There is a common architectural language that I’ve found while traveling America. The most interesting part of any city is generally its downtown, with historic buildings and narrow streets. But drive a couple miles—or in small towns, several blocks—in any direction, and the terrain quickly devolves. Major roadways turn into strip malls fronted with parking lots and endless stretches of chain retail. These strip-mall arterials exist nationwide, robbing cities of their appeal. The common wisdom is that they result from “the market,” as monuments to American capitalism and consumerism. But that is a big fat myth—they have been forced into existence by government regulations.
Indeed, many of the regulations that prevent livelier downtown areas also harm the potential of low-density, outlying, suburban ones, by mandating that retail stay confined into this strip mall model. Below is a list of these regulations, which are enforced to various degrees across America, explaining the uniform look of our municipalities from coast to coast.
Let’s assume, just for the sake of conversation, that nobody finds a corporate fast-food establishment particularly attractive. The visual impact of these places is nonetheless minimal and sporadic in mixed-use, urban settings, where they bump up against different building types, or sit at ground level within buildings. But along many American strip malls, fast-food chains—and other low-budget retail—are clustered side by side, extending into infinity with their loud signage, cookie-cutter design, drive-thru windows and parking lots.
We can thank single-use zoning for this. Most cities’ comprehensive zoning maps separate residential, commercial and industrial uses. They usually allow commercial retail on just a handful of key roads that run from downtown to the suburbs. So that’s where most of the retail ends up. It's as if the government has taken uses that are fundamentally ugly, and crammed them together, causing the ugliness to spread. People still shop on these strips because they have no other choice, but don’t celebrate the areas themselves, often finding them distasteful and congested.
Minimum Parking Requirements
Wherever you are reading this, close your eyes and visualize the strip mall arterial you’re most familiar with. For me, it’s a portion of U.S. 29 just north of my hometown of Charlottesville, VA. As in Charlottesville, your strip mall is likely defined by multiple autonomous, adjacent shopping centers that each have massive, multi-acre parking lots. These routes will be peppered in with individual smaller stores that also have dozens of spaces. Now ask yourself—how many times have you seen any of these lots full? Maybe Black Friday? Or the weekend before Christmas? Usually, a vast majority of spaces sit empty.
This isn’t because developers enjoy buying more land and pouring more asphalt than is necessary. It’s because of minimum parking requirements. Cities often require retailers to provide multiple times more parking infrastructure than actual building infrastructure. In Los Angeles, for example, restaurants must provide one parking space per 100 square feet of store space. In San Jose, the parking area for restaurants must be over 8 times higher than the building area. The numerous empty parking lots throughout both cities—and nationwide—suggests that these guidelines are excessive.
In dense urban areas, the town-center development style—where multi-story buildings bump up against the sidewalk—is a rich part of the architectural fabric. It might be naïve to think that this style will ever dominate suburbia. But it has become common in the outer stretches of less-regulated metros like Dallas and Houston, where new developments such as The Shops at Legacy, in Plano, provide fully-functioning mixed-use communities.
Buildings in most retail strips, however, can’t legally front the street like this. Setback requirements have been enforced to separate, in the name of safety, buildings from their adjacent roadways. This means that buildings are fronted with large parking lots, rather than integrating with sidewalks and pedestrians.
Another regulation that prevents town-center development—and that is related to single-use zoning—is residential density limits. Strip mall developments typically allow very little residential units, or none at all. This explains their cookie-cutter aesthetic in comparison to town centers. When developers can mix uses and increase densities, they increase their projects’ value, according to a study by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. And this lets them enhance the look of their project. The ability, for example, to build residential units in the floors above a commercial storefront allows discretionary revenue for developers to throw into landscaping, building material and street design.
Single-use strip mall retail development works the opposite way. Because government regulations are limiting the value that developers can accrue from their land, they throw up something hasty and cheap to get a quick return.
I don’t want to suggest that if cities were deregulated, no strip mall would ever exist. These areas are particularly convenient for big-box retailers like Lowe’s and Walmart, which need expansive land plots to build their large stores. Other retailers might find advantages in strip malls’ proximity to traffic and neighboring businesses. But the debate is academic; we don’t know where or how most businesses would function in an open market, because cities have stifled the market with regulations favoring suburban-style development.
As a result, cities are robbed of their aesthetic—and economic—potential. Consider a study by Public Interest Projects, a development company in Asheville, North Carolina. It found that mixed-use, dense development is far better for generating tax revenue than strip mall development. For example, the annual tax yield per acre for a 4-story mixed-use condo in downtown Asheville was $250,125, while the yield for the outlying, low-slung Asheville Mall was $7,995. According to architectural writer Philip Langdon, who covered the study for the blog Better Cities & Towns, “the properties that are typically occupied by retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club turn out to be very disappointing. They generate about $8,350 [in tax revenue] per acre.”
Given that municipalities make these higher-revenue developments illegal, they strip themselves of said revenue, along with job growth, economic growth and general wealth. They also make their cities less attractive, a factor that isn't of central importance for cities, but still matters. This debasement into strip malls isn't a market failure; it's a government one.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]