Most self storage customers come from a three-mile radius surrounding a store. Likewise, the same focus on proximity is important to cities creating dense, urban neighborhoods where people can work, live and play.
Despite their shared goals, such transit-oriented developments (TODs) tend to prohibit self storage as a usage. In newly-developing urban districts, city leaders love to include restaurants and apartments, office and service retail. But they are failing to see that self storage is a useful component of such dense urban lifestyles. In many cases, city zoning laws for TODs outright ban the inclusion of self storage in such new developments.
“We feel this is a practice that needs to be improved, because there is a lot of need for self storage from small business and residents in TOD areas,” said Dr. Allen Yang, chief scientist and sustainability officer for U-Haul International, Inc. “We need to tell them that self storage is important to the needs of their community. It’s a sustainable business, and it should be included in TOD zoning practices.”
U-Haul is out to change that fact and wants city leaders to understand how self storage helps communities develop sustainable urban districts. U-Haul has partnered with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University in Detroit to outline zoning accommodations that would permit self storage facilities in transit-oriented developments.
TODs are compact, walkable, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities centered on high quality train systems. In the US, communities such as Arlington County, Virginia, parts of New Jersey, Chicago and even Salt Lake City have pioneered TODs to reduce suburban sprawl and encourage higher density developments. A TOD typically includes a central transit stop, such as a train station or bus stop, surrounded by a high-density mixed-use area.
U-Haul’s focus on TODs grew from the company’s focus on sustainable construction practices. U-Haul and its parent company, AMERICO Real Estate, have been prolific in their effort to repurpose empty big-box retail stores into self storage as well as saving historic buildings from demolition and converting them to storage. U-Haul measures the environmental impact of its adaptive reuse projects, calculating the amount of energy saved by not purchasing new steel and concrete and by keeping construction debris out of landfills.
Forming a Partnership
U-Haul renovated the seven-story National Biscuit Co. factory in Detroit into storage after the behemoth of a building had been vacant for years and become a magnet for vagrancy.
It was through that work in Detroit that U-Haul developed a partnership with Wayne State University’s urban studies department, which takes students to tour the nearby adaptive reuse project. On the TOD project, U-Haul funded Wayne State’s participation in research to examine how zoning can be used to accommodate self storage in TODs. The first task is to make TOD planning audiences more receptive to the self storage industry.
The U-Haul and Wayne State team makes the point that, by their nature, residences in TODs tend to be smaller apartments, leaving households with storage challenges. A 2020 Self Storage Association Demand Study showed that one of every 10 households in the United States is currently renting a self storage unit; yet storage facilities have traditionally been located in areas zoned for medium to low-density development. It’s a more recent trend for self storage to be located in more pedestrian-friendly settings.
“I think there’s a notion that self storage is something you drive to,” said Dr. Rayman Mohamed, professor and chair of the department of urban studies and planning at Wayne State University. “Probably a related comment is that TODs tend to be very dense and tend to be on high value land. For those two reasons, the notion of using space for storage is a hard mental barrier to overcome.”
While city planners may perceive self storage as a business where customers unload cars or trucks with belongings, Yang said research shows that after the initial move-in, many self storage customers return to their unit regularly to add or subtract items, as often as once a week.
“Many of our current facilities are very close to public transit and light rail, because that is part of U-Haul’s practice and internal policy,” Yang said. “We found many customers could take public transit or Uber or Lyft or a bike. That makes self storage ideal for a TOD community.”
To convince local planning officials that storage is a valid use in TODs, U-Haul and Wayne State are looking at ordinances that strictly prohibit the use. Many cities wrote their ordinances with guidance from a program called SmartCode, which includes standards for the mix of uses, types and orientations of buildings in TODs. The SmartCode does not include self storage in TOD communities.
“Some city planners even agree with us that their ordinance does not give enough consideration to the need for self storage,” Yang said. “We want to start with the fundamentals and let cities realize it’s time to make a change.”
The team’s research found only a handful of cities permitting self storage in their zoning codes in TODs, including Silver Spring, Maryland, and another in Atlanta.
“We have found that especially in urban areas, the trend is the land price becomes expensive,” Yang said. “The cost of leasing an apartment or living in urban areas, per square foot increases. Residents do not have a lot of storage space. Self storage is a cost-effective solution.”