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In the United States, a trend is emerging where underutilised spaces, such as old strip shopping centres, are being successfully redeveloped into mixed use hubs with social and affordable housing a key component.
  • Affordable housing is a major issue across the world
  • Strip malls are being turned into mixed use hubs
  • These hubs include social and affordable housing as a key component

Housing supply and affordability is an ongoing challenge in cities and regions around the world as populations continue to grow and demand for affordable housing outstrips supply.

Here in Perth, we continue to grapple with record-low rental vacancy rates and a housing supply shortage that is reaching critical levels.

Coupled with the dire shortage of housing, WA, like the rest of the country is experiencing a skilled worker shortage.  As our governments and industry work together to come up with solutions for getting more workers into the country, the issue of where to house these people when they arrive remains to be tackled meaningfully.

In the United States, a trend is emerging where underutilised spaces, such as old strip shopping centres, are being successfully redeveloped into mixed use hubs with social and affordable housing as a key component.

‘Strip malls’ as they are colloquially referred to, are generally anchored by a petrol station or retail shops and can be found on the outskirts of many US towns. The hundreds of thousands of strip malls across the US are a result of a range of factors including zoning regulations that separate retail from other uses.

While the strip mall image is a common one, not just in America, the tide is turning on these types of spaces as developers and designers work together on transforming some of them into vibrant, mixed use neighbourhoods.

One example of a successful strip mall transformation in the City of Santa Ana, has taken a suburban, parking lot dominated space and created a community serving project that features outdoor community areas, spaces for non profit partners, and new family-oriented affordable homes.

La Placita Cinco (formerly Tiny Tim Plaza) has been designed by City Fabrick, a non-profit multi-disciplinary design studio that is focused on reshaping communities in need through collaborative public-interest design, planning, policy development, and advocacy.

City Fabrick Principal and Executive Director Brian Ulaszewski says that commercial properties like strip malls provide significant opportunities for redevelopment as they are often large, low-density sites often controlled by a single property owner.

“They typically have large fields of open parking lots and single-story, simply constructed structures providing the opportunity to redevelop all or portions of the site,” Mr Ulaszewski said.

“In the past these strip centres have had partial redevelopments as new tenants, whether a restaurant, market, or retail component have replaced previous businesses, requiring new operational considerations or upgrading.

“What is unique about La Placita Cinco is that the commercial component – in this case a former gas station, was replaced with a mixed-use building consisting of ground floor space that hosts a non-profit community partner with residential units above.”

Mr Ulaszewski says that, like here in Australia, communities across the US are seeking new opportunities to reinvent existing neighbourhoods.  He advises that housing affordability is essential to maintaining community and people should have the opportunity to live in the community they work, reducing time spent on travel.

Providing this sort of affordable housing close to employment is a particularly important aspect of attracting key workers from both interstate and overseas.

“La Placita Cinco offers an innovative model for inclusive redevelopment that not only supports local economies but also leverages public and private investment in affordable housing to reinvigorate those small businesses,” Mr Ulaszewski said.

“The new mixed-use residential building includes over 50 family-oriented homes including two, three, and four-bedroom units, which are specifically needed in Santa Ana.

“The collection of businesses provides a perfect mix of neighbourhood serving uses that provide local residents one-stop shopping for daily essentials.

“La Placita Cinco also includes a series of community-oriented open spaces including a mini-park, pedestrian plaza, and outdoor gym – all connected by a walking loop.

“The project also includes safety improvements, including narrowing the roadway, reduction of driveways from the project site, and enhanced intersection with curb extensions and marked crosswalks.”

Important to the design of the project is how the new affordable housing building integrates with the rest of the development including the existing two commercial buildings.

“The entire site was redesigned to integrate the two existing commercial buildings including the circulation and open space network, access and site lines, and wayfinding,” Mr Ulaszewski said.

“The architecture of the two commercial buildings were updated to be visually harmonious with the new building, signage for the existing businesses were updated in cooperation with the business owners, and street art added to create thematic connections between the buildings new and old.”

The partnership approach with the City of Santa Ana assisted the project in relation to the approvals process and financing construction.

“The zoning code and land-use plan had to be amended as part of the planning process as the property was previously zoned for low density commercial use and single-family homes,” Mr Ulaszewski said.

“The allowable density of residential development had to be increased while increases in allowable height and reduced parking requirements had to be secured by the Planning Commission and City Council.

“The City also contributed funding for the affordable housing component which is invaluable as affordable housing typically needs to leverage local, state, and even federal funding in complex development scenarios.”

While strip malls are providing viable options for redevelopment in a range of areas, there are several emerging trends for creating new affordable housing that we can learn from.

“Communities across California and many other regions in the United States are upgrading and converting former motels into apartments, adding kitchenettes to the hotel rooms to convert them into efficient studios,” Mr Ulaszewski said.

“Emerging partnerships between faith-based institutions and developers are redeveloping portions or entire church campuses into new affordable housing communities, leveraging shared missions to support families, seniors, and youth that otherwise cannot afford to live in the area.”

At the end of the day, the redevelopment of underutilised spaces not only provides opportunities to provide much needed affordable housing, the adaptation of these areas also contributes to longer term sustainability through furthering urban consolidation and reuse of existing materials.


This story was originally published in The Urbanist magazine, an official publication of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (WA). It has been edited for republication by The Property Tribune. 

The Property Tribune thanks the UDIA WA for the opportunity to republish the work, and share thought leadership in relation to urban development and community creation with our readers.

Read the original copy of The Urbanist by heading to UDIA WA’s website under the News tab.

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