Mixed-use development buzzword being run into the ground
Is there value in all mixed-use developments?

Large billion dollar developers and environmentalist have one thing in common; they use the same get out of jail card whenever they find themselves up against a wall. When concerns are raised about green space being clear-cut to accommodate new development, all the developer has to say is its mixed-use development. When environmental groups are called into question about not speaking out about sprawling development, they simply reply it is mixed-use development.

The term "Mixed-use development" does possess a degree of magic in today's world with Alachua County being no exception. This article will look into mixed-use and what is behind the craze.

What is mixed use development?
In its simplest form, mixed-use development combines two or more types of real estate, such as retail and residential, or office and industrial in a pedestrian-friendly setting. Mixed-use developments are not just for urban areas even though that is where they have had the most success.

Land use designation
Land use designation is where mixed-use begins. The comprehensive plan lays out the rules of land use that must be followed by all those who make land use decisions. The Alachua County Comprehensive Plan is drawn up in a way that has zoned large swaths of the county for different types of land use. If a developer wants to build mixed-use in an area zoned for such they are permitted. If they want to build in an area that is not zoned for their development type, they can request a zoning change.

Urban Cluster
With growth comes development so it is imperative sound land management policies be in place to accommodate future growth. Confining the majority of new growth to an area governed by strict land use policies is one approach to dealing with growth. County government embraced this approach because it offered the ability, through mixed-use development, to save the trees, prevent sprawl, and create a healthier county. Those attributes are right up the tree hugger's ally, so we now have a bona fide code word that works wonders in the halls of the county admin building as well has around the water cooler at the office. Alachua County government rolled the dice and bet the farm on the idea of an urban cluster in an area that is mostly rural and probably the most unnatural fit for reaping the rewards of widespread mixed-use development. Though obviously not a good fit, the county's mantra continue to be we will make it fit. Trying to make it fit has resulted in the urban cluster being treated as a city within the unincorporated area of western Alachua County. A disproportionate share of county resources is consumed by the urban cluster and the justification for such consumption is mixed-use development.

Mixed-use realities
Mixed-use development was never intended to be the be-all and end-all to problems associated with growth. Well planned mixed-use gives growth management another arrow they can put in their quiver. Unfortunately, mixed-use has created a false illusion that no other arrows are needed. Mixed use in the urban cluster is not the same as mixed use downtown. The two biggest employers in the area happen to be in the downtown area. Mixed-use loses some of it strength when you introduce traffic and commuting into the picture. High density zoning is synonymous with mixed-use which means there is likely to be more cars.

Depending on the size of the area where new growth is confined to could lead to urban sprawl. The urban cluster, an area from I-75 to Newberry is an example of this. Western Alachua County though designated for the most part as mixed-use is experiencing sprawl. Trees are being cut down and green space is being lost to development at an alarming rate, but all is well because it's mixed-use.

Driving through the urban cluster looks like driving through any urban sprawl area. In other words, urban cluster mixed-use is not something to be seen or looked at; just know the benefits are there in theory.

Large urban cluster mixed-use developments like Celebration Pointe have not figured out the commercial and residential tenant ratio piece and how to balance the realities of livable and workable. It is hard to get service workers in a mixed-use development to actually rent an apartment in that development. Mixed-use tend to be a little on the expensive side for residence. Retail isn't exactly cheap either.

It is not uncommon for mixed-use developments to request adjustments to zoning if they feel they don't have a functional mix. They may see a need for more residential and less retail once they are up and running. The one size fits all approach is the worst way to approach land management and zoning. Market forces will make the final mixed-use ratios for developers and it is not uncommon for what was approved as mixed-use initially ends up becoming something that would have never gotten off the ground-single-use.

Mixed-use lowers the temperature in growth and the environment discussions. Development is not going away so it must be managed in a thoughtful way. Implementing symbolic mixed-use policies can lead to problems in the long run. There is nothing wrong with mixed-use development as long as it goes through the proper development review process. However, when you link mixed-use development with Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) things can get into the weeds. Issuing blank checks to developers simply because they pledge to adhere to mixed-use standards regardless of the size or location of the development is not the right approach to managing growth.