To many urban planners, the "mixed-use" development project is a kind of Holy Grail, a development that combines residential units with commercial space into one seamless project where people can both live and work. Although other ideas are also important to planners seeking to create urban-style places — specifically, higher-density housing and development oriented around transit stops – the mixed-use concept often seems the most compelling.

But as the New Urbanists have been arguing since the 1980s, it is often the planners themselves who are the biggest obstacles to mixed-use projects. In many communities, developers could not build a mixed-use project even if they wanted to because the local development code won’t permit it. Advocates of mixed-use development have often called on cities to simply throw out their old zoning codes and start from scratch.

Fifteen years after California planners first watched Andres Duany throw the codebook in the wastebasket as part of his stump speech for New Urbanism, things have begun to change. Increasingly, real estate developers and financiers in California are interested in building mixed-use projects. So the codebook has begun to catch up. In some California communities, we are seeing not just one mixed-use zoning in the codebook but several – each designed for a different kind of community setting.

Of course, the very term "mixed use" suggests a concept that is the exception rather than the rule. It’s an artifact of the original concept of zoning, which sought to segregate different types of activities rather than combine them. The main purpose of zoning regulations was to protect residences from the effects of "incompatible" land uses, especially industrial activities, but also commercial activities. The idea of "mixing" uses suggests that uses are separate to begin with and can be integrated only in special circumstances.

Given the overarching bias of the entire zoning system for a segregation of uses, it is not surprising that the mixed use concept tends to be ghettoized primarily in older downtowns. In such settings, it is a matter of practical reality: The zoning code has little choice but to follow the development patterns that existed prior to its passage. Downtown mixed-use zones also hold the potential to free up old buildings that would otherwise have a hard time finding tenants. For example, the upper floors of older retail buildings that might have been used for offices long ago nowadays might get converted to residential hotels, apartments or lofts.

Far more interesting, however, is the application of mixed-use zoning in older suburban settings outside of downtowns. These areas range widely in their character – from ‘20s streetcar neighborhoods to ‘80s industrial parks – but they all have one thing in common: As communities run out of land, these areas are viewed as locations where more housing can be built.

The Magnolia Avenue corridor in Riverside is a good example. This older strip, which stretches from downtown Riverside westward through the city, is the main focus of the city’s current general plan revision. Paralleling the 91 freeway, Magnolia is Riverside’s once-proud main arterial, and it is still the most heavily used bus corridor in all of Riverside County. Now that it is almost built out, Riverside is looking to redesignate older sites for newer uses, and most of the sites in play lie along Magnolia. Some of the property – such as the land at the western mouth of the city, adjacent to Norco – will be redesignated for industrial development. But most of the sites will be redesignated either for residential or for mixed use with a residential component.

Riverside currently has only one mixed-use zone in its zoning code, a zone targeted for downtown. The emerging general plan envisions three different mixed-use zones for different settings, including one for corridors such as Magnolia. How this gets translated into the technicalities of development regulations is not clear, acknowledges Planning Director Ken Gutierrez. But, he argues, such changes must occur for the general plan to be implemented.

Another emerging concept – but one that has not worked its way into most zoning regulations yet – is the idea of "horizontal mixed use." This might involve a large, undeveloped property along a busy arterial which has commercial frontage but also stretches deep into an adjoining residential area. The resulting development might not be literally mixed use, but it will have commercial and residential uses adjacent to one another, each blending into their surroundings yet connected to each other.

Then there is the truly outside-the-box example of housing in an industrial park, a concept that San Jose has promoted in the northern parts of the city where jobs are plentiful and land is scarce. The flexible zoning that most business parks have makes the combination of uses possible in such a situation.

With these emerging hybrid forms of mixed use, the biggest issues may not be changes in the uses permitted by the zoning code, but, rather, the new standards required for parking, buffering, and related issues. Parking is the most obvious potential problem because different types of uses have such different parking demands. Increasingly in downtown areas, parking requirements are being waived or dramatically reduced, especially if public parking structures are available nearby. In more suburban settings, shared parking is a common solution, with businesses using the parking spaces during the day and residences using them at night. That solution can run into difficulty, however, especially when business owners want parking spaces specifically earmarked for their stores or offices.

Buffering the noise, lights, traffic, and other intense activity that often accompanies nonresidential uses is another issue. In an innovative vertical mixed-use setting – such as the Paseo Colorado retail/residential project in downtown Pasadena (see CP&DR Places, November 1999) – residents are attracted in part because of the intense activity. Loading docks and other industrial activities can take place underground in parking garages. In the more typical suburban setting, however, these are big issues that might impede horizontal mixed-use projects. The local development code might have strict light, noise, and traffic standards in residential areas. Yet in a mixed-use setting, these activities must take place in close proximity to one- or two-story residences.

This is where mixed-use zoning must truly operate outside the box – or outside the big box, as the case may be. Traditional suburban zoning sought to solve all problems with distance, essentially eliminating conflict and incompatibility by placing uses far away from each other. Eliminating light, noise, and other distractions in a mixed-use setting requires better design and construction methods, not more space. However, these are not the types of standards that conventional California planning departments are accustomed to dealing with.

Mixed use of all kinds is rapidly becoming a reality throughout California. It will undoubtedly take a while for our codes to catch up.