Reinvigorate Aging Transportation Corridors

Posted on December 24, 2018

AJ blog

This is the monthly blog series by AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Lubbock, Texas. She shares her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview!

We spend a lot of time in our cars.  Far too much, in my opinion, but that’s for a future column.  You can pick any city of any size, and you will discover while driving through the major corridors of entry, of commercial activity, and those that carry the most cars.  

These corridors generally date back to the 1950s and 1960s, in the region of Texas where I’ve practiced, and these strips – linear patterns of retail with large visible parking lots, large signage, multiple access points, and dependence on automobiles – are prevalent in aging parts of the communities they occupy.  

This is symptomatic of the oft-applied logic at the time that busy roadways are appropriate for primarily retail stores and shopping centers.

Corridors typically go through “life cycles”; that is, various stages that correlate to the age of the area.  When initially created, activity is high. Buildings and parking lots are new, the centers are easily accessible, and they benefit from the natural levels of traffic already taking place along the corridor.  Over time, as newer parts of the city begin developing, pulling housing and non-residential activity in that direction, the “new” wears off these corridors.

Eventually, they begin losing tenants, and can fall into disrepair as money begins migrating to these newer parts of the community.  Then, cities begin the process of trying to react to the issues created in attempts to revitalize and diversify these areas.

Unfortunately, it can be a vicious cycle.  The good news is, planners (and other staff involved in the development process) can utilize tools at their disposal to reinvigorate these aging corridors, while no longer creating new ones.  

What can cities to do breathe new life into existing corridors and create better, more long-lasting ones in the future?

How can they work to counteract the effect of massive parking lots, a lack of connectivity, the discouragement of multi-modal transportation, and the toll taken on the environment and public health?

Thankfully, there are a number of excellent resources on this, including Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association, and Smart Growth America as just a few examples, so take a look at those.  Here are some of my suggestions on how to approach this:

  • Stop overestimating retail.  The amount of retail space at one time was growing at record speed.  However, the recession proved that to be too much. Diversifying your commercial zoning and future land use designations is key.  Industry that is largely technology-driven, professional offices, and higher density housing can help break up the standard commercial strip.  Get to know and understand the evolving nature of retail (hint: your economic development colleagues can be great resources). Many zoning codes and plans still in use today were written at a time when the shopping malls and big boxes were king.  Consumers are now drawn to a wholly different type of shopping experience. Understand the effect that online commerce has on retail, and that vacancies have on the existing renters and the desirability of the corridor. These cues should help modify the approach your community has been taking.
  • Adapt and convert.  I often hear at public meetings that a building was “built” to have one purpose and that it cannot be changed.  This is not, at all, the case. Work with your building official, fire marshal, and other relevant staff to understand the realities and myths of converting buildings to other types of uses.  Some cities utilize grants or loans to help potential tenants recreate and reuse the space. This isn’t just a “downtown” notion. Adapt the allowance for uses to the character of the corridor, which might be a live/work corridor, or a gateway, for example.  All corridors do not function exactly the same way. Cities are not that clinical – understanding the character and role in the community is important.
  • Focus on the right-of-way.  Is there space for pedestrians?  Does it feel safe? Is there seating, lighting, landscaping?  Remember, if you want people to spend time in a place, it must be welcoming and interesting.  Making these efforts at a local level can help spark activity in a corridor that might have seemed inactive and unwelcoming initially.  
  • Don’t do more of the same.  Future areas should cluster retail at key intersections, reserving mid-block areas for other alternatives that may benefit from access to a major corridor, but aren’t dependent on visibility to the same degree.  Review and update signing requirements. Visual clutter created by excessively large or substandard sign design is a problem along aging corridors. Many sign ordinances, for example, have such restrictive language about off-site signage that it discourages businesses collaborating together and appearing on a single sign.
  • Modify your zoning and future land use plan.  This goes without saying.  If this is the adopted pattern for new development, an attempt to revamp aging corridors will likely be unsuccessful.  Reduce the amount of land earmarked for retail, and make sure the areas left for retail are large enough to accommodate outdoor shopping plazas and the main street synergy that retail is evolving into.
  • Use other zoning tools.  Overlays and design standards are excellent ways to ensure consistency, promote branding, and have a greater impact on an area.  It also allows the ability to customize regulations for corridors which are altogether different from one another. Furthermore, it enables communities to have buildings constructed which are easily converted into other types of uses, avoiding the “logo architecture” effect.  This happens when a building is clearly identifiable as a single store, even without signage, making it more difficult to imagine as something other than a redo of that store’s design.
  • Manage access points.  Driveways and connectivity points should be consolidated, limiting the number of access points and the movements that can be made (for example, left turns and U-turns) is crucial to making these areas function more effectively and be more attractive to motorists.  

The good news is, there are excellent examples around the country of these types of initiatives.  Communities often get placed in the predicament of choosing between new and old. Fortunately, it does not have to mean that the new parts of the city are the only parts where placement of retail is profitable.  

Better using the real estate in place is a cost-saving move, and helps bolster the economic realities of property owners along the corridors which have your focus as a city. These ideas – and more – are a great place to begin the conversation.

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