Mixed Use Dev Patterns

I’ve been skeptical of much of the long-term viability of lots of the new mixed-use developments I’ve seen going up in Raleigh. This article from Strong Towns hits some of the points that have been bothering me. They are positive in that they increase walkability and density, but otherwise they seem very similar to our standard developments of the past 50 years in terms of financing and the kind of commercial tenants they attract.

Unlike the examples in the article, I don’t see a lot of empty store fronts in our city. This is probably due to our booming economy - but I share the fear that mandating uses in a top-down manner will have undesirable outcomes when the economy turns.

What do y’all thank? Are these kinds of developments (I’m thinking North Hills and Oberlin in particular, but there’s several such developments in the area) the way to move our city forward, or do they dig us deeper in the hole?

The obvious answer is that, for now, having too many large-space retailers/empty storefronts doesn’t seem to be much of an issue -at least in Raleigh. But when 2050-60 comes, when Amazon and Apple’s economic incentives phase out (if they’re around -and who knows if the tech boom would still be a thing by then?), there’s no guarantee that we’d still have a booming economy here in the Triangle. If we are no longer like that by then, large/franchise businesses won’t have much of an incentive to stick around…

…so having smaller, local businesses around (as vulnerable as they are) in strategic locations may become important. If you agree with that, then yes, I think developments with more, smaller commercial spaces is absolutely necessary to move our city forward -and have “insurance” to keep it that way.

We got lucky by coming up with RTP in the 1950s to switch from farming and manufacturing; I think large developments with large, brand-name retail spaces are doing a good job today to keep that positive feedback loop going. But since we’re not a cultural icon like New York or Atlanta, it might be smart to also look at out-of-the-(big)-box-(store) ideas as well. (Besides, we’re in the south. Local businesses with history is kind of our thing, no?)


I agree. StrongTowns talks about trading resiliency for efficiency, which is what we’re doing when we trade small, specialized local stores for large chain retail.

I think a lot of it has to do with how the federal gov’t subsidizes financing and insurance that gives big box stores and advantage, but we can help locally by relaxing mandates in our zoning. And we can stop building transportation infrastructure that perpetuates and subsidizes that kind of development.

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IMO, having too many retail spaces is a good thing. It drives retail rents down which lowers the bar for entrepreneurial people wanting to start creative, new businesses.


I’ve been saying for years that Raleigh needs to introduce micro-spaces for independent retailers who don’t need giant spaces to carry on their backs as they try to to sustain an independent business. An extreme example of this model is La Sandwicherie in South Beach. It’s a successful and sustaining business that makes fresh sandwiches in a space that’s literally 8 feet (or so) feet wide by about 60 feet deep. The monthly investment in this space is tiny while the ft2 price is probably VERY high. It doesn’t matter because the amount of space needed to run the business is so small.
To make DT retail work for independent businesses, developers need to be compelled to provide smaller spaces for this sort of entrepreneurial and independent venture.


i’m not as concerned about how much there is, but rather how much of it encourages chain as opposed to local tenants.

There was a downtown Durham blogger active a decade ago that used to view pizza by the slice as the sign of a healthy urban area, which is similar to what you’re talking about. Lots of these kinds of spaces in our historical urban areas, even as far out of the core as Five Points.

New developments tend to have much bigger spaces.


I wonder if retail space has the kind of same affordable “life cycle” that housing does.

My thinking (or really it’s a kind of Jane Jacobs thinking) is that to have affordable housing, you need to let things get old. Things built today are the shiny and new and command the highest prices, last decades housing are second tier, two decades ago third tier, etc. A healthy city has a varied amount of housing across all tiers in all different styles. When you demolish housing, you upset this balance. At least, that’s how my thinking is, feel free to debate it.

Raleigh, downtown especially, had dozens of residential units in the 90s. Then BOOM we’re in the thousands at this point in time. Lots of tier 1 housing, very little has yet to be old and become affordable. It’s coming, but not yet.

I’d like to think there actually is a similar thinking to retail spaces but in the case of DTR, it’s not happening as drastic as housing. I’m kind of agreeing with @orulz that more space means reasonable rents. I certainly don’t want a dead zone though which means that problem may not be the rent but getting people there in the first place which we can do with more housing, attractive placemaking, etc.


This is exactly true. the problem is that we didn’t build any of this stuff for probably 30 years, so its either really old, really new (expensive), or auto-oriented/crappy.


Age certainly creates affordability, but I don’t think that it’s all about age. Newer residential projects tend to offer more amenities to attract the high end buyer/renter. On site gyms, pools, business centers, etc. have to be paid for and that happens with higher price points. A lot of projects built 20 years ago didn’t have all of these “luxuries”.

Supply that stays in front of demand will keep prices at bay the best that it can. However, continued land price escalation will keep driving projects to a new top end of the market, and land is something that we can’t increase in supply. What we can do is look to expand downtown’s footprint through policy and infrastructure planning. At the macro and strategic level, the city should be asking itself how it expands the urban experience as the demand grows.

In the meantime, the only way for developers to provide “affordable” anything in the context of rapidly escalating land prices is to go vertical, and that needs to include retail. Mixed use with retail on the first floor is only the first step in this equation. Retail will have to go vertical either “internally” (2 story stores), or “externally” (multi-level centers) to maximize opportunities while addressing land costs.


I think it’s part simple and part complicated. The simple part is good ol’ ‘retail follows roofs’. Give it time and those retail spots will fill up.
The more complicated part, is figuring out things like, is the accompanying residential part, or project as a whole, any good? Is it in a part of the City where there is indeed foot traffic, in a proper urban setting. Is the building itself well built? Are the retail spaces attractive and oriented well? Not all retail spaces in these new mixed-use buildings are the same, and should not be just considered without their appropriate caveats.

Not sure about tiered housing. Recently hunted for a place for my young adult buying first place. The old stuff was pretty dang close in price to the new stuff, the repairs and upgrades to make the old stuff livable (AC, electricity, foundation, leak and flood proofing) was so costly we skipped the middle tier to take the new place with modern amenities and a warranty for a fraction more. There are not many cheaper livable units without it being a dump. The prices of homes and condos are high and only going higher. Just my experience looking for last 3 months.


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