Transparent Zoning: Requiring Retail Building Transparency

July 17, 2012

As a pedestrian, we want to see a lively street-scape at eye-level; we want buildings to have a “street life”, not a blank face. A recent goal of new zoning for commercial strips is to mandate retail use and “building transparency” at the ground floor — see new zoning requirements for Park Slope.  (This follows long-standing rules prohibiting “pedestrian-unfriendly” uses – such as banks – along 5th Avenue in Midtown and Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side.)

Is it “proper” to use zoning on certain streets to achieve a design goal of avoiding a blank wall of dentist’s offices – or worse, interior parking – when such uses are otherwise allowed? Is this an aesthetic issue – avoiding a solid wall along the street (where a building essentially “turns its back” to the pedestrian)? Or, is it a question of enlivening the street with retail activity?

The photo here of Canal Street just East of Broadway, is transparency to the extreme.

All of Canal Street is a carnival of activity – where each building’s ground floor engulfs the pedestrian – practically sucking shoppers off the sidewalk.  Canal doesn’t need zoning to force owners to place retail at the ground floor. But, other streets – particularly those in the other Boroughs – would be barren without rules to mandate that buildings embrace the sidewalk traffic.

Aggressive use of the ‘zoning power’ to bring about the presumed public benefit of ground floor retail life is good public policy.  No?