Example of well-executed infill development in a downtown area

Communities large and small across Wisconsin are seeing a building boom of late, largely due to a need for more housing. Thankfully much of this development is happening in the hearts of cities, in downtowns and historic commercial districts. This can be attributed to the great work each community has been doing for decades to bring these districts back to life, making them attractive to people of all ages to live, work and shop.

But interjecting new buildings within a cohesive district of already-built structures is a sensitive design issue. The new buildings must simultaneously be large enough to be financially feasible and fulfill market demands, and are expected to look new but also blend in with their surroundings in terms of size, scale, height, massing, setback, etc.

They are expected to provide a density and mix of uses that integrates with the existing flow of the street, without saturating the market with too much of any one use. In other words, while it is often ideal to have commercial spaces on the ground floor and residential or office space above, if a large percentage of existing storefronts are already sitting vacant, adding new storefronts will only exacerbate the problem—but having single-use developments with residential space on the ground floor can also be detrimental to a commercial district.

It’s also important to realize that demand for additional housing doesn’t always mean that new developments need to be built. When planning for new housing, communities should not forget about vacant or underutilized upper-floor spaces in existing buildings. These spaces are often ideal for residential development of all sizes and price points (affordable, market-rate and luxury), and the historic character that many possess cannot be recreated in new structures.

But when new residential or commercial development is indeed required, there are three main types seen in Main Street districts:

  • where buildings between other buildings have been previously demolished (new infill);
  • on larger vacant lots, usually on the edges of a district (standalone developments); and
  • as expansions to the side, rear or top of existing buildings (building additions).

We will look at appropriate design principles of each in this three-part series.