The B4 Conundrum: Is Mixed Use Zoning- A Blunt Instrument or a Catalyst for Change?


The well worn Mixed Use Zoning (B4) has provided town and city planners with the ability to allow or promote different coinciding uses on a particular site, but does it always work and what can local councils do to turn it into a dynamic force for change?

The Mixed Use development typically includes Apartments sitting over Offices sitting over Shops. The truth is that due to City Retail Dynamics and certain Developer Vagaries, it is found that not all developers are equipped to bring these three uses to life on the one site. Nor are all sites suited to such mixed uses. When it goes wrong, a development might have a thriving mixed apartment community in a tower sitting over vacant shop fronts which take ages to lease or may lie dormant for long periods

Dr Jonathan Drane who runs Master Classes on Property Development Dynamics to both students and professionals draws on his city growth and dormancy research and current research interactions in key city precincts to make sense of this instrument and what might be done to make it a dynamic force for City Planners as an agent of change.

Taking developer dynamics first;  not all developers are equipped to bring these mixed uses to life on the one site in the B4 mixed scenario. Developers who are good at apartments might not be good at commercial uses or retail. Retail developers know how to create shopping centres with retail strategies and mixes and control them under a single ownership situation.This is however not always possible to achieve in the ground floor street front of a new mixed use development.

Commercial office developers are good at creating singular use office buildings with a token retail offering in the foyer and a tower filled with tenants based on a mix of anchor tenants (majors who take up a substantial number of floors) and a balance of other tenant types. This is not always easy to create in a small strip of office space that sits sandwiched in between apartments and shops in a mixed use development.

Developer types are also evolving and are now from a DIY breed and not all have the professional standards nor the expertise across sectors like the majors. This is showing up in the dire level of defects and even tragedies related to improperly certified buildings (another Master Class topic by Dr Drane)

On the city retail dynamics front, not all sites that are allocated to a mixed use zoning are suited to the multiple uses. If we take the ground floor retail strip of a new mixed use development, it needs to fit into the overall retail ecology of the city or town that surrounds it. If there is a regional shopping centre at one end of the town or city formation (which is so common in regional cities and towns), the new mixed use development will compete against the horsepower of the regional shopping centre offerings. In this context the regional shopping centre has become a ‘competing city’ of sorts which can suck the retail life out of the remaining town or city formation.

How can the new mixed use development and its retail strip compete against the sophistication of either regional or local village shopping centres?

One answer lies in City Planners and Economic Development Officers recognising these dynamics at both developer and city retail level and devising a retail strategy at precinct level that actually learns from the sophisticated centrally owned system and monopolistic practices of the shopping centres.

Councils are already well on the way to going beyond relying fully on typical zoning and development control instruments into ‘granular’ approaches to stimulation of their city formations that sit outside the regional shopping centre influence.

Another lies in the possibly heretical approach where Local Governments might take a more pro-active quasi-developer type role in stimulating a desired result in mixed use precincts. At mega level in other parts of the macro city developments of Australia, State led development bodies and corporations are already in place or previously used (Barangaroo, City West CWDC, Honeysuckle…).

But perhaps I have gone too far. If however you would like to explore these dynamics more you can book a Master Class (see below) which covers such urban and property development dynamics and well beyond the B4 Mixed Use Conundrum that is outline here.

Dr Jonathan Drane

This article is a condensed version of Dr Drane’s Master Class ’The B4 Conundrum’ see or book a class now (see sidebar).

Dr Drane was invited to run this Master Class as a workshop session at the recent Night Time Economy Council’s Master Class run at Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre on 20th November 2018 by Local Government NSW. For more information see

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Dr Jonathan Drane is an independent researcher and advisor to government, corporate, legal and academic sectors. He applies research methods to solve complex problems through project analysis in the commercial construction and development sector. Jonathan is a recognised expert in city precinct development with an emphasis on activation of dormant cityscapes. Jonathan’s doctoral research project (2011 to 2014) studied dormant cityscapes in several Australian regional cities and how they were bought to life. Going beyond just a research emphasis he was involved in the revitalisation of the Palmer Street Precinct, Townsville (2003 to 2008) as a catalyst developer. In this way he has both researched and been involved as a practitioner in this specific field of urban activation. His advisory profile ranges from planning urban development of dormant cityscapes, to forensic analysis of complex construction and property development problems in legal and industry situations. Jonathan is also a recognised award winning author in the non-fiction and historical genre winning an award for his first book on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of a Thousand Arrows) in 2007 with the NSW Writers Centre.

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