Mixed-Use Development

Ariel Valli Comments
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As a land use, self-storage has historically stood alone on its sites. But as the industry matures, owners and developers are finding new opportunities in mixed-use developments that incorporate other land uses.

There are several reasons why this trend is increasing. The first is economics. Developers and architects find themselves dealing with first-class site locations that are increasingly commercial in nature, as opposed to the first- and second-generation sites that were primarily “back lot” industrial. These premier sites provide an opportunity for developers to diversify their product, therefore spreading out the risk.

Second, sites are sometimes too large for self-storage alone. This nice “problem,” if combined with a desirable location on a busy street, provides an excellent opportunity to place an alternate land use along the street frontage, where visibility to the public is important. The self-storage project can then be placed to the rear of the parcel, where it can be very successful without having high visibility.

These first two reasons for pursuing a mixed-use development are favorable to the developer and nearly always at his choice. This next reason may at first appear unfavorable and political in nature.

We have to face the fact that city managers and planning officials are not overly excited when they hear a developer is proposing a new storage facility for their city. They feel storage uses a lot of land, provides very little employment and offers very little tax benefit. Their resistance increases exponentially with the quality of the location. City planners often speak of “higher and better uses” for these types of sites. Self-storage doesn’t fit the bill, primarily for issues regarding financial benefit to the city.

Adding a more desirable land use with more financial benefits may be the only way to get a self-storage project approved. Since storage is seldom permitted by right on commercially zoned properties, a developer may have no choice but to move in the direction of a mixed-use development.

The conditional-use permit process usually required of self-storage projects gives city planners a lot of control over how a property is developed, or if it can be developed at all, especially when it concerns a land use they find undesirable. Mixed use can be a win-win situation for everyone: The city gets a project it wants along the street frontage (from an aesthetic and financial standpoint), and the developer gets his storage project.

Types of Mixed Uses

Now let’s take a look at the types of mixed uses being planned and built these days. They generally consist of commercial, office, industrial and even residential uses, further described as:

  • Expanded Service Self-Storage (Commercial)—Technically, this use is closely associated with the self-storage operation but still falls in the category of an alternate use. It includes mailbox services, mailing and shipping services, and expanded retail sales of standard moving, shipping and storage items.
  • Strip Retail (Commercial)—This would include small, single-tenant frontage buildings that accommodate a wide variety of businesses such as dry-cleaners, travel agents, yogurt shops, cell-phone stores, etc.
  • Office—This use includes standard office space for a variety of employment-based businesses such as accountants, realtors, escrow companies, dentists, etc.
  • Light Industrial—This includes low-impact sales and manufacturing-type uses that involve a mixture of office and manufacturing or warehouse space. Examples are companies that sell, make and store tile and stone flooring, spas, furniture, etc. These uses tend to be less retail in nature and need more space to operate. This subcategory is often called “flex-tech” for the wide variety of uses that can be accommodated. Another subcategory would be self-service car washes, which are becoming increasing popular.
  • Residential—This use is less prevalent today but will be increasing in popularity as land in densely developed areas becomes more scarce. Apartments and even condominiums are being planned and built as a mixed-use component of self-storage projects.
  • Parking Structures—Although not fitting neatly into any particular category, parking structures can share land with self-storage projects in dense urban areas where space of any kind is at a premium.

Mixed-Use Site Designs

Site planning for mixed-use projects varies greatly depending on the design program, lot configuration and type of mixed use. However, there are two basic types of site plans, largely based on the intensity of development:

Large site, low density. These sites are generally 5 to 10 acres or more in lower-density suburban or semi-rural markets. The mixed-use component is invariably at the front of the site, with ample parking along the street frontage to accommodate the other mixed use. This design type works well with the commercial, office and light-industrial uses noted above.

A typical layout would involve one or more single-story buildings along the street, and several conventional one- or two-story self-storage buildings at the rear of the site behind security gates. The management office is best situated at the front of the site for better visibility, thereby sharing space with the other use(s). In the case of office applications, the buildings are often two-story.

In most cases, both uses will share curb cuts at the streets and internal driveways outside the security gates. In others, though less common, each use may share a site but have totally separate access and driveways.

Small site, high density. These sites are generally small, perhaps 1 to 2 acres, and are always in high-density suburban or fully developed urban markets. The small site and lack of parking space almost always dictate a single multi-story structure, often with a basement. The mixed-use component is invariably on the first floor at street level. The self-storage component is on the upper levels and possibly the basement level. Residential uses are normally on the highest floor(s).

These sites are very difficult to design. There are several key components that are necessary for a successful project, all of which compete for very limited site area.

The storage office must be on the first floor for visibility and access, thereby sharing that space with the other uses. Resident-manager units, where desired, are very difficult to integrate into the multi-story structure in an aesthetically pleasing way. In all cases, both uses will share curb cuts at the street and all driveways.

Site-Design Considerations

In designing these mixed-use projects, architects and engineers must have a thorough knowledge of how each type of use operates and a thorough knowledge of the site-design criteria associated with that operation. In other words, there must be a good level of design experience in not only self-storage but the associated mixed use. The primary site-design considerations are:

Visibility. The site should be easily visible from the street. Driveways should be clearly evident as customers approach the site. Flat sites are fairly easy to design from a visibility standpoint, while sloped sites are more challenging. Slope banks fronting the street may obscure driveways, making it difficult to see vehicles entering or leaving the site. Vehicular safety becomes a concern and should be planned carefully.

Building visibility. Customers must be able to clearly see and recognize the self-storage office and the other mixed use. That’s why it’s important to place the storage office near the street, even though the actual buildings may be at the rear of the site.

Driveway configuration. Once on site, customers should be able to easily park for the storage office/buildings or the other use. In low-density projects, this means the storage security gate must be easily seen and accessed without interfering with the other site uses. More important, in high-density projects, very careful consideration should be given to safely accessing the loading areas and elevators serving all floors. This includes access, loading and unloading for large trucks as well. Driveways and parking spaces cannot be blocked by large trucks as they enter, use and leave the site.

Parking. The number of parking spaces required for the other uses will always exceed the number required for self-storage. Retail uses generally require four to five parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of building area. Office uses require similar parking ratios. Light-industrial uses require a minimum of two spaces per 1,000 square feet, or up to three spaces depending on the ratio between office area and warehouse/ manufacturing area. Residential projects generally require two spaces per unit plus half a space per unit for guests.

These large parking counts use up large portions of the site and must be close to the uses they serve. The self-storage project will generally require only five or six spaces adjacent to the office and the rest inside the gates. Those spaces are usually parallel stalls adjacent to the roll-up doors on single-story projects.

Two-story projects will usually have extra space near the elevators for short-term parking. An efficient parking layout, therefore, becomes very important in mixed-use developments.

Building placement. As mentioned earlier, the mixed-use component is placed closest to the street frontage. Parking spaces are usually in front of the building, with direct street access. While variations and unique circumstances may dictate other approaches, when carefully considered and planned for, these general parameters will yield the highest and best design for any particular site.

Mixed-use development as it relates to self-storage is on the rise nationwide. This creative approach to land use will maximize the efficiency of the built environment and, perhaps more important, allow storage projects to be approved and built where they normally could not be. This is a positive trend that will continue to improve the image of the industry in the minds of city-planning officials and the general public. 

Ariel Valli is the president of Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Valli Architectural Group, which provides architectural-design services for self-storage and land-use entitlements. The company also offers construction documents for storage development in the Western United States. For more information, call 949.349.1777; e-mail ariel@valliarch.com

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