radius tricky.

When asking residents how they would like to see the downtown improve, it is not uncommon at a visioning session to hear the following:
1. Small town charm
2. A fast-food chain
3. Thriving local independent shops
4. Walkability

While it is possible for these to all co-exist, those suggestions can conflict in principle and in practice when compared against local market data, established goals, and current zoning regulations. For example, does a national fast-food chain contradict the idea of small town charm? Would a fast food or chain restaurant hinder the ability for a local restaurant to establish itself? Is a small local shop financially feasible in your downtown given your population size, density, and building stock? The close quarters of a downtown means that one use can affect many others, and quickly, so land uses should be considered with great scrutiny. Often the densest part of the city that reaps the highest tax revenue per acre, downtowns have less room for error when the stakes are so high.

What Land Uses Are Desirable in a Downtown?

This is a big question with a hyper-local answer. Ultimately, it is for your community to decide based on your goals for the downtown, and that is far easier said than done. To highlight the complexity of choosing appropriate land uses for a downtown, I’ll use fast food to illustrate important considerations for “controversial” land use decision-making. These criteria are meant to help the community consider whether a drive-through chain downtown is a good physical fit, and a good value fit.

What Are the Residents Really Asking For?

The suggestion for a fast food chain can sometimes be divisive: some consider it anathema to the uniqueness of a particular place, while others are inclined toward an inexpensive, recognizable business downtown. More questioning is necessary to see what residents are looking for specifically. Is it the Big Mac itself? Or is this a shorthand way of saying “we want affordable and convenient food options nearby”? If it is the latter, then could this desire be satisfied with a locally owned burger joint? A locally owned burger place would reconcile the aforementioned suggestions rather than add another potential conflict. When coupled with research showing that 65% of each purchase at a local independent business is recirculated locally, compared to less than 35% of purchases at chain stores[1], it seems fiscally responsible to prioritize local business. When residents ask for a business with national brand recognition, the follow up question could be: could they be equally happy with a local version, especially if they knew the benefits?

Physical Fit

Franchises typically seek dimensional standards that may make their preferred site configuration unfit for a downtown. For example, when determining where to locate, McDonald’s commonly looks for a corner site that is 50,000 square feet with ample parking.[2] According to the Congress for the New Urbanism, an ideal walkable block is 400 ft and recommended lot sizes for corner stores range from 1,500 – 3,000 square feet. That is to say that a McDonald’s lot could take the place of about 10 smaller businesses (depending on spacing), occupying up to one-quarter of a 400 ft block on one side and exceeding the ideal block length on the other side. The majority of that space will cater to cars, introducing a vehicular priority and potential conflict with pedestrians. Whereas traditional buildings in a downtown take up close to 100% of the lot, a franchise may only take up 10% of the lot and be enveloped by parking, the antidote to walkability.
When a franchise selection process has specific dimensional requirements that do not fit well into the urban context, it can undermine other goals. The size of the parcel and its auto-oriented design detract from walkability and arguably the aesthetic value of downtowns. Likewise, it could draw in less revenue to the city or less increment capture to the DDA: since assessed property values are based on improved land, more density in the downtown usually pays greater returns. Franchises have been willing to break their established molds for downtown locations, but these standards must be written into the Zoning Ordinance and enforced so that its setbacks, parking requirements, landscaping, building materials, and massing match the surrounding facades and fit into the established development pattern.

Evaluation Criteria for Physical Fit

These questions apply to the city’s most valued downtown building as a point of comparison to a new “controversial” use.
  • What are the dimensions of the lots of the city’s most valued buildings? What is the lot coverage?
  • What percentage of the block length does it occupy?
  • Is it surrounded by parking?
  • What is the tradeoff in revenue per acre for an equally sized area?
  • Does the massing and size of this use disrupt the cohesiveness of the historic development pattern?

Value Fit

What is permitted in the downtown represents a city’s values and priorities. Aside from its physical dimensions, does a proposed use fit in with the downtown’s values? Would a fast food establishment on a prominent downtown corner site take land away from a more pressing need for housing, entertainment, retail, or service that add greater value to the downtown? Understandably, in depressed markets, this is a harder decision. DDAs may not feel like they have a choice in how to fill buildings, and may face considerable pressure to simply ensure that they are not vacant. And often, where median incomes are low, fast food is a popular addition to the community. In such cases, cities must be clear on how to reconcile their values with permitted land uses prior to applicants’ requests. That way, when controversial uses arise, you can judge their alignment with your values and determine if they counter other agreed upon goals such as walkability, historic preservation, and support for local business. A deeply unpopular proposed use that is clearly legally permitted creates an uncomfortable situation for residents, community leaders, and applicants alike.

Evaluation Criteria for Value Fit

  • Are our values clearly defined? Can we clarify value where there is potential for conflict?
  • Does this land use take up valuable space that could be used for a more pressing need?
  • Does this use conflict with other goals?
    • Would it increase or decrease your walk score?
    • Does it improve circulation for all users?
    • Does it complement the existing and desired downtown businesses? Does it create barriers for those businesses?
    • Does it put you on the map, or does it make you less unique?
    • Does it contribute to the historic character?

The Long Game

Once the community has established and affirmed its physical and land use goals for the downtown, how is progress toward those goals achieved? The zoning ordinance may seem like an easy place to start, and for the dimensional considerations, it is: zoning gives communities excellent control over building form and site configuration. If this is your community’s primary concern about a downtown fast food use, precise standards for downtown site development may fully address it.
Some communities have also attempted to use the zoning ordinance to control or outright ban chain establishments within the downtown. This should be undertaken with close and careful legal consultation in any case, and it may not be politically feasible in many communities. The biggest drawback to that approach, however, is that it simply says “no” and leaves the downtown with a vacancy—and no cheeseburgers. Identifying, inspiring, and supporting a local investor to start that business is an arduous process that is often stifled by limited staff, capital, and a lengthier timeline, and may require significant DDA resources. But when the payout for the local economy is twice as great, the community may decide together that it is prudent to spend resources upfront establishing systems that encourage and support local investment in the downtown.
[1] American Independent Business Alliance. “The Local Multiplier Effect: How Local Businesses Help Your Community Thrive.”
[2] Thompson, Molly. Small Business Chron. “McDonald’s Franchise Location Requirements.”