Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Letter Grades for Retail Building Orientation

In the hiatus I took from writing this blog I thought a lot about what I can do to support good urban design.  By good urban design I mean a lot of things, but one important idea is that a good city is a city that makes it easy for people to walk.  There are a lot of factors that determine how easy it is to walk to something.  The factor I want to focus on here is how buildings are placed on a property, and particularly buildings that contain retail.  By retail I mean retail in a broad sense: stores that sell physical goods to their end users, restaurants, cafés, bank branches, personal service businesses like barber shops, etc.

The basic idea is that retail buildings should be sited so that they are both adjacent to streets and sidewalks, have entrances facing sidewalks, and ideally, have other "land uses" like housing or offices above.  Thus, my ideal retail building is placed along a sidewalk, has an entrance on that sidewalk, and has another use above.

When we look at the actual building environment of retail, we can see a lot of different types of building.  Here is my system for summarizing how much their orientation contributes to the ability to walk.

A (Excellent): Mixed Urban Retail
This building in North Hollywood gets an "A" because it is placed along the sidewalk, has entrances on the sidewalk, and appears to have another use upstairs.  The mixed-use adds more potential pedestrians to the scene and makes the street more vibrant.  I think the fact of a mixed use is more important than the number of stories, although I'm certainly not against taller buildings.

An "A" building has to comply with the following rules:
  • The building is placed along a street with a sidewalk and is set back from the front property line from zero to no more than five meters.  If the building is on a corner lot with two or more frontages, it must be placed zero to five meters back from one corner.
  • The building has a usable entrance that faces the sidewalk.
  • Off-street parking, if present, is placed to the side, to the rear or beneath the building, but is not placed between the sidewalk and the building.  Protected pedestrian walkways accessible to the disabled must be provided between the parking area and the sidewalk.
  • The building is at least two stories tall and the upper floor (or floors) contains another use, typically housing or office space.

B (Good): Urban Retail
These retail buildings in Uptown Whittier get a "B" because they are placed along the sidewalk, have entrances on the sidewalk, but are single-use.  Pedestrians walking by can easily see into the stores and access the entrances which makes walking more interesting.  Placing buildings near the sidewalk also provides shade.
A "B" building has to comply with the following rules:
  • The building is placed along a street with a sidewalk and is set back from the front property line from zero to no more than five meters.  If the building is on a corner lot with two or more frontages, it must be placed zero to five meters back from one corner.
  • The building has a usable entrance that faces the sidewalk.
  • Off-street parking, if present, is placed to the side, to the rear or beneath the building, but is not placed between the sidewalk and the building.  Protected pedestrian walkways accessible to the disabled must be provided between the parking area and the sidewalk.
  • The building contains retail, but no other land uses.

C (Okay): Semi-Urban Retail
This grocery store at 3rd and La Brea in Los Angeles gets a "C" because, although it makes it to the corner, its entrance (not pictured) faces the rear parking lot.  Photo: Google Maps.
A "C" building has to comply with the following rules:
  • The building is placed along a street with a sidewalk and is set back from the front property line from zero to no more than five meters.  If the building is on a corner lot with two or more frontages, it must be placed zero to five meters back from one corner.
  • The building has no entrances directly on the sidewalk.  Instead, all building entrances face the off-street parking area.
  • Off-street parking is always present and is placed to the side or to the rear of the building, but is not placed between the sidewalk and the building.  Protected pedestrian walkways accessible to the disabled must be provided between the parking area and the sidewalk.
  • The building contains retail, but no other land uses.

D (Poor): Strip Mall
This strip mall in unincorporated West Whittier gets a "D" because of its failure to come up to the corner.  Putting parking in front creates a barrier for pedestrians, makes it hard to see inside shops and also creates the need for more signage (note the free-standing sign to the right).  Yet the parking barrier is small enough to avoid the worst grade.  Photo: Google Maps.










A "D" building has to comply with the following rules:
  • The building is set back from the front property line along a street with a sidewalk up to 22 meters or has parking or a drive-thru lane located between the sidewalk and the building entrances.  22 meters is approximately the space needed to provide two rows of parking at a 90 degree angle to the street with a two-way drive aisle between them.  On a corner lot, the building is set back up to 22 meters from either the front or a side property line.
  • The building contains retail, but no other land uses.

F (Very Poor): Large Suburban Retail or No Sidewalks
This large suburban retail center in Pico Rivera typifies the characteristics that earn an "F": pedestrians must navigate a large and treacherous parking lot to get to the stores in the background which are barely visible in the photo.  Photo: Google Maps.
An "F" building has to comply with the following rules:
  • The building is set back more than 22 meters from the front property line along a street with a sidewalk and has parking or a drive-thru lane located between the sidewalk and the building entrances.  On a corner lot, the building is set back at least 22 meters from either the front or a side property line.
  • The building contains retail, but no other land uses.
  • Alternatively, any shopping center along a street with no sidewalks receives an F.
As a closing thought, keep in mind a few things.  This is a rating system for retail building orientation.  Nothing in this system precludes a building from having parking.  A building could have a surface parking lot and earn an "A" on this scale.  I bring up building orientation because it is something that cities can control through their zoning codes that I think gets overlooked sometimes.  Every city, even cities with zoning codes that strictly separate uses everywhere, can at least require "B" level buildings.  For big-box stores, cities should at least require "C" level orientation.  The truth is, people love walkalbe, pedestrian-oriented shopping districts.  With a little training, drivers can learn to look behind buildings for parking.  The world won't end, I promise!

Another thought: if you want to support good urban design, support shops that are at least at a "C" level.  We need to send a market signal that people will shop in buildings that respect pedestrians.  While you're at it, write your city council and tell them you have higher standards for the built environment in your town!

7 comments:

  1. Trader Joe's does this in other cities, too. Here is a photo in Philadelphia' Center City (its downtown). The entrance is in the back adjacent to the parking lot. Ironically when I was there, there was a line of motorist idling their engines waiting to enter the lot, while plenty of on-street parking spaces sat empty.

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    1. oops. Here's the link: https://goo.gl/maps/47JMjWjf2h32

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    4. Sometimes the same company is all over the scale at different locations. I can think of one Trader Joe's in LA that's an "A" (at Selma and Vine) and others that are "F"s.

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  2. There needs to be a requirement for the frequency of entrances. Ideally there would be one entrance every 15 to 20 feet.

    Ideal design for small stores: http://wp.me/p4rBXa-8v

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