New Urban NewsNews & Opinion

Market-based retrofit of suburban strip corridors


Erik Calloway

New Urban Network

The City of Huntington Beach, California, adopted the Beach & Edinger Corridors Specific Plan in 2010 to facilitate the retrofit of the city’s primary commercial strip corridors. The result of extensive public participation, the plan uses a strategic approach to form-based coding, geared to the prospects for redevelopment of various sections of six miles of commercial strip.

It guides both public and private investment toward incremental redevelopment with a mandatory form-based code, which replaces the old zoning, and new context-sensitive street designs for the wide thoroughfares.

Huntington Beach is one of many communities grappling with how to transform commercial arterials. Many such corridors are in a state of visual and economic decline as they languish from age, diminishing business activity, and lack of maintenance. Common complaints include high vacancy rates and poor business performance; unattractive, old, and poorly maintained buildings and signs; visual clutter; and an unsafe or uncomfortable pedestrian experience. Despite these problems, the corridors often still see high traffic volumes. Public officials are recognizing that these automobile-oriented corridors are anathema to sustainability goals of increased walking, bicycling, and transit use.

While commercial corridors are obvious opportunities for suburban retrofit, they are also some of the hardest pieces of any city to replan. Strip corridors are composed of numerous separately-owned properties of various shapes and sizes, and stakeholders are spread out over miles of arterial roadway. The dual roles that commercial strips perform — providing primary mobility and highly visible settings for specific land uses — are often in conflict, and enhancements to one may result in the deterioration of the other. Community members also have more difficulty envisioning a transformed commercial strip than, say, a revitalized downtown. Although the broad issues relating to commercial arterials are similar from one community to the next, the solutions vary greatly due to the wide variety of specific corridor conditions and development opportunities.

Restructuring the land uses

By replacing commercial-only strip zoning with a code that treats centers and segments along the corridor differently, the Huntington Beach code will allow the strip to transform into a poly-nucleated pattern that will add to real estate value. Retail activity is concentrated in a series of centers along the corridor. The two largest centers are at the crossroads containing the greatest existing concentrations of retail activity. The Town Center Core includes an existing mall; it is located at the intersection of Edinger and Beach and is near a freeway interchange. The other core, Five Points, includes a smaller shopping center at the geographic center of the lengthy Beach Boulevard strip. Six smaller, convenience-oriented neighborhood centers are placed at intervals along Beach Boulevard at major intersections.

As new and pedestrian-oriented retail is absorbed by the centers, miles of corridor segments in between will transition from single-use commercial to a mix of residential, workplace, and some retail. Enhanced entitlements for housing, provided in return for more restrictive retail entitlements, create value that is more in line with market demand. The mix of uses and intensity of each segment are conditioned by the context and by the strongest existing assets. Office, medical office, and hospital-serving retail will take advantage of proximity to the Huntington Beach Hospital in the Neighborhood Boulevard segment. Strip development in the Neighborhood Parkway segment will be replaced primarily by housing, drawing value from existing stable residential neighborhoods to the south.

As new investment flows to the corridors, the code ensures that the development responds appropriately to the new pattern. For example, new commercial development in the Neighborhood Parkway segment must be appropriately scaled and must feature deep, landscaped setbacks, and well- buffered parking areas.

Redesigning the thoroughfare

The plan includes dimensional designs for transforming the strips’ rights-of-way to ensure that new buildings, their grounds, and the thoroughfares match. Street designs vary in accordance with centers and segments. Classic multiway boulevard improvements are required along Edinger Avenue and its major town center, featuring protected curbside parking and slow-moving traffic along service lanes paralleling the central through-lanes (see rendering Edinger Avenue vision). Segments likely to be mostly residential in character are provided with well-landscaped sidewalks whose significant plantings screen the views from the roadway.

Street design standards are complemented by form-based requirements that address elements from the private building frontage to the landscaping between the building and the curb.

Addressing potential for change

Some properties are large and ready for new investment, whereas others are shallow or may not be in a position to change. The strategic approach in Huntington Beach divides the corridors into three broad categories based on potential for change.

Centers or segments with significant potential for change are positioned for aggressive restructuring into mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly environments, with land uses and building types to match. The two major town centers are designated as restructure areas because of large vacant or underutilized properties and strong economic potential.

Segments featuring only moderate potential for change are given a planning framework that accommodates gradual transition away from the single use, auto-oriented strip commercial corridor of today.

Areas that are economically stable and already feature a desirable land use pattern are treated as preservation areas, with policies and city actions focused primarily on replicating and subtly improving upon the best features of the existing pattern. There’s one such area a mile long on Beach Boulevard near the ocean.

The plan prioritizes capital improvements to align with centers and segments featuring the greatest potential for change. The hope is that the combination of market-sensitive land-use policies and public investment in vulnerable areas will kick off restructuring. Context-specific streetscape improvements enhance the physical character of the corridor to encourage private investment and create street environments that support the planned new development.

This “potential for change” framework helps fight the tendency to apply a single solution continuously to long stretches of corridor. Strategies must vary not only across the Transect, but also along a corridor in response to varying markets, demographics, and physical conditions.

Despite the challenges that corridors pose, they offer significant opportunities to transform large and valuable pieces of otherwise built-out suburbs and move communities to a more livable and sustainable settlement patterns. Market-based plans that sufficiently address existing conditions and apply Transect-based urban design principles stand the best chance of success.

Erik Calloway is senior associate with Freedman Tung + Sasaki in San Francisco