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.

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Mixed-Use Strip Malls Seen as a Tool to Alleviate the Housing Crisis”

  1. Ron Oertel

    There is no “housing crisis”.  There’s an “affordability crisis” (for some people, not all).

    The best cure for an affordability crisis is a housing crash.  We’re seeing the beginning of that, now.

    In general, I’d suggest NOT compromising existing commercial sites, for housing.  Find another commercial use for them, if retail is dying. In fact, dying malls are probably the best (cheapest) place for “start-ups”.

    Oh, and don’t build even MORE retail outside of the city’s boundaries (such as at DiSC). Or, another hotel – right across the street from one that just opened, no less.

    Including housing in commercial space ALWAYS results in compromising that space for commercial activities, one way or another.

    By the way, just look at the “mixed use” site at 5th and Pena, if you want to see how “mixed-use” actually works. Are there any viable businesses in there, at all? That site was previously zoned for commercial use.

    1. Bill Marshall

      The best cure for an affordability crisis is a housing crash

      Unsubstantiated… BS… untrue… if there is a “crash” (not just a “cyclical downturn”), most of the economy would also be “crashing”… a 1 – 15% downturn is not a “crash”…

      Including housing in commercial space ALWAYS results in compromising that space for commercial activities, one way or another.

      Unsubstantiated… BS… untrue…

      By the way, just look at the “mixed use” site at 5th and Pena, if you want to see how “mixed-use” actually works. Are there any viable businesses in there, at all? 

      First, it’s Fifth Street, not 5th… and there should be a diacritical mark over the “n” in Pena…

      Unsubstantiated… might be true, might not.

      Two strikes, and an ???…

       

       

       

      1. Ron Oertel

         

        Unsubstantiated… BS… untrue… if there is a “crash” (not just a “cyclical downturn”), most of the economy would also be “crashing”… a 1 – 15% downturn is not a “crash”…

        However you want to define it.

        The S&P 500 lost 9.1 percent of its value in April, closing out its worst month since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020 and marking its worst year-to-date performance since World War II.

        https://theweek.com/stock-market/1013129/the-sp-500-is-down-138-percent-in-2022-the-worst-year-to-date-performance

         

        Unsubstantiated… BS… untrue…

        Are you taking “lessons” from Craig, regarding how to put forth “solid, detailed counter-arguments”?

        First, it’s Fifth Street, not 5th… and there should be a diacritical mark over the “n” in Pena…

        Who cares?

        Unsubstantiated… might be true, might not.
        Two strikes, and an ???…

        A “diacritical” mark, perhaps?

         

        1. Bill Marshall

          However you want to define it.

          Fair is fair… I define a “crash” as over 20%, over a period of years, say 5-10…

          How do you define it?  I answered with my definition… will you share yours?  I seriously doubt that you will…  just like not disclosing if you will vote on DiSC in June… you questioned my qualifications to vote on that measure… I seriously doubt that you will disclose your qualifications/eligibility to vote on that.

          Anticipating either crickets or obfuscation… and yes, moderator, saw your message, and am out of line, but if Ron O can ignore…

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        Bill – last time the issue came up, we pulled a list of business licenses for Del Rio Live-Work and found all units were occupied with businesses current on their business licenses.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Could that simply be a “paper requirement”, to purchase at Del Rio in the first place?

          Does it mean that all of the supposed “commercial space” (for each of those individual units) is actually and currently being used for commercial activities?

          That development has all of the appearances of being (primarily) a housing development.  Granted, it’s not an “ugly” one, as far as the buildings themselves are concerned.

          But if there was actually a demand for commercial uses, that entire site would have remained that way – rather than becoming primarily a housing development. It’s really just a continuation of the same old story – otherwise known as reality.

          Plenty of other examples of that in the city, as well. Including some near Del Rio (e.g., the former “Families First” site, the former convalescent facility on Pole Line road). Just two examples off the top of my head. In those cases, they’re doing-away with the commercial zoning altogether.

        2. David Greenwald Post author

          Bill – I also anticipated the question of whether these were paper businesses.  First of all you would have to pay for a Buisness license.

          Second, I also googled them…

          Here’s one example

          My conclusion: it checks out.  certain people should do their homework before raising easily falsifiable points.

        3. Ron Oertel

          My conclusion: it checks out.  certain people should do their homework before raising easily falsifiable points.

          You’ve provided one example, and are now claiming that’s true for all.  In other words, complaining about the exact same thing that you’re attributing to me.

          For that matter, how do you know that what’s claimed on that application is actually true (or, more accurately – as you imply)?  (That’s a pretty small workspace for 5 people simultaneously, from what I can see.) Or, are they working from their own homes?

          It’s certainly not a “farm” itself, as described.

          There doesn’t appear to be much parking for employees, on site. Or, are they all biking in, to work “at the farm”?

        4. Ron Oertel

          With each of the 5 earning $40,000 per year (including all benefits), on average.  Assuming no money at all, for the owner. (Unless the owner is one of the 5 “employed”.)

          Yeah, I guess they’re riding bicycles in from underneath the overpass.  And not those fancy bicycles, either. 🙂

          No wonder you think there’s a housing crisis (also known as an affordability crisis).

        5. Ron Oertel

          Hope I’m allowed this one correction, then I’ll stop for the day. (Just noticed the following.)

          The figures listed are for revenue, apparently prior to expenses.  Meaning that there’s even less money available to each of the 5 employees after considering other expenses.

          Definitely an “under-the-overpass” situation. 🙂

          Unlike an “over-the-rainbow” one.

  2. Don Shor

    Generally one of the big obstacles to the redevelopment of moribund strip malls is that the owners have little incentive, don’t have the resources, and are very unmotivated to make any changes. A couple of very good examples in Davis. Add near-neighbor opposition and you have very little chance of such mixed-use redevelopment occurring here in any meaningful amount.

      1. Don Shor

        Well, but that’s only part of the problem. Keith Echols could speak to this issue, I’m sure, but these strip malls are the way they are because of how they’re owned and managed. In every specific instance where I’ve learned about the ownership locally, it’s been obvious that redevelopment efforts would probably not be worth the time of developers and financiers. Say that the ownership is split among family heirs who have to agree on everything. Dollars are coming in, costs are low, and they have little incentive to change. Or what looks like a single mall is actually two properties, separately owned. Sometimes the owners are actually hard to find.
        I’d say the prospects for Davis are even lower than elsewhere for redevelopment of these types of properties. Maybe for fun an intern could spend a day phoning around to find the owners of the various small malls and shopping centers in Davis and see what the prospects for redevelopment would be if the zoning were changed. Build up? I’m sure the neighbors will object.
        Also worth noting that some of those types of malls provide lower-cost leasable space for small businesses, including unique retailers. See 5th and L for examples.

        1. Richard_McCann

          Imposing vacancy taxes is a mechanism that can spur action. But a more productive means could be a more active City economic development initiative. Of course being passive will result in what we have now.

    1. Todd Edelman

      Don, what are the

       very good examples in Davis.

      ???

      I know that University Commons was contentious – I did my best to make it better, but among other issues the University was not prepared to agree that this part of town is equally shared and should be developed as such.

      Oaktree Plaza has a quite popular supermarket and a moderately-nice patio, a good vet and place to get water, but CVS seems chronically less busy than it could be, the Carl’s Jr. could be generating some energy… what’s there not to like and be encouraged by even if any housing there is sort of peripheral?

      Then there’s tree other shopping centers – two on West Covell and one on Pole Line and Cowell – that are less than ten minutes by bike and/or bus to MU….and one eventually very close to Downtown…

      Have any recent studies shown how many could be housed in four- or five-story buildings on all these greyfields and the huge climate benefits from removing the car journey from many trips to the store?

  3. Darell Dickey

    I read “mixed-used strip malls” and I seriously thought this was just the latest article on DiSC.

    But I guess that would have been “sustainable and innovative mixed-use strip malls.” SIMuSM.

     

    Because, right?

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