Mixed-use buildings in Hyattsville, Maryland in Prince George's County. Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Mixed-use zoning is often seen as a silver bullet to catalyze development into a thriving neighborhood, but this process is rarely instantaneous.

In Prince George’s County, the current mixed-use zones are not yet successful because they were designed as zones for instant neighborhoods, instead of as zones that allow for organic growth and incremental development over time.

For example, the Mixed-Use Transportation zone (MXT) intends to “…creat[e] compact, mixed-use, walkable communities enhanced by a mix of residential, commercial, recreational, open space, employment, and institutional uses.” That’s a lot to expect from a single development.

Progressive zoning can help make a resilient and self-supporting neighborhood–as a long as we can be patient.

Mixed-use buildings in College Park. Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

The current “instant neighborhood” approach is not working well

To create this type of mixed-use community from the start, the MXT zone requires developers provide two of three uses in the same project–residential, retail, or hotel. Unfortunately, because there are not enough people to patronize the non-residential uses, those commercial areas are often left vacant.

In other cases, the developer requests that the regulation be waived or that a token amount of non-residential space be considered for hundreds of residential units. Optimistically, the vacant spaces will be ready when the market turns favorable for commercial development, but there’s no guarantee.

To help address this, the county is re-writing the zoning ordinance, which will update the 51-year-old code to better reflect the needs of the county’s diverse range of rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods, evolving modes of transportation, and ability to engage with the community.

Proposed changes could facilitate natural growth of mixed-use neighborhoods over time

The Residential, Multifamily-20 and -48 zones (20 and 48 dwelling units per acre, respectively) are residential, but allow basic commercial uses by-right, meaning a builder does not need special permission to build a non-residential building in these zones. Non-residential uses that are allowed in these zones include banks, grocery stores, dry cleaners, consumer goods shops (retail), offices, business support services, restaurants, and kennels, among others.

These are exactly the types of businesses that make a neighborhood walkable and convenient if they are in the neighborhood. Conversely, the neighborhood, service, and general office commercial zones allow nearly all of the commercial uses and then also allow artists’ studios, live-work dwellings, and multifamily buildings.

Mixed-use buildings in Largo. The bottom floor is vacant nonresidential space. Image by Google Maps.

These zones do not require a mix of uses, thus encouraging more organic growth where commerce follows residents

Essentially, more and more people will live in the area because of available housing, and then when the market can support a commercial business, entrepreneurs can adapt existing buildings or build new in that zone where they will be surrounded by people and a viable market. Those businesses become destinations and employment areas and more people are drawn to the neighborhood.

This pattern is iterative. More people move to the neighborhood which then attracts more business, which then attracts more people, and so on. It’s analogous to towns and cities (the orginal mixed use areas) that developed before tradition zoning laws required separating residential and commercial uses.

When it comes to the new commercial zones, some might be concerned that if residential is allowed, the whole zone could actually become completely residential. While that is not likely to happen, it would actually be desirable, as business is attracted to people more than simply empty space. Residential neighborhoods that allow for commercial projects is better than vacant land that can’t feasibly be developed, or residential buildings with lines of vacant storefronts.

However, this all requires a shift in thinking about not only what zones are called, but how they function. Mixed-use zoning isn’t really about creating hybrid residential/commercial developments, it’s about getting the best use of a property. Every zone starts out as residential, but some zones are residential-plus.

Single family residential zones are still residential. Multifamily residential zones are residential-plus; they are residential, but also allow basic commercial uses that can make a walkable and complete neighborhood. Commercial zones are residential-plus; they are multifamily residential zones that allow basic and more intense commercial uses.

Mixed-use zoning is great for places like DC, Arlington, or other dense cities, but is difficult to create overnight

The developments in the mixed-use zone benefit from all the people living in the city. People like mixed-use zoning because it allows more places to live and work, and businesses like mixed-use zoning because it adds more people to the area, i.e. more customers for that business. The key to making this work is existing population density.

When an apartment building is above a supermarket, that’s mixed-use zoning. However, the customers for the supermarket are not just those living above it, but people from all over the neighborhood. It is likely that the supermarket would still have been successful, even without the above apartments.

For perspective, large supermarkets usually need at least ten to twenty thousand regular customers to stay in business. Of course, apartments above the store can contribute to this, but they aren’t going to make or break the store.

The Harris Teeter on Pennsylvania Avenue. Image by Google Maps.

Today’s successful mixed-use buildings are in already dense places. By allowing a mix of uses in the multifamily residential and commercial zones in the proposed zoning ordinance, Prince George’s County will encourage natural community development and mixed-use neighborhoods over time.

The proposed ordinance is still a draft and has not yet been adopted by the County Council, nor endorsed by the Prince George’s County Planning Board. Both the Council and the Planning Department are soliciting comments and suggestions from the public until mid-December.

To weigh in on the proposed ordinance, you can add your comments directly on the project website, or you can contact your county councilmember.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.