The Fatal Flaws in Mixed Use Zoning and Development

Note:  Below was first published in 2015.  It applies today more than ever.


Mixed use – Avalon, City Center, Buckhead, Sandy Springs, Gwinnett….ad infinitum. There is plenty of mixed use development going up in the ATL; and not just in the ATL, but nationwide. The concept of mixed use zoning, having been talked about for decades, is finally having it’s day

Zoning is the division of land purposes and those land use decisions are generally made by local governments.  This all began around 1916 in Manhattan’s fabric district and was fueled by the need to control density in a city where skyscrapers were restricting fresh air and sunlight. By 1924, the federal government had written “The Standard Enabling Act”, which permitted legislative bodies of cities and villages to  regulate land use. But most would agree that it was Euclid vs. Ambler Realty, back in 1926, that set the course for zoning for the remainder of the 20th century. This decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, one that favored the city of Euclid, brought about the traditional method of zoning that we still know today.

As our nation moves into the thick of the 21st century, Euclidean zoning is beginning to have detractors. It is considered stylistically too monotonous and supposedly contributes to suburban sprawl. The subject du jour is this: Why not mix zoning uses, i.e. residential, retail, business, etc.? Why not bring everyone close together in one giant urban heap?

Mixed use zoning is the “in your face” to almost 100 years of traditional segregated zoning in the United States. It is the metaphorical love child of Andres Duany and Jane Jacobs and was brought to age in the school of the Urban Land Institute and others. It’s presentation at the Cotillion Ball is with the zeitgeist of global warming and the “end of oil”.

The great irony of the trend back toward density and mixed uses and away from segregated zoning types is that it completely ignores many of the sane and rational reasons we segregated in the first place. “The Standard Enabling Act” came about essentially to provide for the “health safety, moral and general welfare of the population” by controlling density. And the U.S. Supreme Court decision to side with the zoning laws of the city of Euclid was explained like this:

Until recent years, urban life was comparatively simple; but with the great increase and concentration of population, problems have developed…which require, and will continue to require, additional restrictions in respect of the use and occupation of private lands in urban communities… The exclusion of buildings devoted to business, trade, etc., from residential districts, bears a rational relation to the health and safety of the community. Some of the grounds for this conclusion are…aiding the health and safety of the community by excluding from residential areas the confusion and danger of fire, contagion and disorder which in greater or less degree attach to the location of stores, shops, and factories.
Euclid v. Ambler Realty (United States Supreme Court, 1926)

Even so, one would be hard pressed to find much of a detracting view from the current enthrallment with urbanism and mixed use zoning. Why? Why is this? When something is this completely imbalanced, we might should heed a warning – the warning of a bubble.

I did find a naysayer in this world of pro-urban mixed use development. Interestingly, he is John McNellis, an Urban Land Institute Foundation Governor. Mr. McNellis, in this piece, argues that cities should stay away from mandating Mixed Use land uses. But, the allure for every city and county to create mini San Francisco’s or Manhattans in their own back yards is strong. He says of this allure,

To achieve this dream, too many cities are insisting on mixed uses in locations that are, at best, suitable for a single use: cities are jamming retail space into quiet residential quarters and demanding residences atop noisy stores. In short, cities are making the socialist mistake of dictating supply rather than responding to demand.

I immediately thought of Alpharetta and the ways in which they are using their mixed use zoning designation.  I also thought of the Alpharetta City Center project. I’m tempted to think Avalon might be successful in all this because it has a tested and successful major real estate developer behind it, North American Properties. But even North American Properties has hung a millstone around it’s neck by entering into a public/private partnership in order to build a convention center and it has done so with a local government that is making the aforementioned socialist mistake.  I don’t reserve that opinion for Alpharetta alone.  Public/private partnerships are troublesome and require a great deal of finesse.

Some of the reasons we segregated our land uses were good reasons.  This should not be forgotten.  However, the  negatives of suburban sprawl are real and have to be reckoned with.  But, are mixed-use developments the answer?  We haven’t even begun to talk about what happens when one component of a mixed use development goes bust; for instance, what if the residential component crashes?  That drags everything else down with it…particularly if it is managed by one management company.

Before everyone jumps on the mixed use zoning band wagon, we should consider if there might be a happy medium between suburban sprawl and the starry eyed, mindless rush toward the so called new urbanism.


One Reply to “The Fatal Flaws in Mixed Use Zoning and Development”

  1. Thanks for writing this. Let’s not forget the “live, work, play” pitch that’s often added to tout mixed use development, including claims of reduced traffic congestion, or whatnot. Unless a resident has a white-collar job that allows work from home, I doubt any folks actually live and work in most of these developments, as the jobs available (i.e. service industry) and rents do not match.

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