How can Delaware Communities Implement Mixed-Use Development?

Comprehensive Plan/Community Vision

A comprehensive plan is a legal document used by a local government to guide future land use, and serves as the basis for zoning, subdivision, and land use codes. Vision-based and community-driven plan, a comprehensive plan can provide a foundation for establishing what a community wants to preserve, develop, and change. It guides public investment and private development decisions—including the intensity, location, and types of development that may occur.

Many Delaware local governments have established a vision for mixed-use development within their Comprehensive Plans or updates to plans. The City of Newark, Delaware’s 2014 comprehensive plan update utilizes visioning to provide a clearer picture of the objectives the City wishes to achieve. The vision process utilized a structured planning approach to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) in the community. Newark’s vision reflects three principle values that mirror Complete Community elements: 1) a healthy and active community, 2) a sustainable community, and 3) an inclusive community. Mixed-use development supports all each of these values. Support for this vision is further detailed in the plans’ economic development and land development chapters.

The 2010 Comprehensive Plan update for Town of Elsmere, Delaware recommends zoning code amendments to “encourage redevelopment activities, including the conversion of the Kirkwood Highway into a Main Street by allowing for mixed land uses.”

The Town of Middletown, Delaware’s 2012 comprehensive plan update recommends a change to the 2005 plan, which designated a number of parcels as commercial. The plan recommends mixed use to “provide flexibility so that the market can dictate the best combination of uses for these parcels. This designation is also applied to parcels that have been approved for, or are developing as, mixed-use communities.” The comprehensive plan also states that the all residential districts and the C-2 and C-3 Zones would be consistent with the “Mixed Use” designation. The C-2 and C-3 zones provide flexibility for mixing residential and commercial land uses and applying contemporary planning principles to new development plans. Examples of areas where this approach was applied include undeveloped areas in Westown master planned area and the downtown commercial area.

Planners with the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration assisted the Town of Middletown, Del. in incorporating mixed-use land use designations into their recently updated Comprehensive Plan. The orange areas on the map indicate mixed-use classifications.

Community visioning exercises can also build community consensus for future land use and development. Through a charrette process, the City of Dover and Dover Downtown Partnership created a Dover Transit Center Neighborhood Plan that discussed the desire for mixed-use development in downtown Dover.


Zoning the chief means of implementing a comprehensive plan, consisting of a written document and a map. It is a legal device that establishes zoning laws, establishes districts, and regulates:

  • The types of land uses permitted
  • The intensity or density of development
  • Height, bulk, and placement of buildings or structures
  • Other conditions deemed necessary to direct development

Once a jurisdiction updates or amends its comprehensive plan to provide a vision for mixed-use development, the zoning code and official map should be amended within 18 months, as per state law. Mixed-use zoning can be accomplished in two ways: 1) modifying existing zoning district designations to loosen allowable development under each or 2) creating new districts specifically designated to be for mixed-use development.

Many Delaware local governments have adopted or amended zoning code provisions to allow for mixed use development. For example, the City of Newark’s zoning code provides a mix ofmiddletown comprehensive plan commercial, residential, and institutional uses within several zoning districts. The City of Lewes’ zoning code permits a mix of uses in its Town Center, Town (Historic) Center, and Marine Commercial Zones. The provisions justify the need for mixed use to “strengthen connections between the town center and the City’s residential districts, create a pedestrian corridor…, provide for establishments…that are vital to a year-round working community, encourage a mix [of uses] to promote the economic stability of the area, and provide for apartment dwellings…but only on the stories above street level.”

The Town of Middletown has incorporated a number of the “Better Models” principles into its zoning code. One example is in the downtown area where the C-2 (Downtown Commercial) Zone encourages:

…a traditional downtown that reinforces the historic character and scale of Middletown and encourages a mixed use pedestrian environment. Development in this zone should be pedestrian-friendly. This character can be achieved through the use of sidewalks, street trees, public spaces, building massing, articulation and orientation, signage, land uses, traffic calming and scale and location of parking. Land uses should be both residential and nonresidential. Business should be neighborhood, community and tourist-serving including specialty retail, personal and professional services.

Another example in the zoning ordinance is the R-2 Zone, which allows traditional neighborhood design (TND) subdivisions to the list of permitted uses. To encourage compact design, the zone provides for reduced minimum lot sizes, lot widths, and building widths. Section 2 (68) defines a traditional neighborhood design as one that:

…incorporates various combinations of planting techniques providing for an integrated mix of housing types and sizes with a pedestrian-friendly layout, street trees, reduced setbacks, alleyways serving some of the lots, and other features consistent with such a community.

In addition to these examples, APA prepared a Model Mixed-Use Zoning District Ordinance.

The model zoning district ordinance achieves two key Smart Growth principles—a mix of land uses and compact building design. The provisions provide for a commercial zoning classification that allow for, rather than require, a vertical mix of commercial and residential uses within the same building. The intended physical pattern of development is reminiscent of the design of classic main streets within central business districts of older cities.

Community Designcommunity design

Form-based codes (FBCs) are a relatively new, innovative way of addressing community design. FBCs are geared toward achieving connected, vibrant, and walkable places that allow for a mix of uses. In 2009, New Castle County implemented a form-based code as a new Hamlets & Villages chapter within its existing Unified Development Code, to empower the development of denser new towns. New Castle County’s “Smart Code legislation” is designed 1) preserve open space and farmland, 2) provide of a variety of transportation choices, 3) allow for mixed uses, 4) support a range of housing opportunities and choices, 5) create walkable neighborhoods, 6) foster distinctive and attractive communities for a strong sense of place, 7) promote predictable, fair, and cost-effective development decisions, 8) direct development toward existing communities, and 9) provide compact building and efficient infrastructure design.

The newly planned community, the Town of Whitehall, is designed to meet aspects of New Castle County’s Smart Code. The Town of Whitehall’s master plan and its Architectural Pattern Book employs classic Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) principles, use of form-based codes, and incorporates a mix of uses within eight hamlets and villages.

The Town of Whitehall is planned to be developed on 1,555 acres of wetlands. Placemakers developed the plan for Whitehall and an aggressive outreach plan to increase interest in the development. The development of a town brand and subsequent social media strategy will lead to a targeted audience that will make up the town’s identity. By pairing a newly-founded identity with deliberate planning such as, walking trails, wetland and canal vistas, and walkable streets, the Town of Whitehall is well-positioned to become a livable and vibrant community.

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