The immediate and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are expected to change the way businesses operate and communities plan, zone and regulate land use and development.  Below is a summary of a few issues and trends facing communities and businesses.  Municipalities should proactively approach this “new normal” and consider modifying zoning and other land use ordinances to the extent necessary to meet the new needs of residents and workers.

  • Small cell antennas – More people than ever are remotely working or schooling from their homes. As a result, more devices are connected to telecommunications networks and more data is being used.  To help boost network coverage and capacity in high-volume usage areas, telecommunications service providers are installing more small (micro) cell antennas on utility, traffic light and other poles or buildings within or in close proximity to residential neighborhoods.
  • Drive-throughs, curbside pickup lanes, “to-go” parking spaces and “walk-up” windows – Retail and restaurants are adjusting their business practices and services to protect their employees’ and customers’ health. In addition to food and drink delivery services, more businesses are incorporating drive-throughs, curbside pickup lanes, “to-go” parking spaces or “walk-up” windows as accessory uses customarily incidental and subordinate to these businesses.
  • Distribution facilities – E-commerce is booming. The extent to which people order and receive goods and products that traditionally were purchased in person in a “brick-and-mortar” building has been increasing for years.  However, the pace at which e-commerce has been growing is even faster now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Customers want their orders to be delivered to their homes as quick as possible.  To meet these increasing demands, businesses are repurposing former big box retail buildings and shopping malls to establish smaller distribution or fulfillment centers that are in close proximity to residential neighborhoods.
  • Virtual restaurants –Online and mobile app food delivery services have grown quickly in recent months and may not go away even after restaurants can re-open in their traditional form. To meet these demands, restaurants are establishing virtual restaurants, commercial kitchens purely for processing, preparing and fulfilling food orders.  There are no in-restaurant ordering or dining facilities:  no registers, no servers, no money, no tables or chairs.
  • Home workspaces – Modern technology has enabled more office employees than ever to remotely work from their homes. As long as they have a computer and internet service, many employees can seamlessly perform nearly all of their work functions from the comfort of their homes.
  • Repurposing unused buildings – With more people working from home, and less people making in-person retail purchases or traveling and seeking overnight accommodations, there could be a potential reduction in the demand for space in “brick-and-mortar” office, shopping mall or hotel (motel) buildings. The corresponding increase in the amount of these unused buildings provides additional opportunities to repurpose these buildings for new uses.  While several studies indicate the demand for workforce housing continues to increase, there is a potential that some of these unused office, shopping mall or hotel buildings (or their surrounding parking areas) in certain areas could be repurposed to provide for new uses, including additional housing options.  Several of these buildings are located within or near business centers along major multi-transportation corridors with a full range of public utilities and services.

As communities and businesses look to begin recovering from the effects of COVID-19, we encourage developers, business owners and municipalities to collaboratively examine these and other issues and trends and get creative to ensure ordinances are up-to-date, flexible and sustainable.  By specifically permitting these desirable or necessary businesses and uses and removing unnecessary regulatory roadblocks, communities and businesses may be more resilient, impacted less, and quicker to recover from this or future crises.

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.