A quiet crisis is emerging in our building practice: one story buildings are being coded out of the system right when we need them most. While it is true that the Wendy's, Kmarts, and Walgreens of the world earn their anti-urban distinction, we should hesitate to throw the one story baby out with the suburban bathwater. One story buildings are being called upon amidst the unpredictable shift to e-commerce, the speed at which we need to take advantage of new markets, the stubborn difficulty of building and financing affordable mixed-use buildings, and, due to the capital cost, the propensity of credit-worthy chain tenants to show up in conventional new mixed-use buildings, leading to the same placelessness and capital extraction we seek to avoid in the first place.
Ignoring one story buildings could be one reason why the pop-up movement has gained such traction in filling the void left from an inadequate supply of small-scaled, experimental, affordable buildings. While the reasons might be specific to our era, the need is not. Our history is full of examples of when one story buildings made the most sense. They are ideal for times of great change, pioneering in new or forgotten areas where land is relatively plentiful, and when we are otherwise compelled into lighter, quicker, and cheaper means of building places. These are great lessons for developing today.
A one story start makes a lot of sense. Large, 50,000 square foot and up retail developments need market studies, parking studies, public engagement strategies, front-loaded infrastructure, debt financing and public subsidy. A few 16-foot tall, 800-2,000 square foot spaces typically do not. As a place gains steam, one story buildings can be augmented into larger programs either by replacement or addition. If one or two small spaces fail, the entire place doesn't implode and the tinkering may continue. In traditional building patterns, we understood that it was best to learn to crawl before walk. Rather than sitting on land waiting for the big mixed-use play to land, its time to think different and build great places starting at ground level.