Zoning Reform Impacts Main Street America

Posted on March 2, 2023

A series of 2 images displayed side-by-side. In the left image, a man in a collared shirt holds a glass of white wine toward the camera. To his right is a bar cart stocked with bottles. In the second image, a woman in a black T-shirt holds a metal planter inside a gardening store. She is surrounded by other planters and gardening supplies.

This article was written by Rachel Witt, Executive Director of the South Grand Community Improvement District. Read all the articles in the Lessons & Partnerships in Community & Economic Development series.

The American dream of entrepreneurship is in danger. Increasing housing costs are taking a toll on Main Street America. Customers are dining and shopping less, which is impacting sales. The cost of living today is outpacing many Americans’ income. But there is something Main Street America can do. Zoning reform can increase American’s spending power by decreasing housing costs. I offer three zoning reform solutions: eliminating single-family zoning, abolishing parking minimums, and zoning for adaptive reuse.

Eliminating single-family zoning will increase housing options for those who work for small businesses. Many small businesses are having a hard time finding staff due to what the business can afford to pay. By providing affordable housing within walking distance of Main Streets, we can help increase sales, expand hours, and provide a working wage. Adding more homes—and thus more neighbors—to low-density neighborhoods can help support local retail businesses that depend heavily on foot traffic, like hardware stores, bakeries, and restaurants, according to the Brookings Institute.

A man in a collared shirt holds a glass of white wine toward the camera. To his right is a bar cart stocked with bottles.

Abolishing parking minimums will help Main Streets by transforming surface lots into affordable or missing middle housing. Creating density in walkable communities increases sales for Main Street America. “A study from the George Washington University School of Business, found that current and emerging walkable urban communities (which the authors term “WalkUPs”) contain 22 percent of the region’s jobs, despite covering only 0.55% of the region’s land. The increase in spending will add not just to their sales but will fill the gap of shortage in workers.”

Another zoning reform option is adaptive reuse of manufacturing sites such as turning warehouses and large commercial spaces into housing. This move helps Main Street America as mentioned above. Zoning to allow higher density around main streets will help ensure an increase in the customer base that shops and dines where they live.

Also, we can use adaptive reuse to reconfigure buildings into smaller office suites. Companies who decided to have their employees work from home due to the pandemic are negatively affecting Main Streets. The loss of office space is hurting main streets in America because no one is around to have lunch or shop on Main Street. Zoning reform can help bring back our workforce in or around our Main Streets. Incentives can be offered to get companies to come back to downtown buildings or locate to underutilized areas that once supported warehouses or large commercial spaces.

A woman wearing a black T-shirt holds a metal garden planter inside a gardening shop filled with plants and gardening supplies.

Today’s reality: Main Street America is greatly impacted by inflation and is seeing an increase in the cost of goods and services, which is hemorrhaging small businesses. To keep their doors open they are scaling back on hours of operation. Small businesses are looking at their sales to decide what are the best days and times to keep their business open. Small businesses are resetting hours and reducing hours to retain staff.

Why are we seeing a decrease in hours for restaurants, retail, and services? Small businesses are experiencing staffing shortage, inflation, and limited supplies of products. These three items are the trifecta of the decrease in the customer base. Customers are facing the same issues with rising housing costs and inflation on goods and services. For customers, having more meaningful dining experiences, shopping only for special occasions, and staying at home with friends and families are becoming the norm.

To change the direction, we need to think more creatively about zoning. These three steps of zoning reform, which are eliminating single-family zoning, abolishing parking minimums, and zoning for adaptive reuse are all needed to keep the American dream of entrepreneurship alive.

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Rachel Witt is the Executive Director of the South Grand Community Improvement District. Graduate from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Geography, minor in Sociology and certification in Nonprofit Management. Master’s in public administration from Widener University emphasis in local government and economic development. Connect with Rachel on Linkedin or email.

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