Great cities are built mostly of big boxes… it’s not the size of the box that matters, but rather how it behaves on the street. One of the obstacles New Urbanists face is the accusation that “You’re really good at creating cute little boutique places with ice cream parlors and coffee shops, but you can’t design buildings for real American uses like WalMart, Home Depot, car dealers and drive-through restaurants and banks.” It is true that some New Urbanists are vigorously opposed to these uses, and it’s also true that nearly every New Urbanist is against pervasive implementation of these uses in their current forms because those current forms are only useful in auto-dominated districts, not in places people walk. So the accusation has a ring of truth… but let’s dig deeper, where we’ll find that it’s actually not true at all.
What you’re about to see is how to do exactly what the sprawl-promoting nay-sayers say cannot be done: fit those common uses into a traditional block structure in appropriate Transect zones. This might seem at first glance like we’re just decorating the big box, but we’re actually doing is civilizing the big box… a crucial difference. Here are the essential questions of the civilizing process:
• How do you park it with nothing more than diagonal parking on the street that is visible from the street? In other words, how do you eliminate the parking lot in front? Or on the side but still visible?
• How do you fit it into the normal block structure of the place where it is being built? Until the block structure is maintained rigorously correct, you’ve created nothing more than another sprawl project, not a part of the fabric of the town.
• After that, how do you get the massing and rhythm of the architecture right? This still has nothing to do with style. It should be obvious that a blank concrete box inserted into a town center is still destructive. Bays consistent with those of the town should be articulated, and appropriate shopfront glazing at the first level should be provided.
Only after these things have been accomplished is it proper to even think about the style of the building. And the style obviously should be something that communicates with and resonates with the average citizen of the place it is built.
At this point, it’s fair to ask: “How is this any better than a lifestyle center?” Anyone who has offered more than a passing glance at "lifestyle centers" knows that while they may spend excruciating amounts of effort (and money) getting massing, rhythm, and style right, they fail miserably with the first two priorities. Matter of fact, they ignore them entirely. Their block structure usually has nothing to do with (and no connection to) the block structure of the town, and they continue to have massive parking in front, just like suburban malls.
They may say “But wait, that’s really the back! The Main Street we’ve created is the front; the parking is in back.” That illusion may hold when you’re walking down the Main Street, but the truth of the matter is that the front of a place is what you see when you arrive, not what you see when you get into the innards of the project. So the parking lots are without question the front of the project.
So if decorating the big box is not the answer and the Lifestyle Center is not the answer, then what is the answer? There are several, actually. The answers vary by Transect zone and by use. Please note that there are no superficial solutions here, like trying to come up with a model for a rural (Transect zone T-2) big box. Simply put, there should be no big boxes in the countryside, or in suburban neighborhoods (T-3), for that matter. Tools are only shown for the zones where they should occur. All tools are based on appropriate mixed-use parking ratios as per the SmartCode.
T-6 Downtown Streets
Transect experts know zone T-6 as the "Urban Core," but you might know it better as simply “downtown.” It’s the most intense part of cities, and doesn’t normally occur in towns, rarely in villages, and never in hamlets. Downtown usually extends several blocks in each direction.
Downtown Big Box
This building type should not need an illustration because it is so familiar. This is the downtown department store that has been built for over a century in cities across America. Some downtowns don’t require much parking because of transit, but when one does, it is provided in structured parking in the basement. Floors are stacked up as high as necessary at roughly 90,000 square feet per floor (because the building occupies the entire block) to achieve the desired floor area. Other uses, including residential, typically occupy higher floors.
Downtown Auto Dealership
Downtown real estate is often too expensive for a typical auto dealership that requires a sea of parking on-site. Nonetheless, dealerships may still occur there. At a minimum, the dealership occupies a first level showroom with all other functions handled off-site. Look carefully: Dealerships occupy small urban center showrooms like this in the most cities in the world.
Where real estate values (and construction costs) allow, car storage and service functions can be accommodated in the basement parking structure. In such cases, cars are usually brought up for a test drive by employees, although it is technically possible for the salesperson and the customer to walk through the parking deck looking for a car. It is also possible to handle all other functions on-site if real estate values are low enough to allow on-site car storage. The physical form of the building in such cases may be virtually identical to that of the downtown big box: a large full-block building mass with showrooms on the street level, offices above, and parking garage in the basement. As before, other uses may occupy higher floors.
Downtown Building Supply Stores
Downtown real estate is almost always too expensive for a building supply store. The required lumber yards simply do not generate enough revenue to justify the real estate cost. Because the real estate prices require buildings to occupy the entire site except for very special functions, the Garden Center would have to be placed on the roof of the building, which is usually not feasible. It is true that some hardware stores or other building supply specialties such as plumbing or lighting showrooms certainly do occupy street-level retail spaces in downtown mixed-use buildings, but the building supply superstores such as Home Depot simply cannot afford to locate downtown in their common form.
T-5 Main Streets
Transect zone T-5 is termed “Urban Center” by Transect aficianados, but in the US, T-5 is essentially Main Street. T-5 zones sometimes extend several blocks in each direction, but they may also be one block wide and several blocks long along a Main Street. Two illustrations are given here where appropriate: one for the full block and the other for the half-block with primarily residential uses occupying the other half. I’ve used blocks that are 400’ from center of thoroughfare to center of thoroughfare for all of the diagrams in this post because this is a very common size of block for town center areas in much of the eastern United States.
Main Street Big Box
This type is one of the most important types to solve. There is obviously a range of box sizes to be solved, from the 40,000 square foot grocery store to the 180,000 square foot super center. Both extremes are illustrated, along with two intermediate conditions.
40,000 Square Foot Grocery
This box can be solved on a half-block with all surface parking, and therefore works along Main Streets that are one block deep from alley to alley with townhouses behind fronting the outer streets. Loft apartments are assumed above the grocery. This illustration includes 104 parking spaces on the street, 48 spaces on the alley and 28 garage spaces in the townhouses behind. In addition to the 40,000 square foot grocery store, 14 townhouse units are shown and 40 loft apartment units are located above the grocery.
80,000 Square Foot Mini-Anchor
This is pretty much the largest box that can be solved on a half-block with all surface parking, although it does require pairing with another block of liner buildings and internal parking to do so. It therefore works along Main Streets that are one block deep from alley to alley with townhouses behind fronting the outer streets. The mini-anchor building is two floors tall, but the first level is double-height and is detailed on the exterior as two levels. There are two levels of loft apartments above the retail liners.
150,000 Square Foot Building Supply
The building supply box requires two levels of an entire block, and must be paired with another block of structured parking bounded by liner buildings. The big box is assumed to have high ceilings on at least the street level because of the clear span size, and to be expressed as a three- or four-level building on the exterior as a result. Liner buildings are assumed to be oriented away from the Main Street, and are therefore offices on the first level and lofts on the second and third. Please note that some functions of the building supply that require cashiers at all times for security or other reasons (such as the garden center, which is shown here as an interior courtyard) could be expressed as separate storefronts on the exterior of the box. This and the 180,000 square foot super center that follows are the only two types that require structured parking, which is a four-level deck in both cases. Clearly, decks cost more than surface parking if land cost is not considered. This is one of the few solutions presented that costs more than the conventional suburban model. Several of the other solutions I’ve illustrated actually save large amounts of money.
180,000 Square Foot Super Center
The super center box requires two levels of an entire block, and must be paired with another block of structured parking bounded by liner buildings. The big box is assumed to have high ceilings on at least the street level because of the clear span size, and to be expressed as a three- or four-level building on the exterior as a result. Liner buildings are assumed to be oriented away from the Main Street, and are therefore offices on the first level and lofts on the second and third. Please note that some functions of the super center that require cashiers at all times for security or other reasons (such as the pharmacy or the jewelry department) could be pulled out into the liner buildings if desired as separate shops.
Main Street Automobile Dealership
The full-featured automobile dealership requires two blocks divided according to the natural divisions of the business. New car sales and general administration occupies one block, while used car sales and service occupy the other. Buildings are essentially all liner buildings, with lofts (or possibly offices) on the upper levels. All office and residential parking requirements are met through the use of on-street parking, reserving the 328 spaces within the two blocks for the dealership’s stock of new and used cars. The auto dealership may also be done in a single block through the use of structured parking.
Typical Main Street Block
This block is patterned closely after commercial buildings used on countless Main Streets across the United States. Diagonal parking rings the block, which is composed of buildings ranging between 20’ and 30’ in width. Building depths are typically 75’ except at each end of the alley, where the end building extends back tight to the alley in order to screen the interior of the block. This liner building is assumed to be office occupancy since it is on the side street rather than the front street. This layout provides a total of 48,000 square feet of retail and 8,400 square feet of offices per block plus 28 loft apartments on the second level. Units may be sold as live/works, where the purchaser buys both the retail unit on the first level and the living unit on the second. Such arrangements allow very inexpensive incubation of a new business. The interior of the block is composed of a two-lane alley flanked by a bay of parking on each side. Enough width is available to insert parallel parking on the alley if desired.
Main Street Drive-Through Retail
Drive-through retail requires automobile stack space. This clearly is a problem if the stacking occurs on a Main Street. Stacking cannot occur between the fronts of buildings and the street without unacceptably serious damage to the integrity of the street. Stacking also is a nuisance if it occurs in an alley, blocking the alley from use by other businesses. A close visual connection between the business and the vehicular entry to the drive-through is very important. The shop fronts of the Main Street should not be punctured by a drive-through exit. Drive-through traffic should exit the site where it enters the site, rather than being routed to another side of the block, so customers are not disoriented. The drive-through scheme should work whether the block is a full block, as in the case of contiguous Main Street blocks in both directions, or whether the block is a half-block, as in the case of a single block of Main Street.
The proposed system includes a central alley with a bay of parking to either side as described above. Drive-through establishments are allowed only on the corners of the block in order to be visually tied to the alley entries that serve them. The drive-through is both entered and exited via the alley entrance adjacent to them. An end bay of roughly 50’ of parking is reserved for the drive-through facility, which is one of three types:
Semi-Detached Multi-Lane (Gas Stations)
Gas stations are a bit of a hybrid between detached and attached drive-throughs. The product is piped to a remote location like a bank, but the point of delivery must have a closer connection to the cashier to avoid fuel thefts. Gas stations also try to make additional sales by bringing people into the convenience store where the cashier works. Gas stations require a somewhat larger end bay on the alley than the other two types. The European pull-by model is an option that allows the gas station to occur on the street. This model only works on side streets, but should be considered as an option.
Remote Multi-Lane (Banks or Pharmacies)
Remote drive-throughs may be used for uses such as banks or pharmacies, where objects may be placed in a capsule and shot out to the drive-through via a tube. New remote drive-through technology allows the drive-throughs to be located several hundred feet from the primary place of business. In this case, the drive-throughs are stacked diagonally beside the alley and exit back out onto the alley. Note that the remote drive-through must be placed on the right side as the customer is exiting the alley. If the bank or pharmacy is located on the left, this will preclude a restaurant occurring on the right because the drive-through for the bank or pharmacy occurs in the slot that would be needed for the restaurant drive-through.. The scheme, then, will accommodate between two and four drive-through businesses per block, depending on type.
Attached Single-Lane (Restaurants)
Attached drive-throughs are required for items such as food that cannot be turned upside down or dramatically accelerated during transit. These must be attached to the primary place of business at a location appropriate for the interior function of the business. Both right-hand and left-hand options are shown, since the building layout changes significantly depending on which orientation is used.
Here’s the other type of restaurant, where traffic circulates in the opposite direction from the option above. This one is for when the restaurant is on your left as you enter the rear lane; with the one above, the restaurant is on your right.
T-4 Neighborhood Streets
Transect zone T-4 is known in Transect circles as “general urban,” but if you think of good in-town neighborhood streets, you get the picture: a mix of single-family detached homes, townhomes, shops, and restaurants, especially at street-corners. Neighborhood streets are easier to deal with in two primary respects: First, the biggest boxes simply are not allowed there. The SmartCode limits retail to one corner building per block, and the parking requirements are higher. Second, because the buildings may be detached, it is possible to bring a driveway out to the front street.
This 20,000 square foot neighborhood grocery store is the most typical general neighborhood retail use. Because only one such retail building is allowed per block and it must be located on a corner, this illustration shows it at the largest possible size, which is a quarter block. Big box retail significantly larger than this simply is not appropriate for neighborhood streets.
Neighborhood Drive-Through Retail
Semi-Detached Multi-Lane (Gas Stations)
Gas stations also occur at neighborhood street corners. James Wassell did a particularly good model for this idea recently. He calls it the Inverted Gas Station. Others call it Gas Backwards, although I’m not sure who to credit for this name. This particular option, by aligning the pumps from front to back, allows a total of 10 pumps within a surprisingly conservative area.
Attached Multi-Lane (Banks & Pharmacies)
Banks and pharmacies typically change to attached drive-throughs on neighborhood streets because there is no imperative for detaching the drive-through function like there is on Main Street. If detailed properly, a four-lane drive-through can look like a large but believable porte cochere by running one lane between the porte cochere and the building, two lanes through the porte cochere and the last lane (which serves the ATM) to the outside.
Attached Single-Lane (Restaurants)
Restaurants remain attached like they are on Main Street. Because retail is required to occur only on neighborhood street corners, drive-throughs either enter on the front street and exit through the alley or vice versa. By running the stacking lane the depth of the lot (including parking in front) 8 or more cars may be stacked without blocking traffic.
This is the other version of the drive-through… where you enter through the rear lane and exit through the front street, as opposed to above, where you do the opposite.
Neighborhood streets should be the most common places for schools. This illustration shows the largest two-story high school that can easily be put on a single block. A high school is illustrated because it is the worst-case scenario on two counts: some of its students drive, and high school athletic field requirements are larger than those of middle schools or elementary schools. The school is assumed to be slid to one edge of the neighborhood. Playing fields occur within adjacent parklands. Two huge auto-related problems of schools are parking spaces and stack space for parents picking up and dropping off their children. When schools are embedded in neighborhoods, students within the pedestrian shed can walk. This illustration assumes an average density of 5 units per acre in the surrounding neighborhood, and assumes that 8% of those households have children of high school age. Of those, half are assumed to be legal drivers. Given these assumptions, and the assumption that the pedestrian shed for children walking to school is the ten-minute walk, there are a total of 250 acres in the half-shed (the other half is park). If 2.9% of the population are high school students of driving age and there are 1.8 children per household that has children, then there could be between 100 and 120 driving-age high school students within the pedestrian shed of the school. If 80% of them walk (once they rediscover that walking to school is a tremendously social thing to do when it’s possible) on any given day, then the student parking lot can be reduced by 80 to 100 spaces. The school parking requirement is therefore reduced to the teachers, staff and a few students.
Stack space for pick-up has an exceptionally simple solution for schools embedded into the fabric of the neighborhood: Cars are allowed to stack on neighborhood streets. Embedded schools actually need no drop-off lane at all in many cases where parents can drop off children on the school lawn and let them walk to the door. Because parents are sitting in the cars waiting to pick up children, anyone blocking a resident’s driveway can easily move because they are already sitting behind the wheel. And because most high schools end at 3 PM, most residents are still at work and should not need to use their driveways at this time of day.
This building is two stories and surrounds a central courtyard with double-loaded classroom wings. A two-story gymnasium and a single-story lunchroom are located to the rear of the building, which also includes the loading dock. The library is located over a portion of the lunchroom. There are a total of 56 classrooms plus administrative offices.
Neighborhood Church Building
Neighborhood streets should also be the most common place for church buildings. Churches vary tremendously in schedules of services and other operational items, and also in the number of worshippers drawn from within walking distance since a church does not usually have the near-monopoly on residents that many public schools do, It is therefore not possible to make as many numerical assumptions as can be done with school buildings. It is clear, however, that church buildings embedded within a neighborhood fabric will draw some worshippers from walking distance. It is also clear that overflow parking can take place on surrounding streets as long as parking is allowed on the streets. Purely for the purpose of illustration, if most worship services occur with only 50% of the seats filled and if 20% of the worshippers walk to services, then the same number of dedicated parking spaces will allow 2.5 times as many seats in the auditorium of church buildings embedded in a walkable neighborhood. This is an amazing number. How else, with less land area (because surrounding streets double as aisles for on-street parking), could any institution get over double the conventional capacity of their building?
Neighborhood Building Supply
A full-scale building supply outlet cannot occur on neighborhood streets due to limitations previously discussed. A hardware store, plumbing supply store, lighting fixture store or other similar establishments, however could easily be a neighborhood corner store.
T-3 Suburban Neighborhood Streets
Suburban streets are limited in the SmartCode to essentially one corner store per neighborhood. One of the great errors of conventional postwar planning is the inclusion of pretty much every function within what should have been Suburban neighborhood areas. By making the suburban zone become everything, it became nothing. Because the Transect can be exceptionally fine-grained, it is certainly possible, and usually desirable, to have areas of neighborhood streets and Main Streets within close proximity to suburban streets, so there is more retail and other uses nearby. But on suburban streets, with the exception of the corner store, there should essentially be none of the typical sprawl commercial uses; they should all occur on nearby Main Streets or neighborhood streets.
I did this piece for the New Urban Retail Council Report a decade ago, and have been getting requests to put it up ever since. I hope you find it useful. Please let me know if I’m missing something you’d like to see addressed. And like everything else on this site, please feel free to share links to this page with anyone who might find it helpful.