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Maximizing Self-Storage Land Use: Leveraging Zoning Allowances and Restrictions

There are many ways to maximize land use for a self-storage project, but a thorough understanding of zoning restrictions and how to leverage allowances is essential to getting the most out of a parcel.

Bruce Jordan

November 26, 2017

6 Min Read
Maximizing Self-Storage Land Use: Leveraging Zoning Allowances and Restrictions

The concept of “land use” is often misunderstood. While it can be a great tool for optimizing the design and profitability of a self-storage land parcel, it’s important to fully understand a jurisdiction’s zoning laws and development standards and use them to your advantage. City land-use regulations vary greatly from city to city, and relying on a simple overview can often result in a design that fails to leverage a site’s maximum potential.

I’ve been working with zoning ordinances for more than 30 years, and there isn’t a week that goes by in which I don’t learn something new. My advice is to dig deep into a municipality’s land-use ordinance and peel back all its layers before you start designing your storage facility. One jurisdiction’s C-2 zone may be very different from the one in the next town over, so it pays to do your homework and understand the nuances.

Going FAR Into the Zone

I recommend working from the top down, moving methodically from the big picture to the little picture. At the top is a “General Plan” designation, which is a broadly defined ordinance from every city, town and county intended to guide development in terms of circulation, infrastructure, land use and densities. The jurisdiction’s land-use or zoning ordinance offers a more detailed and specific set of regulations. Many cities have other layers of ordinances, such as specific plans, overlay districts, incentive zoning and more, so it’s important to verify if a target parcel is in one or more of these special areas.

The zoning ordinance will usually enumerate the required setbacks, height limits, landscape requirements, required parking, maximum lot coverage and/or floor-area ratio (FAR), among other requirements that will affect the design of your project. FAR is the ratio of land to building area. For example, 10,000 square feet of land with a FAR of 1 would allow for a 10,000-square-foot building.

Most jurisdictions have either a lot-coverage restriction or a FAR limitation, but usually not both. Lot coverage affects a building’s footprint at grade, and the upper-floor area isn’t included in the restriction. So, on a 10,000-square-foot lot with a coverage restriction of 50 percent, you could build a 5,000-square-foot building at grade level. Since upper floors aren’t factored, lot-coverage restrictions allow for more options than a FAR limitation, which includes the areas comprised by the upper floors.

Basements and Lockers

Here’s why it pays to dig deep into the zoning ordinance. Some cities have very different definitions of FAR, so thoroughly understanding how they differ can result in a considerable area increase for your project. For example, many cities will exempt a basement from the FAR. In this case, if you have a footprint of 30,000 square feet for a three-story building (a total of 90,000 square feet) and you’re at the maximum FAR, you may be able to add a 30,000-square-foot basement to make it a 120,000-square-foot facility.

Self-Storage basement excluded from the FAR

Another way to maximize area is by paying attention to the definitions in the zoning ordinance. When cities define “building area,” they often exclude the thickness of exterior walls, elevator shafts, machine rooms and exit stairs. For a recent project, we added about 9,000 square feet by taking advantage of this oversight.

Another key point is most cities require only 50 percent or more of a basement to be below grade. This means it’s often possible to have drive-aisle access on one side of the lowest level and still meet a city’s basement definition, making it exempt from FAR limitations. Not all cities will exempt a basement from the FAR, but many do, so it pays to do your homework.

Another way to add rentable space beyond what may be limited by the FAR is to add lockers above an 8-foot-high storage unit. Most cities will exempt these lockers because they aren’t directly accessible from floor space that’s counted in the FAR. These lockers are accessed using a rolling platform ladder, so we typically integrate this option only in dense urban markets with proven demand. We use them sparingly, but they can provide an advantage in some situations, albeit at a discounted rental rate.


Many cities that lack a parking ordinance specific to self-storage will often lump self-storage with another land use like warehousing. The problem is warehousing can be employee-intensive and require considerably more parking than storage. Based on data from the Institute of Transportation Planners, a 100,000-square-foot self-storage facility would typically have a peak hour trip rate of 14 to 16 cars. We’ve convinced many cities that this data proves specific demand for parking and should be used as a measure of actual parking designated for self-storage.

One way to leverage parking and maximize building square footage is to designate parking in areas where you can’t build due to zoning requirements. A drive aisle that’s 28 feet wide allows for a 20-foot clear fire lane and 8 feet of parallel parking. Using the linear drive aisles’ 8-foot width enables you to add several parking spaces. In many cases, this strategy will get you to the required number of parking spaces while providing convenient access for customers. Maximizing the efficient use of parking is just another tool to increase the area of your facility.

Over/Under, Two-Story Ramp

Another strategy to maximize land use is to enable vehicle access to upper and lower levels of a two-story project. By manipulating a site’s topography for access, elevators, exit stairs and the machine room can often be eliminated.

One approach is an over-under concept in which the first floor is accessed from a lower drive aisle, and the second floor is accessed from the upper drive aisle. This increases the net-to-gross ratio and improves your project’s bottom line. Any time you can increase net square footage while holding gross square footage constant, your pro forma and profit will improve.

The self-storage over-under design concept

The same net-to-gross ratio benefits can be achieved on largely flat sites by incorporating a two-story ramp. In this case, two-story buildings can be designed in the center of the site, with one-story buildings on the perimeter. The center-up aisle is accessed via a 10 percent grade ramp between the two-story buildings to allow drive-aisle access to second-floor units. Access to first-floor units is provided from the perimeter drive aisles on grade. The result in both cases is a large increase in net rentable area.

Multi-story buildings with elevators are usually 75 percent efficient, while projects leveraging either the over-under or two-story ramp method are typically around 88 percent efficient. This means that for a multi-story, elevator-served project of 100,000 gross square feet, we’d get about 75,000 net rentable square feet. The same footprint designed with a two-story ramp or over-under concept would yield about 88,000 net rentable square feet. This represents considerable added value to your project.

There are many strategies to maximize land-use potential, but developing a thorough understanding of a jurisdiction’s zoning restrictions is essential to getting the most out of a given parcel. Taking the time to learn the land-use definitions in municipal ordinances and studying site-design options can result in a significant increase to your project’s bottom line.

Bruce Jordan is president of Jordan Architects Inc. He has more than 30 years of experience in architecture, preceded by an extensive background in construction and real estate development. His experience includes self-storage, professional office buildings, high-density residential projects, mixed-use projects, retail facilities, hotels, restaurants, industrial, commercial, and specialty projects such as museums and theme parks. For more information, call 949.388.8090; visit www.jordanarchitects.com.

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