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Allowing 1st floor residential in CBD?

SW MI Planner

Cyburbian
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3,194
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26
I have no idea where to put this, so feel free to move it around.

First some background...Our downtown is about 6 square blocks, mainly consisting of historic 2-3 story buildings. Occupancy rate is about 96% (very good!)The population of the City is 10,500; County is 45,000. There is a large summer population due to the amount of lakes in the County. Our downtown has an even mix of service and retail, and serves both the residents and tourists.

There is a corner building (3 story plus basement, total 32,000 sq. ft.), owned by the DDA, that has been vacant for about five years. They have received a few proposals most on complete opposite spectrums - tear it down - restore it; no apartments - all apartments. Each developer uses their proposal as proof of whatever the request is. Someone wants to tear it down because it's not cost effective to rehab it, but yet the next proposal says its cost prohibitive to tear it down. Basically, each proposal uses their numbers for their own agenda. Our engineer here at work says it best, "Figures never lie, but liars always figure".

No matter what they propose, the DDA goes along with it. The most recent proposal wants to use the entire building for apartments. Our current zoning does not allow residential on the main floor, but allows it as a special use on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Most likely, they are going to want to change the zoning to allow first floor residential, which I don't support. Of course, I will take it through the process, but I have no problem being the bad guy by not supporting it (in a professional way mind you - I'm not going to chain myself to the building or anything).

I have a great working relationship with the director and the board, and have expressed my thoughts to them. However, the DDA seems to be interested in this proposal, mainly because I think they do not want a vacant building. I feel like they are willing to 'sell out' just to get someone in that building. They have said that if someone wants to tear the bldg down, then basically they will let them. There is a structural report and the building is in great condition. The DDA owns the building, and have the ability to control what happens to it.

So, out of my rant, comes these questions...Does anyone allow residential on the first floor of the downtown? Why would, or wouldn't, you? What are your thoughts? What if they allowed it in the back part of the building, but not along the street? Does it matter on the size of the downtown?

Thanks in advance for your comments!
Christine
 

boiker

Cyburbian
Messages
3,889
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26
I think that purely residential buildings in limited capacity in downtowns is ok. The fear is a residential on the first floor could create cyclic pedestrian activity and not much interactivity or street life if found on many buildings in a given area.

It should be a highly scrutinized special use in a small downtown with strong performance standards aimed at spreading the all-residential buildings out and preserve the commercial/office dominated streetscape. Otherwise, it will just be a higher density subdivision.

Edit: I don't believe that areas should be homogeneously mixed use (commercial ground/ residential upper) or homogeneously residential, commercial, etc. This is especially true near the edges. If this building is smack dab in the middle of the downtown district, it's harder to allow a purely residential building.
 
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Plannerbabs

Cyburbian
Messages
1,037
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23
Is the building of any kind of historic/architectural note? If it is, I could see the arguement for wanting it to be utilized, even though the use might not be the most desirable one. As far as store-front residential, I have heard of such conversions, but usually in large cities where residential space is at a premium and people must be creative with what they have. On the other hand, would your downtown benefit from having a 24-hour presence, a la Jane Jacobs?
 

nerudite

Cyburbian
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6,544
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30
I have usually tried to discourage residential uses on a ground floor of a building in a CBD. That being said, if the DDA decides to do something different, you could try to structure the code so that residential can only be located on a ground floor if it meets certain standards. Such as your example of locating the residential portion away from the main pedestrian areas (in the back), or requiring them to provide some type of visual interest or gathering place in the front to continue pedestrian interest in the CBD. Another possibility (especially in larger areas) are live/work units on the ground floor.
 

The One

Cyburbian
Messages
8,287
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29
1st floor residential

Hmmm...... I'm not a fan of first floor residential in a downtown area, unless the units are of the row house type with raised entryways. Some kind of separation is needed between the sidewalk and the unit. Do you have a photo of the structure? Any specific reason that some kind of commercial won't work on the ground level?
 

DennisMaPlanner

Cyburbian
Messages
197
Points
7
We are in the process of adopting a Village Center by-law and are addressing the same issue. We have come to the conclusion that the traditional store front along the main street must be preserved. Thus the front of the buildings in the district must be used for commercial purposes. In our village center the retail space rents for about $7/sf ($700 for 1000 sf). Apartments in the same area are renting for over $1200 for a 2 bedroom unit in about 1000 sf. If our zoning were not being designed to protect the Main Street area for commercial, we could easily lose the mixed use village center to an all residential area.

We have essentially taken the position that the zoning must be very clear as to what we want the area to look like and property owners will have to make it work. Given the area is traditionally a village center, which has been zoned in a fashion that currently does not allow more than one residence per building site, we think the by-law will provide significant economic incentive to redevelop. Now, hopefully the property owners will do something....they are participating in drafting the new zoning so we can hope!
 

Tranplanner

maudit anglais
Messages
7,909
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36
nerudite said:
Another possibility (especially in larger areas) are live/work units on the ground floor.
This is what I was thinking. We try to encourage ground-floor commercial in new buildings, but there are only so many dry cleaners, lottery kiosks and Starbucks an area can support. If you have the flexibility to ask for a live-work designation, at least the use isn't frozen as residential. You will need to ensure that whatever is constructed can easily be converted to another use in the future.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,080
Points
34
This is a timely question, as we dealt with the same issue last week. Briefly, the proposal involved two adjacent buildings, one fronting on the main street while the second, smaller building fronted on a side road. The proposal was to create apartments on the second floor of the first building, add a second floor to the rear building, and create an apartment on the first floor of the rear building. The first floor of the first building would be used as an office. We determined to permit the use, because: 1) the street onto which the first-floor residential unit would front is a tertiary-level street in the downtown, only one block long, and not fronted by any other buildings; 2) the design of the interior space, with a large room in front and two smaller rooms behind, could easily be adapted to an office use; and 3) the current level of first-floor vacancy in the downtown (approaching 30%) suggests that there is not a strong demand for commercial uses at present.

Overall, I think these are the basis for a good justification for doing something I would not usually recommend. Uses like residential units on the first floor of a building in a CBD can break up the district, creating "gaps" in the commercial fabric, reducing the area available for commercial businesses (and hence the drawing power of the district). I would typically oppose conversion to residential uses, especially when vacancy rates are low and the building fronts on a main shopping street.

It seems to me that the DDA's problem may have more to do with an inability to properly market the building or to structure a redevelopment/reuse deal, than it does with local real estate market conditions.
 

Wulf9

Member
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923
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22
If the building is in the pedestrian core (where pedestrians walk and shop), it should not be residential. The key to a pedestrian downtown is, uh, pedestrians. The best way to appeal to pedestrians is to have interesting things as they walk along. Residential uses, parking, most banks, are uninteresting. You will often see pedestrians turn around at a parking lot, rather than walking to the businesses on the other side.
 

Suburb Repairman

moderator in moderation
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7,400
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33
I agree. Unless we're talking row houses with some type of seperation from the ground level, I'd say no dice on the residential ground floor. If this is on a corner in a downtown CBD, the owner should not have a lot of trouble finding a commercial occupant (I don't know how healthy your downtown is). Marketing, marketing, marketing! Like wulf9 said, residential ground floors aren't all that pedestrian friendly since they lack the interesting storefronts, etc to making walking interesting.

Just curious, has the city looked into use of CDBGs, etc. to help finance rehab of the old building with affordable/moderately priced units upstairs? That might help clean up the feasibiltiy issues for potential buyers and help the city take care of what sounds like a downtown eyesore.
 

jordanb

Cyburbian
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3,232
Points
25
Chicago's new zoning allows residential by-right on all but the first floor in all commercial zones except the zone meant to serve as a buffer next to industrial zones.

It's allowed on the ground floor by-right in one commercial zone and I believe there are some special use allowances beyond that.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,080
Points
34
jordanb said:
Chicago's new zoning allows residential by-right on all but the first floor in all commercial zones except the zone meant to serve as a buffer next to industrial zones.

It's allowed on the ground floor by-right in one commercial zone and I believe there are some special use allowances beyond that.
Chicago is an exceptional case. It has hundreds of miles of commercial streets - far more area than the market can support given both declining populations in the neighborhoods, and the changes in retail format since these streets were developed. Where appropriate, Chicago has encouraged some storefronts to be converted to residential uses. They have even published a guide on how to do it correctly.
 

jordanb

Cyburbian
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3,232
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25
A very large number of Chicago's neighborhoods don't have declining populations, and some have precipitately increasing populations. And besides, in neighborhoods with declining populations there is no good reason to try to make more housing units.

The purpose of the B2 district is to allow ether commercial or residential in areas where demand for ether is questionable. The idea is to open up the area for ether sort of development and see what the market decides. It appears to not be intended for use in already "developed" neighborhoods, and it doesn't allow many heavily auto-dependent uses.

However, Chicago has a whole different set of zones for downtown. DR districts allow residential on the ground floor by-right, some others allow it as a special use. The primary purpose of the D districts is to allow the incredible density downtown, so I don't think they would be applicable to this question. A small-town downtown has much more in common with with a city neighborhood commercial area than a city downtown.

As to if Chicago has too much commerical: It certanly doesn't in Lincoln Park, as nearly everything is full (with Clark street being the notable exception). A lot of it depends on the neighborhood, but even poor neighborhoods can support a lot of commercial, it's just the type of residential that's different.

Take North Avenue for instance. In Lincoln Park, it's a row of urban big boxes. The Best Buy there is the busiest in the country desipte its lack of parking. LPers have so much disposable income that they can easily support all of their botiques and resturants on their frequent commercial streets and still spend vast sums at the big boxes. Cross the river into Wicker Park and it's still a sold chunk of commercial with very low vacancies. But it's mostly small shops, resturants, art galleries, etc with residential above.

Then comes Humboldt Park. Despite the fact that Humboldt Park is high density and has an increasing population, there's high vacancy. Humboldt Park is a mostly immigrant neighborhood with little disposable income. Interestingly large stretches of North Avenue near the park appear to have always been residential, and the residential parts of it have been hit as hard as the commerical parts. The street gets healthier west of the park itself. It reverts back to mostly commercial and has a resonably low vacancy rate, but of course there's a markedly different sort of stores than in Wicker: thrift stores, auto parts stores, discount liquor, cheap diners, taverns, payday loan joints, etc. A lot of the residental above the stores doesn't appear to be doing well.

That continues into Austin despite the fact that Austin has a declining population, lower density, and probably more or less the same disposable income per family, until it gets to around Cicero where there are some suburban-style big boxes that appear to be doing well (although one not fronting North Ave but adjoining a Jewel that is is vacant). That's where the newly approved Wal-Mart is going to go in so I assume we can write off that whole section of North and the whole section of Cicero there off as soon to be a moonscape. I've not explored further west much but from what I've seen, it breaks into the bungalow belt and the street goes mostly residential, with commercial areas only at nodes where it intersects other big streets.
 
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H

Cyburbian
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2,850
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24
sure. if the market is there, first floor res. is better than first floor vacant. ;)

plus once the res. fills then retail com. will come knocking next door.

so my theory, if people want to live anywhere downtown...let em.
 
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29
I was basically thinking what H said:

A) better residential than vacant
B) if you put people in the downtown area, more businesses will be attracted (or so it would seem)
 

SW MI Planner

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3,194
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26
Suburb Repairman said:
Just curious, has the city looked into use of CDBGs, etc. to help finance rehab of the old building with affordable/moderately priced units upstairs? That might help clean up the feasibiltiy issues for potential buyers and help the city take care of what sounds like a downtown eyesore.
OH yah! I applied for and received a $500,000 CDBG grant for mixed income apts for this building, with the blessing of the DDA as thats what they wanted on the upper floors. The time came to get off the pot, and I wanted a committment from the DDA that they would require apartments on the upper floors. They wouldn't do it "because the developer might not want to".

H said:
sure. if the market is there, first floor res. is better than first floor vacant.
But who determines the market? Each developer that comes in here says a completely different thing. Plus, our occupancy rate is very good (~96%). Besides this building, we have one storefront that is vacant. I'm not trying to argue ;)
 

Cardinal

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10,080
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Are these developers local yahoos or has the DDA issued a request for proposals? A redevelopment/renovation opportunity like this is marketed far differently than an ordinary piece of real estate you would list with a realtor.

I have used the approach of sponsoring or conducting my own market study to identify the appropriate use of redevelopment sites or buildings, then identifying that use as the acceptable use in the RFP. (We advertised one site as a site for condominiums, and 20 of 23 proposals we received proposed apartments. They were all automatically sent a letter of rejection.)
 

michaelskis

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I don’t think that residential should be on the first floor of a CBD. Mainly because the middle letter is business and that should the primary focus. In the last city I worked in, we had a section that was residential on the first floor, and it almost created a hole in the feel of the downtown. Not that our downtown was all that good, ok it was bad, but the residential section gave it a broken feel.
 
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148
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6
Check out downtown Vancouver, BC - 1st floor res everywhere

1st floor res impossible in a CBD? NONSENSE. We have first-floor residential ALL OVER the downtown CBD. It contributes amazing vitality to the street atmosphere and character, offers tremendous opportunities for creating continuity, and dirfectly contributres to creating defensible space situations over the sidewalks and promenades. The trick is to pick the streets to do it on - in Vancouver, the primary axis streets are commercial and have dedicated ground-floor exclusivity for retail. Secondary streets however, ie. those off the main commercial axis, are fair game for townhouse and row house style developments up front at ground level (and often for the first 3 floors, with an expanded residential tower (either apartments or office) in the interior of the block.

These are not cheap places. There is an awful lot of money spent by the homeowner and developer, and the homeowners take pretty firm possession of their streets, and have an amazing level of pride in living and contributng to downtown. Many streets have beautiful terraced gardens, trees, small benches and planters, and other items of visual interest heavily concentrated as residents battle between each other to prove who can have the best front space - and the public is the big winner in the end.

In addition, the rising number of people living directly on the street has led to pressure on the City to maximize the potential and upkeep of the public sidewalks as social space - the residents demand it, and they get it, and their tax dollars pay for it with change. This has led to some absoutely beautiful examples of pedestrian-scaled urban design, and the famous Vancouver Seawall, a 20+ km public promenade encircling the entirety of downtown along the waterfront.

Again, you want to see a glorious example of how to integrate residential use into a dense central business district, then look no further than your good Canadian friends to the North (and off to the West) out here in BC.
 

Wannaplan?

Bounty Hunter
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3,208
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28
I have seen first floor residential along the Main Street areas of some of the smaller towns and villages - populations between 1,000 and 2,000 - in Michigan and my impression is they are ugly. Not because of overall aesthetics, but because they are old rehabbed storefronts, with the big front windows still intact. There is no separation between the private realm and the public realm of the street. That's just how I felt as I walked through places. Certainly towns of this size do not compare to Chicago or even your own hometown. But due to the intimate nature of these small towns, I think their effect on me was not inconsequential. I would imagine first floor residential in Chicago is easier to pull off for a number of reasons. First, I think people tend to move quicker and not linger as long in the big city, so the effect of experiencing a stranger's private realm up close doesn't feel so very voyeauristic. And second, I would imagine the sites in the big city are larger and therefore can accomodate design solutions that provide buffers between the public and private realms, such as a lobby.

That's just my personal take of your situation.

Professionally, I may say something like the following.

If your goal is to continue a fine grain of commercial along the corridor, then no, residential isn't appropriate.

But if your goal is to maximize population density along the corridor, then yes, first floor residential makes sense.

However, I am sure your goal, as well as the DDA, includes elements of both. In thinking of the long-term dynamism and vigor of your City, I would recommend against the first floor residential. The physical environment of your town is wonderful. I'm not saying first floor residential would ruin that, just throwing out a red flag for your consideration.
 

H

Cyburbian
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SW MI Planner said:
But who determines the market? Each developer that comes in here says a completely different thing. Plus, our occupancy rate is very good (~96%). Besides this building, we have one storefront that is vacant. I'm not trying to argue ;)

(I don’t want to argue either :)) but to answer a question, only the market determines the market. If one use is the wrong use, (hence if the residential doesn’t sell/rent) then the use will return to commercial. I am sure the developer only wants the highest and best use for the property, if it could be occupied commercial would they not jump at that chance? Or do they feel commercial there would weaken the value of the rest of the project? Commercial usually goes for more, so they must have a reason for not wanting that, right?

But as far as a planning standpoint, I see nothing wrong with first floor residential. It is better than a lobby, or a wall to a parking deck, right?

:)
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
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10,080
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34
H said:
(I don’t want to argue either :)) but to answer a question, only the market determines the market. If one use is the wrong use, (hence if the residential doesn’t sell/rent) then the use will return to commercial. I am sure the developer only wants the highest and best use for the property, if it could be occupied commercial would they not jump at that chance? Or do they feel commercial there would weaken the value of the rest of the project? Commercial usually goes for more, so they must have a reason for not wanting that, right?

But as far as a planning standpoint, I see nothing wrong with first floor residential. It is better than a lobby, or a wall to a parking deck, right?

:)
H, I have to disagree with you. Developers will do what they are most comfortable with, poses the least risk, and makes them money - all their own interests. The city needs to evaluate the proposal and determine if the developer's interests are the same, or at least close to the interests of the greater public, whether that is the neighbors, the district, or the entire community.

Let's consider an example from a community I know in Wisconsin. They recently had a developer come in with a proposal for a new commercial building. He wanted to tear down the 1890's three-story building on a corner and replace it with a gas station and c-store. The market would certainly support it, but was it good for the community. Even as a commercial use, it would disrupt the rhythm of the street. Typical 20- or 40-foot storefronts would give way to... gas pumps. It would disrupt pedestrian activity and break up the district.

I have seen many good examples of first floor residential uses in a CBD, but I would go back to my original post and say that they are suitable only when on the periphery or back streets. In most cases, placing these uses in the core of the commercial area - the main retail streets - is damaging to the health of the district.
 

SW MI Planner

Cyburbian
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3,194
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26
H said:
(I don’t want to argue either :)) but to answer a question, only the market determines the market. If one use is the wrong use, (hence if the residential doesn’t sell/rent) then the use will return to commercial. I am sure the developer only wants the highest and best use for the property, if it could be occupied commercial would they not jump at that chance? Or do they feel commercial there would weaken the value of the rest of the project? Commercial usually goes for more, so they must have a reason for not wanting that, right?

:)
I guess I would be a little more supportive if the proposals were consistent, but literally every one of them was opposite of each other. There have been a few that says there is no way to rehab the building, others say it's not cost effective to tear the buildling down. Some say absolutely no residential in the WHOLE building - it won't work, some say a few on 3rd floor would work, with office on the 2nd and retail on the 1st, then one says only ALL residential will work. Why all the inconsistencies? IMO they are not exploring other ideas, but instead insisting that their proposal is the only one that will work. Problem is, they are all saying that!

Depending on the area I'm not out right opposed to residential on the first floor. It depends on the conditions and environment discussed above. I am however opposed to it for my City.
 
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