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With downtowns staying abandoned, put tiny businesses back into residential neighborhoods

What if we started creating tiny storefronts (ACUs, or accessory commercial units) in neighborhoods to serve people where they are—and give businesses a chance at new customers.

With downtowns staying abandoned, put tiny businesses back into residential neighborhoods
[Photo: Neil Heller]

When the pandemic closed down his office in downtown Portland, Oregon, urban planner Neil Heller started wondering about the bodega where he used to buy afternoon snacks. Without office workers in the area, and without shoppers headed to larger stores that were also closed, it might not survive. As many people continue working from home—in the case of some tech workers, indefinitely—Heller considered another possibility. Could some small businesses relocate to residential neighborhoods?

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“I wondered if somebody like that might say, ‘Hey, I might follow the people to their neighborhood,'” he says. “It might be advantageous for businesses that rely on office workers to colocate now where the people are.” Small neighborhood shops would likely also have much lower rent.

[Image: Google Street View/courtesy Neil Heller]
Heller, who runs a firm called Neighborhood Workshop, is a proponent of what he calls ACUs, or accessory commercial units. If backyard cottages (also known as ADUS, or accessory dwelling units) have become an increasingly common way to add new housing to existing neighborhoods, ACUs in the front could help add new businesses.

[Image: Google Street View/courtesy Neil Heller]
This type of space was more common in the past; if you walk around some 1920s-era neighborhoods, it’s not unusual to see a tiny grocery store or even smaller commercial space sitting on an otherwise residential block. Heller hypothesizes that as cars became widespread in cities, some businesses chose to relocate to streets with the most traffic. Zoning laws also changed. “Zoning updates became more exclusively residential, and beyond that, became more exclusively single-family,” he says. “So we sort of just zoned everything out. Most of our cities are just single-family houses only. We’ve become very, very myopic in our scope of what we want to allow in our neighborhoods.”

[Image: Google Street View/courtesy Neil Heller]
To make the idea possible, zoning laws would have to change. Cities would also have to take steps to make it simple for small businesses to get permits to use the spaces. But if more former ACUs are reactivated as tiny restaurants or coffee shops or stores—or if new ACUs were built—residential neighborhoods would benefit. “Surveys and polls suggest that residents want local amenities and walkable amenities,” Heller says. The buildings could help be part of what some planners call the 15-minute city, the idea that all residents should be able to walk or bike to take care of their daily needs within 15 minutes. People would likely drive less.

The concept could be applied even in sprawling suburbs. “I think they could be used in conventional subdivisions,” he says. “A conventional, auto-centric subdivision will typically have large setbacks. As places are looking for more walkable amenities, I think that this would be an easy approach, and one that would be a gentle approach and wouldn’t change the character very much.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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