The Zoning Trap: How City Planning Complicates the Start-Up Process for Brick-and-Mortars

Retail establishments that don’t sell food—like a bookstore—seem like they should have an easier path to start-up, considering the minimal public health and safety implications. But a complex maze of zoning and permitting requirements still make the journey difficult for many brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs.

Even before buying inventory and opening up shop, brick-and-mortar retail businesses like our model bookstore can still face months or years of process and delays seeking approval to operate in a commercial space, particularly if they want to open in a building that requires any renovation or that wasn’t previously zoned as a business.

Entrepreneurs who wade into this process can quickly find themselves overwhelmed. Many cities don’t even maintain online portals to check the zoning status for a given property, meaning a business owner may have to physically visit a government building to find paper copies of property records or meet with zoning officials just to learn whether they have to engage in the zoning process in the first place.

Once they manage to identify their property’s zoning information, they might have to navigate a lengthy series of steps (including public hearings) where a single official or neighborhood resident who disapproves of the business can derail the entire process. These “veto” points—that turn starting a business into a slow, political process—especially affect entrepreneurs who are required to obtain conditional use permits or variances.

Even if an entrepreneur is able to operate, municipal codes mandating certain aesthetics or historic preservation rules can add considerable time and expense to the process, while other rules like setback (the distance the building is from the street) and minimum parking requirements can fundamentally alter an otherwise safe retail business plan.

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James Dupree Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
James Dupree

philadelphia, pennsylvania

James Dupree

James Dupree is a world-renowned artist and long-time Philadelphian. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he has showcased his art at his South Philadelphia gallery since 1982. But in 2012, the city tried to use eminent domain to seize his studio to give the land to a private developer. Fortunately, James was able to generate enormous support from his community and fans, and the city backed down—but he continued to face uphill battles with his business. James wanted to find a second building where he could work and live in the same place, which would allow him to continue to make art with relative ease.

City regulations, however, only allow this arrangement in a few neighborhoods throughout the city. “The city has changed zoning in a handful of neighborhoods over the years to allow commercial and residential to be on the same property, but there are so few of these that property values have gone up a lot,” said James. That makes finding a new space for James’ gallery and home quite difficult. Roadblocks like this eventually led James to move outside of Philadelphia, to a location where he will be able to have his next gallery, studio, and home on the same property.