The Future of Ground-Floor Retail

With demand for housing growing and for physical storefronts waning, do the restrictions imposed by ground-floor retail zoning still make sense?

1 minute read

August 30, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Zoning requiring ground-floor retail began as a way to activate street-level spaces and prevent sidewalks from becoming drab corridors marked by low-traffic uses. But as the demand for physical retail diminishes, David Morley, writing in the American Planning Association blog, comments that cities will need to adjust retail zoning to reflect that changing demand.

Citing Tom Smith’s article "Activating Ground Floors in Mixed-Use Buildings After COVID," Morley writes, “In Smith's view, there are only two logical responses: expanding permissible uses and downsizing retail-only corridors and districts.” Smith argues that cities could expand permitted uses by allowing offices and small-scale, clean industrial uses that could replace traditional retail.

Smith also tackles housing. “Perhaps the only universal feature of active ground-floor use requirements is that street-fronting ground-floor residences are prohibited.” Yet with the housing crisis raging out of control, would permitting housing in some ground-floor spaces be such a bad thing? “As Smith points out, the alternative is likely a permanent abundance of vacant storefronts, which does nothing to support the businesses that remain.”

Around the country, cities and developers are rethinking the role of commercial real estate like retail and office space. Buildings that once housed massive malls, often conveniently located near major transportation corridors, are now being converted to housing and mixed-use developments.

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