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

For most Pennsylvanians, it seems much longer than just over a month ago that Governor Wolf issued orders closing all “non-life-sustaining” businesses and directing all residents to “stay-at-home.”  While these orders have saved countless lives, they have also caused several businesses to either alter or shutdown their operations.  Many employees have been furloughed, laid-off or compelled to work from their homes.

Fortunately, modern technology has enabled certain office employees to continue working, not in their office buildings, but from their home offices.  These new home offices may be nothing more than unfinished basements or converted dining rooms, spare bedrooms or even kitchen tables.  These home office activities and functions are considered a form of home-based businesses or occupations (HBBs) as defined, permitted and regulated by most municipal zoning ordinances.  In many instances, new HBBs have been quite successful.  Therefore, while the Governor’s orders are not likely to remain in place in perpetuity, many businesses are considering modifying their operations to support increased use of HBBs even after the orders are lifted.

Many of the municipal HBB regulations were adopted several decades ago and may not reflect modern community planning, business or technology trends.
Continue Reading Modernizing Home Occupation Standards So You Can Continue Video Conferencing In Your Shorts From Your Basement Outpost

Black Box Kitchens, Dark Kitchens, Ghost Kitchens, or Zombie Kitchens.  Terms like these may sound scary, like the stuff of nightmares.  But these terms are used to describe an emerging food service industry concept known as “virtual restaurants.”

Very simply, virtual restaurants are kitchen-only restaurants.  With the rise of online and mobile app food delivery services, such as GrubHub, Uber Eats, Favor and DoorDash, traditional “brick-and-mortar” restaurants are turning more often to virtual restaurants to keep up with their customers’ preferences and demands.  There are no in-restaurant ordering or dining facilities:  no registers, no servers, no money, no tables or chairs.  Virtual restaurants are commercial kitchens purely for processing, preparing and fulfilling food orders.

Virtual kitchens can take many forms. 
Continue Reading Don’t be Afraid of Ghost or Zombie…Kitchens

Where do you spend your free time or work on your hobby?

There is a concept in community planning and place making involving three separate but important social environments (or places) where people spend their time.  The first two places are one’s home and one’s workplace.  “Third places” generally include public or community places where people socialize or recreate, including places of worship, health clubs, bars and pubs, restaurants, stores, parks, community centers, etc.  Now developers are creating new third places by combining the “man cave” and “she shed” concepts with mini-storage.  These third places are known as luxury garage units or “car condos.”

The concept is simple.  Rather than renting or leasing unconditioned dead storage space for vehicles, household items or recreational equipment in traditional mini-storage units, luxury garage units are made available for purchase as condominium units and are fully conditioned. 
Continue Reading Man Caves and She Sheds Meet Mini-Storage…It’s a Thing

In a world where technology and community needs frequently out-pace zoning updates, permitting zoning modifications by conditional use is an opportunity for municipalities and developers to collaborate to help ensure development projects are well designed, innovative, publicly supported and, therefore, approved.  Most people involved in zoning and development know that denied variances – (i.e., modifications of the strict application of zoning ordinance provisions) can sink otherwise well designed, innovative and publicly supported projects.  Regardless of the use, district or community, the rigid “hardship” criteria for variances, set forth in Section 910.2(a) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”), are extremely inflexible.  That inflexibility often stymies creativity and constrains innovation.  Indeed, the antiquated criteria is inconsistent with and contrary to other provisions of the MPC and, at times, the desires of many municipalities that wish to accommodate newer development innovations and trends.

Occurring more often are scenarios where variances are necessary to accommodate the preferences of the municipality and to permit innovative and sustainable mixed-use developments with design enhancements.  In such instances, zoning hearing boards, municipal elected and appointed officials, and the public all may agree
Continue Reading Requesting a Variance from Variances! Consider a Conditional Use

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.
Continue Reading Shopping Malls: This Ain’t the Dawn of the Dead

Recently, one forward thinking Pennsylvania grocery retailer opened a new Ecommerce hub facility at the site of one of its former, traditional grocery store buildings in a mixed-use neighborhood. Rather than demolishing the existing “brick and mortar” building, it is adaptively reusing the building by converting it to a new “click and mortar” facility.

For many retailers, the traditional retail approach includes a commercial building with a significant retail display and sales area directly accessible by customers selecting and purchasing their goods onsite.  But new approaches are popping up every day.  The new approach referenced above allows customers to place orders online using their electronic devices or onsite using tablets located in the building’s vestibule area.  Orders are processed and fulfilled onsite and either picked up by customers or delivered to customers via a delivery service.

This local retailer is just one example of an emerging business trend whereby “shopping fulfillment centers” are occupying vacant, former retail store buildings located in close proximity to customers.
Continue Reading Friendly Neighborhood Fulfillment Centers: Not Your Mama’s Fulfillment Centers

In our first two posts (Part 1 and Part 2), we discussed current approaches used by many communities to regulate parking, factors contributing to those approaches, and how those approaches are not sustainable because they consume large amounts of space and money.  Great anecdotal evidence of what we described is provided annually in a post from “Strong Towns” titled “The Best of #BlackFridayParking.”  It is worth a look.

In this, our third and final post, we discuss a few solutions communities, especially those seeking to encourage and support mixed use reuse, infill and redevelopment projects, may wish to consider when “right-sizing” their parking regulations.  In order to gauge impacts and determine the success of the parking solutions, we suggest limiting the following solutions by area (e.g., parcels, blocks or neighborhoods) or zoning district:
Continue Reading Reclaiming “Paradise”: One Parking Space at a Time (Part 3 of 3)

In our first post of this three-post series on parking (available here) we discussed Richard Florida’s informative, but not surprising, article which states “American cities devote far too much space and far too many resources to parking.”  Location, ownership and management of existing parking spaces are significant issues impacting parking in communities, and our first post focused on their impacts based on the current approach to parking regulations taken by most communities.  The current approach is unsustainable, as it contributes to sprawl and increases costs.  In this post, we will explore some of the factors causing and impacting the current general approach to parking regulations – specifically with respect to urban reuse and mixed-use projects.

More often than not, communities’ parking requirements, located in zoning ordinances, are onerous enough to derail desirable urban reuse and mixed-use projects.  Most communities’ requirements generally reflect a more suburban approach to parking that is reflective of planning and development trends of the 1950s and 1960s (i.e., separation of uses with an emphasis on accommodating automobiles).

In reviewing several Pennsylvania “urban” municipal zoning ordinances, a few common parking concepts and provisions become evident.
Continue Reading Reclaiming “Paradise”: One Parking Space at a Time (Part 2 of 3)

Most of us have heard the “Big Yellow Taxi” song that includes the memorable line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”  But what if that paradise is not completely lost and communities started reclaiming their paradise by taking a different approach to their parking regulations?  This is the first in a three-post series discussing the current approach to parking regulations and solutions communities, especially urban communities, should consider to “right-size” their parking requirements to reflect a more sustainable approach.

Richard Florida, a well-respected expert in urban studies, recently posted an interesting article entitled Parking Has Eaten American Cities.  In his post, Florida discusses a recent study by Eric Scharnhorst of the Research Institute for Housing America confirming the findings of previous studies “that American cities devote far too much space and far too many resources to parking.” 
Continue Reading Reclaiming “Paradise”: One Parking Space at a Time (Part 1 of 3)