Posted by Errin Welty

Most of us in the downtown revitalization world have a vision for what we hope that our downtown might look like in the future. However, in many cases, outdated local regulations and ordinances may actually make this vision impossible. These regulations were not intended to be prohibitive, but were often put in place as a response to a particular incident in the past, or applied as a blanket ordinance to all districts without regard for factors unique to downtown districts. Many of the new tactical urbanism strategies, such as Better Block and the Lighter Quicker Cheaper initiative by Project for Public Spaces, utilize temporary event permitting to install various amenities that might otherwise be difficult, expensive or disallowed under current regulations. Pulling from the experience of these groups, as well as various projects around the state, below are the top three most common local regulations that limit downtown business success and district vitality.

  1. NonretailbusinessvisualmerchandisingDarlingtonWIAllow businesses to advertise effectively.
    Although maximizing ground floor window transparency and encouraging tasteful signage are very important design considerations for pedestrian-friendly districts, many sign regulations are structured to allow only a maximum square footage per business or a maximum percent of overall storefront. These requirements often force businesses to choose only one form of signage and effectively forgo the opportunity to market to other audiences. For instance, a business might choose flush mounted building signs visible only to cars, as opposed to window or projecting signs visible to pedestrians, or vice versa. Similarly, many districts prohibit sandwich boards, often in order to maintain sidewalk accessibility. However, when appropriately used, designed and placed, sandwich boards add visual interest and pedestrian ambiance to a district.
  2. Create opportunities for public gathering.
    Many districts went through a period where the prevalence of unsavory bars and/or transient upper floor housing led to the passage of ordinances limiting outdoor gathering, the posting of ”no loitering” signs, and the removal of benches and other street furniture. An unfortunate byproduct of these measures was a reduction in overall foot traffic. Modern parks are often designed with a purpose in mind (e.g., playground or sports field), rather than as multipurpose spaces that allow people to gather in a variety of ways. The number-one way to draw more foot traffic is by adding visible signs of activity and people: patio cafes, multipurpose street furniture, signage highlighting downtown destinations. The Better Block rulebook provides one rule of thumb for assessing a downtown by determining if amenities are present that will attract individuals aged 8 to 80 and their dogs.
  3. Don’t reward the boring.
    mojo-parkletMost ordinances make it very easy to do exactly the same thing as every other business, and make it very difficult to do something out of the box or different. This often results in cookie-cutter patio railings, awnings and signage, diminishing the pedestrian experience by limiting the opportunity to discover something new and different. In many communities, installing items such as murals, parklets or art sculptures, not to mention walk-up windows or external planters, requires multiple permits, meetings and even fees. By making it easier to add visual interest (even if initially only temporary or moveable items), communities can encourage creativity among businesses and the thrill of discovery for visitors.

If a read-through of your local ordinances includes one or more of these elements, there is plenty of opportunity to make positive change. A good approach is to seek out ordinance language from nearby communities that have recently addressed these issues. Because existing regulations may be in place as a result of past activities, it will be important to understand the original intent and to craft an alternative, legally enforceable ordinance which promotes quality places while still providing protections against undesirable behavior. Additionally, being proactive about revisions allows for an unbiased discussion of the topic without getting bogged down in the details of a specific proposal on the table. Ultimately, providing a flexible environment that encourages quality investment and public enjoyment is key to a more vibrant downtown. In other words: go ahead, legislate fun!