Let’s face it: While commercial strips may provide convenience, they are frequently unattractive. With changing retail patterns, they are also increasingly under-utilized. Urban planners see a new future for them as locations for a mixture of housing and retail, served by multimodal transportation on the broad streets which are at their heart.

A recent webinar, “Housing and the Strip”, hosted by CivicWell, formerly the Local Government Commission, brought together well-known Berkeley planner Peter Calthorpe with Oakland economist Jason Moody and Meea Kang, an innovative housing developer. They discussed the potential as well as the challenges of transforming commercial strips into vibrant street spaces.

Calthorpe began by citing pushback on higher density in single-family residential areas or projects focusing on functioning office parks. “Don’t invade the stable parts of the community,” he argued, observing that commercial strips are ripe for rethinking precisely because they are not being well utilized. As an alternative, he showed the potential to rethink the poorly used spaces along El Camino Real by putting in a variety of housing and making the street fully multimodal to support the higher density and activity level of new occupants. He explained, “Mixed use means more destinations are closer together, making alternatives to cars more usable.” He believes that “Grand Boulevard” projects like this have the potential to add almost 1.5 million new housing units throughout the Bay Area, 300,000 of which would be affordable.

He cautioned that to be achievable without major delays or alterations, projects would need to include a number of components: “as of right” zoning to avoid discretionary permit battles; a 15 percent inclusionary provision; a policy of zero displacement of existing households; codes based on the physical form of buildings rather than uses; and focus on infill only.

A SoCal strip mall awaiting redevelopment.

Moody addressed the concern that “housing doesn’t pay for itself” as a myth that is unnecessarily deterring communities from considering repurposing commercial strips. He noted that successful commercial corridors adapt to changing retail landscapes, but there is currently a glut in certain types of retail space due to changes in consumer behavior. Housing development drives retail demand, creating foot traffic; the resulting sales tax growth is an indirect benefit. He demonstrated that property tax gains from new higher-density housing can more than offset the sales tax loss from current unsuccessful businesses. Transforming a big box property to a market mall near housing can work for both. Meanwhile, successful commercial properties are unlikely to convert to housing, so their sales tax revenue will not be affected by changes in nearby uses.

Kang provided examples of how to develop underused property into housing, including Lincoln Court, housing for low-income and disabled seniors on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland, which was built despite neighborhood opposition to the increase in density and reduction in parking requirements. She also described a combination of historic preservation and adaptive reuse on the landmark Temple Arts Lofts in Vallejo, which involved earthquake retrofitting as well as negotiating impact fees and parking adjustments. She advocated putting housing over cars, because often parking is an unnecessary hurdle – disabled seniors don’t need as much – and also prioritizing housing over retail at times, saying, “[s]ometimes housing is OK on the ground floor” in locations where retail will not actually be successful. For Kang, the real challenge is to find the money, as there currently are no funding mechanisms for infill housing.

Participants cited two pieces of pending legislation that would contribute to the success of such repurposing projects, AB 2097 (Friedman) which would reduce the parking requirements for retail and housing, and AB 2011 (Wicks) to streamline CEQA requirements for commercial corridors. Regardless of their success, planners are already eyeing local streetscapes with revitalization in mind.

Top Photo: The Broadway Apartments, part of the redevelopment of the Broadway Corridor in Oakland.