This particular restaurant chain always had a policy of building close to the street to accommodate pedestrian access. But most restaurant chains surround their buildings with asphalt unless site design guidelines are in place establishing landscaping standards and maximum as well as minimum setbacks

Site Design Guidelines 2012

   Many new commercial buildings are one story “single use” projects featuring franchise themes with the structure set far back from the street with an expanse of asphalt and concrete dedicated to parking and driveways between the streets and buildings.

  This unfortunate circumstance is too automobile oriented and a detriment to pedestrian comfort. Defaulting on or ignoring pedestrian comfort precludes successful synergistic shopping areas.   In planning actions the franchise’s representatives likely defend their proposed development by saying they won’t do the project unless it conforms to franchise guidelines or that this is the way it always is and always has to be.   They often don’t care about pedestrian comfort nor a “streetscape” that contributes to a pedestrian oriented city.   

  To not succumb to pressures to approve projects along franchise themes and to increase pedestrian comfort, cities must adopt Site Design Guidelines with standards for maximum as well as minimum setbacks to increase what is called the “streetscape”.   This results in the architecture of buildings being the prominent feature not pavement.  Once an ordinance structure is adopted that favors pedestrians, not cars, saying “no” to auto oriented projects is easier.

   When buildings are located closer to streets with parking at the side or rear of the building, streets are more desirable to walk along. Expanses of asphalt and concrete assault the senses and thus deter pedestrian comfort and thus prevent a city from being pedestrian and shopping oriented.

   An optimum minimum setback from the street property line in commercial or multi-family development might range from 0 to 20 feet.  Maximum setbacks should be from 10 to 20 feet, enough distance to permit required landscaping but too little to allow for parking or driveways.  A city should adopt both maximum and minimum setbacks, because, again, this prevents parking and asphalt from being placed between buildings and streets.  And with parking placed at the side or rear of buildings the result is a more inviting “streetscape”.  Parking lots in front of buildings do the opposite.

   Besides encouraging landscaping the existence of some setback along streets for commercial buildings encourages other aesthetic features such as benches and art.

  Another aspect of site design guidelines is limiting the distance of unbroken planes to 30 feet which means that every 30 feet or so the building would have to be inset for 10-20 feet to offer visual relief.  Buildings that have unbroken planes for hundreds of feet tend to be hostile to the senses. 

  The same holds true for multi story buildings.  A multi story building is less assaultive to the senses if upper floors are set back from the plane of the first two floors.  By setting back the upper floors slightly, buildings have a softer visual appearance.  However, this issue is less of a factor in smaller cities where height limits might be less than 36 feet.

  Site Design Guidelines must require landscaping.  No building should be built without landscaping as a condition of approval.   A normal standard would be to require planters with trees and bushes every 25-30 feet with a provision for watering in dry months.

  Many cities have adopted standards for streetscapes that make for a more pedestrian friendly environment.  Thus, it is not necessary to “reinvent the wheel” in adopting Site Design Guidelines. The information is “on line” and free by looking at the ordinances of other cities.  

When deliberating about such ordinance changes the reality is that cities that don’t adopt Site Design Guidelines to increase aesthetics will be uglier than cities that do.  Ugly cities have less economic viability than attractive cities.  It is that simple. 

Brent Thompson

Written when on the Gold Beach Planning Commission 2010-2013