Misuse of Mixed-use Development | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Misuse of Mixed-use Development

Uploaded: Apr 23, 2016

Mixed-use development is an enticing concept. The notion is that by combining different categories--housing, office, retail--you can make better use of the available land by sharing underutilized resources, such as parking. For example, you could combine housing with professional offices--most of the parking needs of the employees and clients of the offices would 9am-6pm weekdays and which time many of the residents' cars would be in parking lots where they worked. Notice that this doesn't assume no overlap: There can be some parking associated with the offices on nights and weekends, and some of the residents may work out of home offices, and thus have their cars there during business hours. It is common for zoning ordinances to recognize such sharing, for example requiring less parking than would be required for the housing and professional offices if they were separate developments.

Advocates for various mixed-used developments commonly overestimate the amount of sharing possible because they underestimate peak usages. For example, in a development with housing over retail, the expectation is that many of the residents won't be home when the stores are busy. This may well be a legitimate estimate for weekdays, but on weekends, both can have large demand.

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." The first problem is that "mixed-use" involves such broad categories that the actual sharing isn't predicted by the theory. An egregious example occurred in one of the proposals for redeveloping the Hyatt Rickeys hotel site (at El Camino and Charleston, now named Arbor Real). A rebuilt hotel would have occupied the front of the site (El Camino) and high-density housing in the back. Since this was technically mixed-use, the developer claimed that it was entitled to have greatly reduced parking. Ask yourself "Under what circumstances would the bulk of the hotel's customers and the residents of the housing not have their cars there during the night--a conflicting pattern, instead of sharing?" The proposed site map showed most of the parking oriented around the hotel--the site could easily have been subsequently split into two independent parcels, with most of the parking on the hotel's parcel, and thus unavailable to the housing. Even if the split didn't happen, the hotel--being the site's owner--would likely have restricted parking to ensure enough for its customers and staff. The residents of the housing would have been forced to use on-street parking in the surrounding neighborhoods.(foot#1)

Another constraint on mixed-use is where the various components are located on the site. For example, the Fry's site is zoned to become housing, or possibly housing with a mix of retail and offices (currently deferred; the politics and decisions are off-topic here). In the 2006 deliberations, Staff and consultants claimed that mixed-use would allow enough square-footage for retail that Fry's could stay, albeit as a slightly smaller store (rather than the larger store Fry's wanted). However, their concept drawings showed the retail space split up over multiple buildings--a single large building would have greatly complicated giving adequate windows to the housing on the upper floors. Can you image a retailer like Fry's functioning in such a configuration?(foot#2)
Reminder: The topic is mixed-use, not the specifics of any individual project/proposal except to the extent they illustrate the larger issues.

Parking for housing or offices over retail is often based on the assumption that residents and office workers will leave the most convenient parking available for customers of the stores. This is very difficult to enforce with ticketing and towing. A design that makes the stores' parking inconvenient to the residents and office workers has the very undesirable effect of also making it inconvenient for them to be customers of the stores.

This becomes a bigger problem for the retailers when the other components of the mixed-use development seem to be underparked. For example, this was a major issue for Alma Village (near Meadow Drive; formerly Alma Plaza). It has housing in the back and housing above the small retail space in front. The assumption was that the residents living above the retail would park underneath the building, leaving the surface parking spots available to the customers. There was also an assumption that the housing in the back wouldn't generate conflicts for the retail parking, although many saw that housing as under-parked, both for residents and guests.

Building layout imposes constraints on what categories of retail can occupy ground level. This can be seen in the San Antonio Center where Carmel The Village Apartments replaced Sears. It appears that more than half the ground floor is used to support the apartments above (parking, lobby, other infrastructure), leaving 17 slots for retail. Currently, 7 are empty, 6 are restaurants/takeout, 3 are salons, 1 is a dry cleaner.(foot#3)

While these stores are individually not a problem, they are part of an ongoing shift in the mix of what is available locally. Over the years, I have seen too many proposals for office developments claiming to be mixed-use because they make provision for a coffee shop, small cafe, ... The city doesn't benefit from having yet more of a type of retail of which there is already an excess.

As certain categories of stores require longer and longer drives, one impact is the carbon footprint of that drive and the time wasted, but another impact is that people decide the inconvenience is too much and (grudgingly) change their lifestyle to not need what those stores offer. For example, the reduction in hardware stores means that families are doing less Do-It-Yourself maintenance and repairs and their children are getting fewer opportunities to develop intuitions about how the mechanical world works.(foot#4)

Returning to housing over retail, there are various types of retail that generate significant noise when most people are sleeping. For example, bars (at night) and bakeries (in the early morning). Smaller retailers can usually take deliveries and do restocking during normal business hours, but higher volume retailers often need to handle deliveries and restock when closed for business. Over the years, the California Avenue business district has had problems with the normal night-time noise for such a district disturbing nearby residents. For example, sidewalk and parking lot cleaning, trash pickup, deliveries. Before you say that this same situation occurs in many urban areas, ask yourself what is the same and what is different about Palo Alto.

In local discussions of housing-retail mixed use, it is almost inevitable that someone will bring up Santana Row, especially in discussions of the California Avenue area. First, they ignore the issue of scale and critical mass--notice on the map how much retail is present in the development itself and nearby (for example, Valley Fair Mall). Compare this to California Ave (map).
Visualization problem: In Google Maps, zooming in/out can produce disproportionate changes in the amount of labeling shown, but inconsistently. For example, at the zooming level that has the 200-foot scale (4 steps up), Santana Row is more thickly labeled than Cal Ave (labels are shown for more of the stores in a similar distance).

But the bigger problem is that Santana Row is designed for different demographics. It is marketed as being for people with lots of disposable income and leisure time, whereas what is being advocated for Palo Alto is affordable housing over restaurants and small shops. One of the big purported advantages of housing over retail is that the residents would have greatly reduced need to drive to retail, and their patronage supports the nearby businesses. But if the housing is occupied by families scrimping to get their children into Palo Alto schools, and the businesses are high-end boutiques and expensive restaurants, neither of those purported advantages actually accrue.

The lack of critical mass of retail can work against sharing with the housing. An acquaintance owns a building on Cal Ave with housing over retail. The residents work at Stanford and take the Marguerite Shuttle to work, but for their shopping and other non-work activities, they need a car. Consequently, their cars are parked in the Cal Ave area most of the time--minimal sharing, trivial benefit from the mixed-use configuration. How representative is this? I don't know. But neither does City Hall and its consultants and the other advocates of mixed-use.


As practiced in Palo Alto, mixed-use dogma is not about having a better city but rather providing a rationalization and incentives for over-development. Be aware that some of the incentives in Palo Alto's zoning ordinance are mandated by the state. In what sane, non-corrupt system would the incentives purportedly intended to decrease the jobs-housing imbalance result in increasing that imbalance? For example, for including a few housing units in an office development, allow additional office space that more than offset that housing.

Alma Village (formerly Plaza) is the poster child for these abuses. The opening move seemed not only legitimate, but laudable: Council approved mixed-use for the site to allow housing-over-retail in the portions of the site where that was reasonable, thereby providing some additional housing and improving the finances for redeveloping the neighborhood retail center. What the developer did was split the parcel with roughly 80% being single family homes, with a small housing-over-retail in the front (map). While acknowledging that this violated the intent of the designation, the feckless and/or faithless Council then gave their approval.

Housing-over-office mixed use has been used to rationalize providing inadequate parking for a development, for example, in the late-2000s, proposals for the development at 195 Page Mill (between Park Blvd and the Caltrain tracks) argued that a non-trivial portion of the office workers would live in the apartments above. They also argued that there would be a greater turn-over in the parking--residents driving to work freeing up spaces for employees arriving--while at the same time arguing the reverse for traffic impacts--that there would be many fewer cars arriving and departing.

One of the side-effects of the misuse of mixed-use is deliberately bad urban design. For example, you want a development to have good connectivity to the surrounding neighborhood to promote walkability and bicycling to various destinations. But if the development is allowed to have inadequate parking, how is that neighborhood to defend itself from being swamped by overflow parking? The easiest, often only, way is to require physical barriers between that development and the neighborhood, severely curtailing connectivity. While City Hall may say that it values walkability and connectivity, its higher priority has historically been to find ways to provide bonus development rights.

Mixed-use development is a useful concept, but it is vague, littered with exceptions and special cases and consequently difficult to formalize with rules. City Hall has a long history of misusing this concept. Sometimes through analysis that is so shallow and problematic that regular residents quickly spot the faults. Other times it is to help developers "game the system".

1. This proposal was not formally submitted for approval. It died because of a confluence of the 9/11 recession, changes in focus for hotel development (shift from El Camino corridor to 101 and 280), and dithering at Hyatt headquarters (in Chicago).

2. Background on Fry's site: One of the continuing objections is the loss of retail (not specifically Fry's), both for revenue for the City and retail services for residents, employees and companies, and trip reduction (for example, the next closest Fry's is Sunnyvale, 10 miles away). In 2006, City Hall created a Pedestrian- and Transit-Oriented District (PTOD) for the Cal-Ventura area (stretching from Cambridge Avenue to Lambert Avenue), with City Council removing the Fry's site from the Staff proposal for the PTOD because there were so many unanswered questions and contradictions.
Aside: My presentation.
Detail: The City's portion of sales tax is 1% of purchase price (11.4% of the current tax).

3. Current occupants of retail slots at Carmel The Village Apartments:
** Front Building #1, Safeway Side:
--Veggie Grill
--Pizza Studio
--18/8 Fine Men's Studio (Salon)
--LaserAway (Hair Removal Salon)
--Lobby for housing units
** Front Building #2, California Avenue Side:
--Paul Martin's American Grill
--Dong Lai Shun Restaurant (pending as of 3/2016)
--Pacific Catch (Restaurant)
** Front of Back Building (in front of garage, next to Safeway):
--Lux Beauty Salon
--Green Street Dry Cleaners
** California Avenue Side of Back Building:
-- Entirely empty. There are 6 listed addresses, but no interior walls.

4. I have heard repeatedly from manufacturing engineers and building contractors about their frustration with designers who stubbornly believe that whatever their computer application allows them to do can be fabricated and assembled. A classic example of this disconnect is the Walkway collapse in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City in 1981 that killed 114 and injured 216.
There is also benefit in the reverse direction: For people developing digital systems, experience with mechanical systems provides a stronger and broader appreciation for the ways things can go wrong, the risks of such happening, and how to structure systems to minimize failures (and to "fail soft").


An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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