This is why chains, franchises and big box retailers are often seen as one of the greatest threats to successful placemaking. If one looks at the characteristics of “off-the-shelf” designs that are representative of these developments, which include: brand identity as expressed in context devoid architecture; the guarantee of ample parking advertized with oversized, underutilized, and unappealing parking lots; and, disjointed development patterns, one sees the resulting conflict with creating a highly livable built environment.
Smaller scale projects are generally more adaptable to a community’s sense of place and placemaking needs for a number of reasons (which I will outline in another post). The ability of smaller projects to complete with big box developments depends upon a complex set of characteristics. There are however, ways that planning departments can optimize their work to at least ensure that the municipality does not exacerbate the challenges these smaller types of developments face.
It is not only the rules that apply to a given project that can direct its outcome, but the time it takes to move through the approvals process. We have all heard the phrase “time is money”, and that is truly the case with development reviews. When a process requires proponents to hold land for great lengths of time prior to actually building and opening for business, it favours the national chain and big box retailers because of their greater ability to finance the carrying costs. Smaller scale projects, which are typically less well funded, have an inherent disadvantage when processes become too drawn out. This is why I suggest that once carefully crafted urban design and zoning regulations have been instituted it is equally important for planning departments to address the review process itself. This process must be clear and efficient so that it does not magnify the challenges of smaller businesses and reduce the feasibility of the kind of development most desirable for a community.
Clarity of expectations; open communication; concise regulations and professional staff to help interpret them; all affect the length of time it takes to generate an approvable application. Once you have created the necessary regulatory framework and standards to ensure that the built form of new developments will support improved livability and placemaking, the next step is to make sure that the way information is communicated, and your review procedures, are optimized. In urban planning it is not always what you plan, but how you plan, that has an impact on your work and the people you are planning for.