Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Some notes on zoning
What kind of development we have in a given plot of land is in a sense the core of smart growth. The whole idea behind smart growth is improving land use; for all the bells and whistles of transportation, energy use, historical conservation, regional coordination and tax structure, the end product we look for is having cities and towns that are distributed rationally.
This means that besides the big picture, in the tax structure, transportation and regional politics, where the rubber meets the road is actually when towns decide zoning. There is no much point of having a wonderful commuter rail service that serves many towns and cities if zoning regulations don´t allow any kind of meaningful density besides the stations. We can have a solid, rational property tax system, but it won´t go anywhere if towns only allow two acre plots no matter what.
When zoning, however, towns and cities face an odd dilemma. They want to set the rules in a way that they get the kind of development that makes sense for the town and its voters. At the same time, they don´t want to be to strong handed, behaving like the proverbial central planner that pretends to know best. The same way that developers can overbuild or be tempted to use very low densities to maximize their profits, a city council can be tempted to engage in extravagant urban renewal or oversized big box development that do more harm than good.
Planners can and should try to strike a balance between these two potential pitfalls, be it by self restraint, be it by clever regulation. There are many different ways to do that; a fairly simple and elegant one is form based zoning.
The framework of a form based code is that the city plan only establishes how the town should look like, but not how each building is used. A city plan would say that a certain plot needs to have for instance a three store building with nice windows occupying 90% of the space, but will not say if it should be an office building, department store, a condo or a urban mansion. The city essentially only decides the feel and density, not the distribution; the marketplace will probably do a better job deciding what use makes the most sense.
Obviously, the code can be as detailed as the city ones, but it doesn´t need to cover everything. On historical districts we will have strong restrictions, while in less sensitive areas we won´t waste time regulating the use of neons on storefronts. In Connecticut there are some towns that use this kind of code sporadically; New Haven has a system similar to form based coding for the Whitney Avenue corridor. Most towns and cities in the state, however, retain the inflexible and outdated limits on land use that paired with the current fiscal incentives usually make little sense.