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Are Indy’s land use policies worse than Wal-Mart’s?

Today’s Board of Zoning Appeals Division III hearing has a few interesting cases lined up. Aside from the usual “We want bigger signs” and “I want a barn in my front yard”, the Board will entertain a multifamily development along 38th St west of the Monon, a request for outdoor storage and barbed wire within Fall Creek Place and finally, a proposal from Wal-Mart of all stores for a reduction in required parking. Did I just say reduction of parking and Wal-Mart in the same sentence?

The first case, 2012-DV3-035, is a request related to the development of two multi-family buildings located at the soSite Planuthwest intersection of 38th St and Broadway. This specific petition includes a number of requests related to setbacks, open space and buffer yards. Most of these requests would be generally consistent with the views commonly expressed through this blog. The buildings are proposed to be located closer to the street with parking in the rear. So why is this blog worthy? To be honest, it may not be in a general public perspective, but to be honest, I haven’t really provided a blog with substance in, well, ever. The reason I include this petition is that the buildings submitted elevations fail to appropriately address the street. The main entrances to the units would front the south, or rear, portion of the site with access for residents by car.

North ElevationWe always ask out of frustration and perhaps even ignorance, why doesn’t anyone step in and correct these things? This post is here to let readers know that planners, including many for Indy, do work to provide the best possible option. While a developer is bound to the ordinances in place, a request for a variance or special exception are relatively discretionary. This means the Staff may work with a petition to provide conditions or commitments that will advance the intent of the ordinance and also work to mitigate negative impacts from the request. I am writing on this petition to provide a very small inside glimpse of what planners for the city do to advance causes we generally support. The updated elevation to the left depicts the proposed front facade of one of the units. While there is not a well defined common entrance, or a common entrance at all, the Staff has worked with the petitioner to provide accessible doors to the ground floor units that front the street. While this building is neither mixed-use nor innovative in addressing the public realm, it does make an improved step towards potential activation along 38th Street. I wanted to let the Staff know that small concessions like these are what can define a project and a city as we work to move forward. (Planner gushing over).

 

Site PlanThe second case, 2013-UV3-001, is also anything but a large media release. This petition requests permission to allow outdoor storage in a district that prohibits such a use along with barbed wire fencing. In full disclosure, this case has only caught my attention as it is located within my neighborhood, Fall Creek Place. I imagine similar cases occur often. My interest in this petition, aside from proximity, is how the Board will view the land use plans and goals of an actively redeveloping area. It is my belief that most decisions at this level are made based more on whether strong opposition is shown versus the strict application of the ordinance and the burden of practical difficulty or hardship. We have seen high profile cases in recent past that resulted in relatively substantial neighborhood opposition. These cases usually represent a neighborhood plan for a struggling community. Residents and civic leaders will often dust off the cover of a 10 or 20 year old plan for the community that calls for uses other thanCurrent Conditions the one being proposed. In my opinion, it is hard for a Board to validate such plans when very little has been accomplished. In the case above, Fall Creek Place has seen substantial revitalization and even as we speak, a number of new single family homes are under construction or planned. The true question, is whether the Board will realize the impacts of a prohibited use on the realized and potential value of an area where development is all but imminent. The Fall Creek Board has compromised with the petitioner, located at 22nd Street and College, to limit the time frame for outdoor storage and to remove the barbed wire. It is truly the art of compromise that can validate a community. That being said, will the Board find the proposed use to place a negative impact to adjacent properties, or will the current condition and business interests win out?

 

The Main Event!

Wal-Mart aerialThe third case, 2013-DV3-002, brings yet another side of the Wal-Mart empire. The petition reflects a proposed Wal-Mart store located at 4897 Kentucky Avenue. While I wouldn’t classify this as an “urban” story (shocking I know), it does have extreme relevance to our urban guidelines and the Indy Rezone program. While I have only been in the professional planning field for a few years, at least one thing has become clear. Wal-Mart pays a lot of money and has a large legal team to ensure they are always Wal-Mart-ish. The general land use model involves property selection on the fringe of the fringe, land acquisition which far exceeds their specific needs, parcelling off the land into the store and outlots, developing a massive store to the corporate model, using the realty arm of the company to sell the increased value outlots to non-competing businesses (restaurants and banks) and then to go about the Wal-Mart way, where it’s the “people that make the difference”. Did I mention that they provide their own parking and development standards for their outlots?

So there you have it, the poster child of Wal-Marts everywhere. But what does the proposed store on Kentucky Avenue have to do with anything? With only the site plan to run from, you can rest assured that the store will be exactly what you pictured from most aspects. Lots of concrete block or stucco painted in the contemporary color choice of the decade and plenty of signage to go along with it. In addition to this array of investment, you will undoubtedly find the proverbial “sea” of parking………wait! What is the Variance for? A reduction in what?!? PARKING! Really? Wal-Mart is requesting a reduction of required parking? Wal-Mart site planThis is the same business that surrounds itself with asphalt as a matter of pride and then forces outlots to agree to parking provisions substantially beyond a local municipalities regulations just in case they ever thought about shared parking. Wal-Wart is requesting permission to provide 165 parking spaces where 275 spaces would be required. That’s a reduction of 40%. To be clear, parking is one aspect of an urbanist’s disdain for Wal-Mart. This location is by no means urban and certainly will be centered around the automobile as all other uses in the area are. This is just outside of 465. We’re talking a stones throw from Mooresville. How can parking numbers be so far off? Has the city really been, for all practical purposes, double parking new developments? What more evidence do you need than Wal-Mart requesting less parking? I could understand a request for smaller spaces, narrower aisles and complete obliteration of landscaping requirements. It just amazes me to see The auto-based user, requesting less spaces. Hopefully this is a wake up call to Indy Rezone. If you want to lower development costs, provide incentives for improved urban development and smarter land use, this is the chance. Remove archaic parking minimums.

 

21 Responses to “ “Are Indy’s land use policies worse than Wal-Mart’s?”

  1. Klein says:

    Very interesting and surprising to read about Walmart’s parking reduction. 165 seems very low for Walmart. Is it the standard “Superstore” size?

    • Joe Smoker says:

      Good question. This appears to be their “market” model at +/- 42,000 square feet. A regular store may fetch upwards of 200,000 square feet. That being said, the standard from Indianapolis requires 1 space for every 150 square feet, most suburban models are written at 1 space for every 250 square feet.

    • Chris Barnett says:

      It’s their “market” footprint, similar to the one at 38th & Franklin. That one appears to have about 180 parking spaces, and the parking and loading footprints are about the same as the store itself.

      • Joe Smoker says:

        Good call Chris. It appears to be nearly an exact replica (shocking). Probably the same footprint that is going in near W 10th Street and 465.

        • Chris Barnett says:

          A small grocery store I’m familiar with on East 10th had to get a required-parking variance, too. So on the busiest days, parking can be a little challenging. Fortunately, it’s on real streets with real curb parking available. 🙂

          But that’s as it should be. Grocery parking shouldn’t be planned for “evening before Thanksgiving” levels.

  2. Matt Stone says:

    Is this maybe instead of a Wal-Mart superstore, one of those smaller Wal-Marts thats mostly a grocery store? I think they’re called Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets or something like that?

    I would imagine you can draw the conclusion of what kind of store it is from other types of permits they’re getting. Are they getting pharmacy licenses? Licenses to sell firearms or bullets or other sort of non-grocery stuff?

  3. Gene says:

    Someone attempting to find logic and sense in Indy zoning decisions will tend to be disappointed. The loons on IHPC consider 1462 Central Avenue to be in perfect harmony with the surrounding historic properties; most other people consider it an eyesore on the scale of a CVS.

    And check out 2013DV1009/2013PTN039, for an existing payday loan site. “Variance of development standards of the Commercial Zoning Ordinance to legally establish a building encroaching up to 27 feet into the proposed right-of-way of East Washington Street”. From reading this and checking the setback, they might have built the damn store too close to US40. It’s noticeably closer than the retail buildings nearby.

    • Curt Ailes says:

      Honestly, it doesn’t bother me at all. It was tastefully built in my opinion. Besides, there is a mix of buildings along the corridor already. It just adds to the flavor of the corridor in my opinion.

      • Gene says:

        Do you mean the house on Central or the payday loan store ? :o)

      • Idyllic Indy says:

        The payday store at Washington & Franklin received permits to be built where it is. A failure of the system. Of course, there’s no practical need for it to be any farther away from the already super-wide Washington Street. What it does need is to repair the crumbled public sidewalk near the intersection and provide a walkway safely connecting from the public sidewalk to the building.

    • thundermutt says:

      IHPC’s purpose is not to slavishly rebuild the Old Northside (or any other designated neighborhood) as it existed in some golden era. The purpose is to preserve whatever still exists and is salvageable, and to make sure that new structures appropriately honor the old.

      The house at 1462 Central honors the setbacks, rooflines, and massing of its neighbors without being a faux-historical, Disneyfied imitation. It is clearly a modern structure nodding to its neighbors.

      This is an example of good planning/zoning practice, not bad.

      • Idyllic Indy says:

        Yeah. What Thundermutt said. Not exactly my personal style, but the house looks good to me. It’s definitely more traditional than the ones on the 16xx block of New Jersey.

      • Chris Corr says:

        Agreed. IHPC rightly prefers structures that are complimentary to existing structures while clearly being “of their era.” I like 1462 Central.

        Preserving history by building faux-historical structures actually has the effect of confusing true history.

    • Eric says:

      There is urban indy and there is suburban indy.

  4. Idyllic Indy says:

    Joe Smoker said: “This means the Staff may work with a petition to provide conditions or commitments that will advance the intent of the ordinance and also work to mitigate negative impacts from the request.”

    This might seem nitpicky, but I think it’s noteworthy to realize that the Staff doesn’t typically seek conditions or commitments that will actually advance the intent of the ordinance. To the contrary, they typically work to find agreement to conditions/commitments that will, in fact, contradict the intent of the ordinance. A dicey endeavor it is. Never forget that the intent of the zoning ordinances governing most of Marion County (Regional Center excluded) is to churn out automobile-oriented development with zero concern about urban design features that contribute to an attractive, walkable streetscape that most urbanites desire.

    • Chris Barnett says:

      Speaking from personal experience, the trickiest situations are the ones in the Regional Center but outside the core of downtown…namely, the near north and Meridian corridor, north of I-65. (Also the Canal north of North St.) There, the suburban-oriented zoning code and the Regional Center guidelines are often in direct conflict.

      Doing things to meet the requirements and intent of the RC guidelines often requires variances, conditions, or commitments that apply to the underlying zoning. But again, technically the planners are working on conditions/commitments that override the zoning code.

      Idyllic wasn’t clear, but I think he believes this to be generally good, but undesirable. I agree.

      • Idyllic Indy says:

        It’s the right thing to do, but the wrong way to do it. Unfortunately, outside of the Regional Center, it’s the only tool these planners have, and they can only even open the tool box if there is a rezoning or variance required.

        Hopefully, the Indy Rezone initiative will turn the entire zoning ordinances upside down, but it’s Indy, so I suppose some modest changes might be more likely. Of course, people could contact their City-County councilors and Mayor’s Office and let them know that they are expecting huge changes to support/require good urban design.

  5. Eric says:

    A couple years ago in Madison, WI, during our zoning rewrite we removed parking minimums in commercial zones entirely, while mostly maintaining the existing (generous) maximums. Most developers still propose lots of parking, but you don’t have cases like this with Wal-Mart, and hopefully over time the asphalt expanses will tend to shrink.

  6. Eric says:

    All zoning parking minimums should be elimitated in favor of applicant-provided parking formulas.

    The first residential parking minimum appeared in Columbus, OH, in 1923 and the first nonresidential parking minimum appeared in Fresno, CA, in 1939 with the intent of reducing traffic congestion in urbanized activity centers. Reducing traffic congestion through accommodating the peak number of autos for a use appears to remain the intent of parking formulas and I believe this is a flawed intent for two reasons. First, there is unfortunately no active road classification – zoning dynamic. Parking formulas are not based on classification of roadways and whether there is congestion, and the road classification system is not based on parking. If there were objections to a development based on congestion brought up by residents, this would have to be proven through study beyond road classification and parking formulas, and even in that instance may not be a proper justification for a zoning denial since there is no direct road classification – zoning dynamic. Second, if minimum requirements change over time, areas of comparable density of development may have very different supplies of parking if they were developed at different dates, forcing an increase in the supply of spaces in some areas while leaving others unaffected even though they may share an identical roadway.

    The primary reason for reducing or eliminating parking minimums is that they’re simply not needed in today’s suburban development climate. Ample parking is a fundamental need of auto-oriented businesses and developments. Most users know the exact amount of parking they will need based on their company projections that go beyond the only two variables zoning parking formulas address: land use and size. So allowing users to provide a written analysis of their parking needs would be more exact and business-friendly, rather than assuming all businesses under the same use category have the same parking needs based on size.

    For cases where uses do not have ample parking, whether it’s a constrained small business or WalMart on black Friday, the detriment is to that business, rather than the public, since people will simply not shop there if they have difficulty parking or know an area is notoriously congested. In instances where there isn’t enough parking, whether per zoning standards or not, people may park at a neighboring business, park in fire or access lanes, double park, or park on street. None of these instances would be matters of zoning enforcement but rather parking enforcement and policing.

  7. Joe, thanks so much for this much-needed article–clearly an excellent way of bringing to the City’s attention how overdue we are for an overhaul of zoning. It would be interesting to assess if there has been much opposition to the construction of a “Small-Mart” in that area. Only 5 miles further to the southeast, down Kentucky Avenue, there is already a Wal-Mart right outside the city limits, in the Heartland Crossing development. Granted, the Neighborhood Market is a different retail type, and they tend to locate in areas with slightly more challenging demographics. I think of the one at I-65 and Keystone and suspect the income levels around here are about the same as the one proposed here: i.e., pretty working class.

    The issue of community opposition can’t help but make me think of the one waaay south in Center Grove. Wal-Mart never really gives up; they just wait their time and come back several years later. Nine years ago, Wal-Mart proposed a site at S.R. 135 and Smith Valley Road, but the community raised enough stink to get the County (I think it’s in unincorporated Johnson County, or straddles the Greenwood boundary) not to approve. Wal-Mart tried again over the past few months. The opposition was still strong, but the County approved it this time, thanks to a smaller proposed footprint by Wal-Mart. Incidentally, even there, Wal-Mart had to get a waiver in order to supply FEWER parking spaces than the zoning required.

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