THE BLOG
02/12/2014 11:07 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

Is Living in a Mixed-Use Building for You?

Most Americans want to live in a walkable community, according to a National Association of Realtors study released last year. For many, that means a mixed-use community.

Mixed-use development has made headlines for years across the nation, in urban-renewal projects with goals as varied as transforming downtown Minneapolis to reviving Brooklyn's waterfront. Even Oprah has owned a mega-condo in Chicago with all the perks of a Ritz-Carlton downstairs. But what does the phrase "mixed-use" really mean? And what are the pros and cons of living in such communities?

What Is Mixed-Use Development?

Technically, mixed-use means that an area incorporates more than one type of use. In cities, especially older urban areas such as New York or Washington, DC, it's common for retail space to occupy the first floor of a large apartment building, or even row houses. Elsewhere, mixed-used development might place residential units in one area of a large property with commercial buildings nearby -- not sharing the same structure, but close enough to easily walk from home to a coffee shop. Zoning codes or local ordinances might define it -- for example, here's Washington state's definition.

Why Mixed-Use Is Popular

Members of Generation Y, as well as older adults, are making the decision to live in walkable communities, according to the NAR report. While plenty of people want a yard and the privacy of a single-family detached home, others prefer to ditch the car when they can and live in areas where they can walk to schools and services.

It's become a quality of life issue for many. Studies show that it's often healthier to live in an area that encourages walking. Of course, in some cities and villages, it's just a fact a life.

Why Mixed-Use Works

Businesses often give discounts to residents who share their building. For some places, like a small restaurant, it's just about being neighborly. For others, like a dry cleaner on the first floor of a large apartment building, it's a way to encourage a devoted customer base. In a shared building, businesses might sign for a tenant's packages during working hours. When the weather's bad, services are still easy to access.

Residents save time by walking down the street instead of driving for every errand. They save money on gas and other car-maintenance and travel costs. They can improve their health with all that walking. And then there's the cache of having a local hotspot in close proximity.

Mixed-Use Drawbacks

Some mixed-use arrangements, however, can actually detract from quality of life.

If you live above a restaurant, for example, you might end up living with the fryer smell in your apartment -- or, er, tiny visitors migrating from the kitchen below. Or, you could be breathing chemical fumes from a dry cleaner, or putting up with noise from a bar. Depending on the size of the commercial space, the upstairs apartment could be a landlord's afterthought. Not all mixed-use setups are surrounded by a community. A stand-alone building with a large parking lot could feel lonely at night if you live above a closed store.

In sum, there are a lot of benefits -- health, money and community -- to living in a mixed-use building or development, whether you're renting or buying. But watch out for the drawbacks. Ask some serious questions about how the businesses and residents work and live together before you sign the paperwork.

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