Recently, Frank Chlebnikow, AICP and I co-presented a program entitled “Finding Valuable Commercial Space Under Parking Lots” at the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors’ 97th Annual Educational Conference.  The program discussed problems (and potential solutions) many communities are experiencing due to the increasing amount of vacant retail spaces in shopping malls and big-box retail stores.  Most communities experience impacts such as a stagnating/declining tax base and operating revenue shortfalls, leading to a reduction in municipal services, loss of businesses and residents, limited property reinvestment, and increasing tax rates.  But mature, built-out suburban and urban communities must also deal with the lack of undeveloped land, aging and inadequately maintained infrastructure, traffic congestion and addressing stormwater runoff issues while complying with federal/state mandates.

One thing is certain, the traditional mall and suburban commercial corridor model (a “shopping mall”) that includes one or more sprawling, single-story buildings dominated by retail and department store tenants surrounded by seas of parking lots, is not the future.  These properties tend to be located in and around existing developed areas along major multi-transportation corridors with a full range of public utilities and services and, therefore, they are ideal for future redevelopment.  Specifically, these properties are perfect for infill and replacement, including a mixture of new uses and development design concepts, such as innovative greening and stormwater management.

While shopping mall owners constantly are looking for ways to retain existing and attract new tenants, employees and customers, their short timeframes tend to be at odds with the longer-term needs of the community.  Accordingly, it is important for mall owners, business development groups and municipalities to have early, ongoing and meaningful communications about their respective and collective issues, needs and solutions.

One solution is to collaboratively examine the applicable zoning and development regulations.  Development regulations for all properties must be fair and equitable to effectively promote, protect and facilitate the public health and safety.  But development regulations for shopping mall properties must also reflect the unique development characteristics, needs and issues and remain relevant by including incentives that encourage innovation and promote flexibility, economy and ingenuity for (re)use and (re)development.

Most communities’ land use regulations reflect today’s shopping mall model.  Several communities group these properties into their general commercial business zoning districts and permit shopping malls by conditional use or special exception approval.  Additionally, the existing area and dimensional standards may limit the number, size and heights of principal buildings so as to limit such properties to one large, single-story building.  Further, while such zoning districts generally permit a wide range of retail stores, and a limited number of other retail and personal services, several exclude compatible residential uses, offices, places of worship, large indoor recreation facilities (including casinos), manufacturing and distribution.  In doing so, communities may inadvertently discourage mall (re)use and (re)development by subjecting shopping mall properties to the same use, general area and dimensional requirement applicable for all uses, or require new or modified conditional use or special exception approval for any new use or building, alteration or demolition.

In considering the future and long term sustainability of shopping mall properties, the collaborative partnership should look at certain provisions of Article VI (Zoning) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code including Sections 603(c)(3) – 603(c)(6), 604(2), 604(5) and 605(3).  Doing so will help enable the creation of zoning strategies specifically and uniquely tailored to encourage the (re)use and (re)development of shopping mall properties.  These strategies may include the creation of separate base or overlay zoning districts with their own use, area, dimensional and other development design, process and approval standards.  In prior posts, I discussed a potential new use and parking considerations that may be used as incentives for revitalizing shopping mall properties, but there are several others.  We encourage developers and municipalities to get creative and to collaborate.

Please contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group with questions regarding this post or for assistance with any land use issues.