In high-growth and redeveloping urban and suburban areas, including former shopping mall sites being transformed into new mixed-use communities, private streets are increasingly being proposed as part of the block pattern and transportation network. While private infrastructure can help to fill many gaps where municipal budgets are constrained and standards for safety and accessibility can be maintained, it can come with challenges as well. Where are private streets most feasible and effective, how does context matter, and what policies can ensure that they are done right?
As intensification, densification, mixed land uses, and pedestrian priority gain prominence in many cities, there is a need for new infrastructure to service these lands, often taking the form of a fine-grained and walkable street grid throughout most sites. Through conversations with staff from the city of Vaughan and the city of Pickering, both in Ontario, Canada, ULI, and the city of Lakewood (Colorado), considerations, preferences, and outcomes were explored to better understand the opportunities that come along with the challenges of creating new places with new access.
Context and Requirements
It is important to look at context when determining an appropriate role for private infrastructure. According to Wes Craiglow, executive director at ULI Northwest Arkansas, it is common for some residential development in the United States to have entirely private infrastructure in a desire to create a ‘gated community’ feel. In these situations, there is no role for the municipality in terms of pedestrian or cycling amenities, although access for emergency services and building code requirements still apply. In the case of commercial development, municipalities will more typically impose certain requirements through mechanisms like a subdivision ordinance, which will specify lot structure and standards. Practical considerations, of course, play an important role as well. Municipalities may require or request streets to be public based on location and capacity and would typically be less interested if the location is very far and difficult to service.
According to Nilesh Surti, manager, development review & urban design at the City of Pickering, criteria for considering the use of private streets include the function of the street, connections, access, block sizes and lot fabric, urban design and streetscape design, zoning, addressing, and municipal servicing. For example, Universal City, a multi-tower condominium block, includes a private road connecting two public streets. The main function of this private road is to provide vehicular access to three condominium buildings. From a municipal perspective, there is minimal impact on the public. However, a governance structure amongst separate condominium properties will need to be established for the maintenance and future resurfacing or upgrades of the private street. This raises the question of equity for purchasers and future financial implications for condominium boards. Long term asset managers supported by large pension funds or equity may be more suited to operating and maintaining private streets, while taking advantage of the flexibility in their design.
The Pickering Town Centre is a large shopping mall owned by Ontario Pension Board Realty. Located in a major growth area with a vision that “Downtown Pickering will be a vibrant, sustainable, accessible and distinct city center for all people and all seasons. It will be a place to inspire, a place to gather, a place to work, and a place to live, all in a compact and walkable environment.”
The Phase 2 Master Plan for the Pickering Town Centre proposed interior streets to create a finer grain and used both private and public streets. As illustrated, streets connecting with surrounding arterials are public and internal streets are private. The urban design guidelines guide construction to engineering standards and maintenance of effective public access was negotiated with the municipality.
Challenges and Opportunities
While municipalities recognize that private streets offer an opportunity for compact form, efficient land use, and design flexibility for asset managers, the challenge of consistent public access and protecting against short and long-term financial liability need to be addressed. In new mixed-use developments, municipalities will want to preserve road function and safety, along with continuous access for the public and operations staff and on-going maintenance and performance. The complications of multiple owners or change in ownership will also need discussion. Learning from the experience of rural municipalities and cottage owner associations, items such as responsibilities and risks of maintenance, liability, and assumption may be clarified through agreements. Applying this to mixed-use developments, the framework of tools may include urban design guidelines, secondary and tertiary (specific) plans, agreements held on title, and negotiations during site plan approval.
For example, the City of Vaughan in their Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Secondary Plan (February 2021) directs where private streets may be used to break up larger blocks and performance by Urban Design Guidelines. However, as development pressures increase, a city-wide policy framework may provide a tool for consistent direction to both developers and municipal staff. The private streets framework would involve dialogue with municipal departments such as engineering, zoning, legal, transportation, and finance to define a consistent set of criteria for the use of private streets and clarify the order of agreements to support the site plan review process.
For example, conflict may arise where land is sold and the new owner of a private street, that over time has become a thru street, wishes to develop the entire parcel of land, while the municipality wishes to maintain the street function. The consistent application of agreements on title would offer clarity.
A noteworthy case study, previously profiled in Urban Land, is that of Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado. In this case of mall redevelopment, Craiglow describes a “durable and resilient urbanism” created primarily with public street frontage, while negotiated details and a shared vision between the City and developer resulted in a high-quality public realm and high-performing streets, both public and private.
Belmar was the site of a regional shopping mall (Villa Italia), whose commercial success began to decline in the mid-1990s. Eventually, most of the enclosed mall structure was replaced with a mixed-use community and new street grid, forming a new ‘downtown’ for Lakewood, a suburb of Denver, Colorado. Financing for the project included private (tribal) sources, a public improvement fee, tax increment financing, and bank financing (conditional on providing 1.1 to 1.3 parking spaces per unit on site). Discussions with Ken Hargrave and Paul Rice at the City of Lakewood revealed these and further details.
From a transportation perspective, all streets except one (Upham Street) were ultimately made public and delivered by the developer to municipal standards, although there are also some private alleyways associated with townhouses. The same generally applied to other infrastructure, including drains, pipes, and stormwater management ponds. In this case, the City wanted primarily public streets, and the developer wished to customize the design and make them narrower, with back-in parking and alternative materials such as colored concrete. A lower posted speed limit of 25 mph (40 km/h) allowed for narrower cross-sections and smaller sight triangles. As is the case elsewhere, all streets were required to accommodate emergency vehicles and municipal servicing (water and utilities), with easements on the private street for this purpose. All turning radii and overhead clearances were tested for emergency and transit vehicles, with concurrence from the West Metro Fire Protection District and Regional Transportation District.
While Belmar has no dedicated cycling infrastructure on its two collector roads or local roads, some of the streets (such as Teller Street), have been narrowed for a more urban feel, with parking on both sides. There is also a long-term vision for a future streetcar to connect with the nearby Federal Center.
Importantly, the Belmar redevelopment featured one primary developer (Continuum) partnering with the City on a new vision. Two-story retail uses were replaced with retail on the first floor and office on the second, a small amount of live-work space was introduced, and wide sidewalks were constructed, eventually being upgraded with more plantings and street furniture by the developer. While there is still a substantial amount of vehicular parking, with much of it currently at the surface, out of the three initially proposed parking structures (of approximately 1,000 spaces each), only two were constructed, and they tend to be only about 50 percent utilized. Over time, it is expected that most surface lots will be replaced through redevelopment.
City of Toronto
The City of Toronto typically requires that private streets follow the same urban design practices as public infrastructure. In 2021, the City issued Draft Urban Design Guidelines in the form of a Mall Redevelopment Guide. On the site of the current Yorkdale Shopping Centre, which has seen great success for decades as a regional shopping destination, surface parking lots will soon give way to retail, office, and residential land uses, as well as public open spaces and other amenities, beyond the existing mall structure. The redevelopment will include several new streets and active transportation connections, including north-south and east-west public streets, as well as several private streets. The addition of this infrastructure will support future development, improved local transit service, and active transportation across the site to the existing subway station and bus terminal. More information on this project.
In view of these experiences, and upon closer examination of these cases, what emerges is that several factors may contribute to a successful role for private streets. First, they need to be included in municipal policies, given that they should realistically be expected to be part of the mix of infrastructure in new development. Second, funding for construction and maintenance must be clearly identified, ensuring that undue liability and operational and maintenance obligations are not placed upon municipalities. Third, negotiated outcomes are desirable so that both public and private concerns are addressed in both the short and long term. Fourth, some municipal standards will always apply, ranging from emergency vehicle access to specifications that make the private streets virtually indistinguishable from public streets. Fifth, operational needs must be clarified. For example, if a private street or other route is intended to be used for 24-hour public access, then it must be specified that it is to always remain open, even when adjacent private businesses are closed. Sixth, since municipal standards and practices evolve over time, there may be a need to build this flexibility into the design of private streets and connections, ensuring especially that active transportation facilities keep up to date with changing practices.
When successfully integrated with new development in a way that supports connectivity and public realm objectives, private streets can play an important role as part of a cost-effective strategy for municipalities to create new complete communities. Clarity in expectations and negotiation can lead to a functional street network consisting of a combination of public and private infrastructure and consistent with a shared vision between public and private parties for new development.