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IMPLEMENTING THE VISION: FIRST STEPS Practical Steps to Transform Commercial Strips Into Mixed-Use Centers

Can commercial strips in the small town environment such as we find in Maine be retrofit to meet the needs of both property owners and the public?

To answer the question, three design exercises were carried out in cooperation with local planners and the owners of (1) an older strip shopping center in an in-town location, (2) an older strip shopping center in a suburban location, and (3) a group of properties in an emerging strip along a rural arterial and, in each case, local planners and design and development consultants.

The purpose was to test whether there is a “sweet spot” for developing, redeveloping or expanding these properties into activity centers that satisfy both owners’ perceptions of market requirements and best land use–transportation practices.

The benchmarks for best land use–transportation practices are embodied in the “four Ds”: density, distance (accessibility), diversity (mix of uses) and design. At certain levels of density, distance, diversity and design, choices in transportation improve and pressure on arterials is reduced; and retail experts suggest that the same strategies that help achieve these levels also can help to brand the centers as livelier, more competitive locations.

Each exercise found a “sweet spot” that appears to be achievable. The combinations of strategies are tailored to the specific conditions of the properties, but there are common elements:

  • For the older properties, it appears possible to approximately double the floor area of development within the same land area, adding density and mix of uses without disrupting legal arrangements with existing anchor tenants. Using floor area ratios as a measure of density, a good target is to increase the FAR from a typical range of 150-250 square feet of floor area per 1,000 square feet of land area to about 400 square feet of floor area.
  • With a mix of uses that have different peak periods of demand, overall parking ratios can be dropped from the standard 4 to 5 spaces per thousand square feet of net leasable areas to 2.5 to 3.5 spaces.
  • For an emerging center along a rural arterial, there is a significant advantage for two or more property owners to cooperatively plan development in a mixed use, hamlet format.
  • Several design elements seem to be central to simultaneously meeting property owner objectives and best land use-transportation practices:
    • Creating a new “main street” within the center to open up new frontage for development and new opportunities for a circulation grid
    • Establishing or improving connections to surrounding properties - these improve customers’ access to the center and may open up access to amenities, such as trails, that can add to the center’s activities and brand;
    • A residential component – whether apartments, live-work units, residence or business hotels, or in the case of a planned hamlet a full mix of residential types – will be complementary to neighborhood and community centers in all types of locations (urban, suburban or rural);
    • Bounding a center improves the image of the center as a distinct and identifiable place and can be achieved by adding buildings close to front property lines, the use of green spaces and landscaping, or a combination of these;
    • Implementation of a redevelopment or development plan in most cases will be incremental and needs early, stand-alone phases to generate financing of subsequent phases.

This project was limited to examining individual or small groups of properties that are part of larger commercial strips. Redeveloping or developing them according to best land use transportation
practices would be a first step toward transforming commercial strips into mixed-use centers. The lessons learned from these exercises apply to the larger strips as well and are available to property owners who see opportunities in them and to communities who may want to upgrade their land use regulations to be consistent with them.

Fortunately, a number of community-based efforts in Maine are underway to facilitate the transformation. This report reviews the status of several. To the practical first steps suggested in this report for individual properties they add broader plans for zoning and public investments needed for the transformation.

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