Sunday Commentary: Mixed Use Strip Malls Seen as a Tool To Alleviate the Housing Crisis

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – It was nearly a year ago last May that Sustainable Growth Yolo recommended a number of changes to the Housing Element.  One of the proposed changes was to rezone all strip malls to mixed use.

Previously we had seen a contested battle over the redevelopment of the University Mall.  By a bare 3-2 vote, the council approved a compromise proposal.

However, there are a number of advantages to the approach—it could improve the viability of strip mall sites, many of which have struggled greatly in Davis.  It could also provide housing and improve city revenues greatly, as U-Mall was projected to do.

At the time, Sustainable Growth Yolo wrote, “In the sites inventory, the draft housing element includes only one property to be rezoned as mixed-use. Together the Westlake Shopping Center, The Marketplace on Covell, Davis Manor, and Target Shopping Center have 16.5 acres of underused surface parking. By rezoning these properties for mixed-use, the city will immediately create the opportunity for denser and often more affordable housing to be developed with minimal impact.”

This is an idea that is starting to take off across the state.  At a recent meeting of the Urban Land Institute, experts argued that turning underutilized shopping centers into mixed-use housing developments could be the kind of win-win we potentially saw in Davis with the U-Mall.

One of the problems we have seen is that there are scores of empty and underutilized strip malls and shopping centers on the edge of neighborhoods.  This is consuming a lot of land that could go for housing.

This of course will require cities to change their land use policies.

As Smart Cities Dive noted, “A lack of housing supply has contributed to skyrocketing housing costs in many urban regions in recent years, putting the price of buying a home out of reach for lots of people and leading to many renters falling behind on payments or getting evicted.”

While there is a huge and notable need for affordable and other types of housing in California, Andrew Watkins of the SWQA Group, a landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm, during the panel discussion noted that retail space has largely been overbuilt in the US.

This is “largely due to changing retail practices and the impact that Amazon and online shopping have had on consumers.”

During the panel Watkins noted, “Are there opportunities to provide retail for convenience and experience and intensify retail and commercial sites with housing?”

He sees the solution as replacing “sites that have large, underutilized retail space with developments that mix residential housing with stores, restaurants, hotels and/or office and commercial space.”

He argued that doing so “could reinvigorate the commercial space that is already there.”

Smart Cities Dive, however, noted, “About 40% of the commercial-designated zones in the zoning codes of California’s 50 largest jurisdictions do not allow residential development in commercial areas, according to a November report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.”

“While there’s a lot of land that’s reserved for commercial purposes, a really small fraction of it has historically been converted into residential use,” said report co-author David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center.

Ted Lohman, vice president of Brookfield Properties’ development group, which oversees the real estate investment company’s mixed-use properties, noted that housing mixed with retail “will provide foot traffic, which will drive sales.”

He said, “The broader mix of uses at the property will broaden that foot traffic and spread that activity throughout the week. It will also create a more walkable environment benefiting residents and the shopper, complete with parks, trails and other open space opportunities.”

David Garcia warned that changing zoning codes to allow for mixed-use housing at strip malls will not solve the housing supply problems on its own, but it is a piece of the puzzle.

He warned that rezoning “those sites takes time, money and resources.”  He argued that “states and regional governments should also provide funds that allow cities to take on that intensive planning work.”

In addition to strip malls, the city of Davis is looking at pushing for mixed use in its downtown.  But money is a barrier to widespread redevelopment.  Without either deep-pocketed investors or government subsidies, it remains to be seen if such redevelopment is economically feasible.