Minimum Floor Area Ratio – Mammoth Lakes Commercial Real Estate
For several years, the Town of Mammoth Lakes has been working with the community on simplifying the commercial zoning codes. Part of this simplification process has been changing the commercial zoning code from a density based code (or units per acre) to one of a Floor Area Ratio(FAR).
You may be asking, what is FAR? Well in very simple terms, Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, is the ratio of a building’s total floor area (zoning floor area) to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built. The terms can also refer to limits imposed on such a ratio.
Through the Town’s Zoning Code Update, commercially zoned properties along Main Street and Old Mammoth Road are proposed to have a maximum FAR of 2.0, meaning a property could be improved with a building area that is up to 2 times the size of its lot. For example, if an owner has a 10,000 square foot piece of land, they could build up to 20,000 square feet of improvements upon that land. For reference, the Village at Mammoth was built with a FAR of 2.0.
This Maximum FAR would effectively give an owner, or developer, an invisible box in which to build a project. A maximum FAR limits how large a project can be, but it allows more flexibility as to what goes inside of the box. The Maximum FAR is also limited by height restrictions, parking requirements and snow storage.
In recent weeks, the idea of a “Minimum FAR” has been posed and may be brought before the Towns Planning and Economic Development Department and Town Council for consideration. A variety of random figures have been discussed for a Minimum FAR but one figure that seems to be consistently brought up is .75. This would mean that a property owner could not improve their property with less than a FAR of .75, or 75% building to lot coverage. The thinking behind a minimum FAR is to drive property owners toward higher density, mixed-use, projects. An example would be ground floor retail, with office, apartments, workforce housing, hotel, or other uses above.
While the idea of a Minimum FAR is not unheard of and can yield some positive results, approving such a concept can have unfortunate consequences if it is not thought through completely.
What about the small commercial property owners? With a Minimum, FAR, of let’s say .75, many buildings we see on Main Street or Old Mammoth Road could not be built today. Let’s consider the building where Century 21 is located as an example. If this building were to be proposed under a Minimum .75 FAR, it would have to be 3 times the size of what is there currently.
While the intent of requiring the property owner to build larger improvements may have a lot of merit, there are unintended consequences. Owners with smaller lots would have to build tall vertical buildings with off-site or underground parking just to conform to the code. Buildings on smaller lots would have few options other than merging with neighboring properties to create a functional building.
Parking concerns: Using the example for the building above, where would parking be located if the building were three times the size? Would it be underground, would it be located across the street, down the street, etc.? There is not a solution currently in place to answer this question. To approve a Minimum FAR without a parking solution effectively limits, and in many cases, prohibits potential development or re-development. The idea of implementing a Minimum FAR without a parking solution is irresponsible because we don’t know what the solution would look like or when such a solution will be in place. Development without a commercial parking solution had negative impacts for Village at Mammoth and the lack of a solution wouldn’t be appropriate for other parts of Mammoth Lakes either.
Economics of a Minimum FAR: Also needing consideration is whether there is the demand for a higher intensity of improvements under a Minimum FAR. Let use an example of a restaurant like Slocums Grill and Bar. This property is currently built with a FAR of approximately .25. If it were proposed to be built under a .75 Minimum FAR it could not be built as is. It would require one to two additional stories and off-site (or underground) parking. As we discussed previously, there is not a plan in place to accommodate said parking. Another question is, what uses fill the additional stories; office space, apartments, hotel, etc.? Is there even a demand for these additional uses? An owner may want to build just a restaurant and not the other uses on top, but under a minimum FAR they wouldn’t have this option.
Would a Minimum FAR fit all use types?: If a minimum FAR were approved for all commercially zoned properties on Main Street and Old Mammoth Road, would the FAR be appropriate for all uses? I’ve spoken to several grocery stores expressing an interest in Mammoth Lakes. The plan for each of the markets I’ve spoken with is a single-story building and a FAR of roughly .30. Each market required open parking, on-site, and behind the market.
Under a Minimum FAR, the market would have to build two additional levels of improvement and underground and/or off-site parking. Because the markets are not in the development business they don’t have an interest in building anything other than a market. Additionally, there isn’t economic feasibility to build other uses above the market at this time, nor is there a parking plan in place to accommodate parking for two additional stories. So, the question becomes, what would a prospective market do if a Minimum FAR were imposed? The short answer is they take their business elsewhere.
In summary, there may be benefits of a minimum FAR, however without properly addressing the likely pitfalls upfront, commercial property owners may be limiting the use of their properties indefinitely; also impacting property values. Please feel visit the Town of Mammoth Lakes Websites and write your Planning Commissioners and Town Councilmembers expressing any concerns you may have over the idea of a Minimum FAR.
Town Council: http://www.ci.mammoth-lakes.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=82
Planning Commission: http://ca-mammothlakes.civicplus.com/index.aspx?nid=90