Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Zoning - You snooze, you lose

For most people zoning is a big snoozer. Until they want to do something with their piece of property and zoning stands in the way. Or somebody wants to rezone something nearby and the change seems undesirable. Zoning is the place where private property rights and public interest intersect and clash.
Stuck in Council since 2013: Transform Baltimore

2016 is a big year in the City because after some 10 years of work "Transform Baltimore", a completely new zoning code is still in the womb waiting to be born. The ones to make this happen are the current Mayor and City Council who have been at this for years and are intimately familiar with the affair. 2017 will see a new Mayor and a largely new City Council and the thought that the debate would begin again from scratch is deeply unsettling. Most prefer, that the current council would get off its tush and finally pass the "transform" bill in front of them. This may still happen, but it needs still a big push. However, there is no push in site. On the Rewrite website specifically created for the zoning effort the most recent news are from 2014 and lead to a broken link. The timeline for hearings ends in 2013 when the bill was introduced to the city council.
Public interest in Transform Baltimore at CPHa in 2011

But developers and citizens still hope for the new zoning code. It is desired for its better reflection of public interest and for being more predictable. But the devil is in the details and the Council seem to have gotten stuck i just too much detail and in hundreds of amendments.
The Baltimore City Zoning Code was last comprehensively updated in 1971. At that time, the focus was on auto-oriented development, separation of uses, and preserving the City’s heavy manufacturing base. Over the past 40 years, the economic realities and design goals of the City have evolved, and the 1971 Code is no longer able to move Baltimore forward. (from the City Zoning bill)
In the County 2016 is the year of the quadrennial Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP), a procedure as cumbersome as its name. Every four year all of  Baltimore County's zoning is up for grabs in a procedure going over two years from initial suggestions to the council or Planning department to deliberations by staff, public hearings, Planning Board, more public hearings and the Council.
Fancy graphics hardly make the topic less dreary: County zoning

The idea behind doing re-zoning only every four years is to get a better bigger picture of all the changes than a piecemeal approach would allow. It also is supposed to make the process more transparent for all. While these arguments seem plausible in theory, the reality is that the big comprehensive push seems to be an invitation to re-zone that in other jurisdictions with re-zoning case by case never seems to be so pronounced. Anybody can propose zoning changes, whether they own a piece of land or even want to do anything with it. The result is that there always are massive amounts of rezoning to digest all at once. The County has eschewed the radical reformation of its code that the city is still trying to digest and essentially works with a aged, unwieldy and outdated code that does not represent modern thinking about a suburban landscape that would be less use segregated and sprawly.

One of the reforms the County Council allowed was the 2012 introduction of an overlay zone called Neighborhood Commons, another word for open space. County Council members have freely applied that new zoning category in their respective districts to protect owned open spaces and amended the bill to also include County owned spaces that were not formally declared parks, such as the spaces around schools or other County property. The occasion for this came when the County Executive embarked on selling the Dundalk North Point Government Center to private developers to improve the County's budget, a project still stuck in a quagmire.
Hearings like this 2012 CZMP hearing make public participation an
endurance test

The new proposed City zoning  code finally would also include a zoning category for open space. It is an interesting fact, that in all the years since zoning was first enacted, parks and green spaces never had their own use category or protection, in spite of the beautiful parks that are common in the City, from urban squares such as Lafayette or Franklin Square to the big natural parks like Leakin Park with large more urban parks like Druid Park or Patterson Park in between.

Zoning strives to make land use predictable, something that residents and developers like. At the same time, zoning should be flexible enough in a rapidly changing world to accommodate change and new uses that often were not even known when a code was written, just think maker spaces, tool libraries, incubator hubs, artist live work spaces or food trucks.
December 2015: CPHA and Bikemore have not yet given up

Zoning, invented for the industrial city with the goal of separating poisonous industries from residential quarters for public health, safety and welfare was eventually refined and abused to become a tool of minute separation, segregation and homogenization that ultimately led to the separated suburb and city that we see today.

To this day, the two entities are going about their future in very different ways even though they both have increasingly similar problems.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles here:
Transform Baltimore bogged down with no end in sight (8/2015)
Should the Zoning Code include design guidelines (1/2012)

Links:
The draft City bill can be found here
Rewrite Summary Powerpoint
How Zoning made segregation worse. CityLab 2016
By skipping the visioning step and a blueprint of a future Baltimore, the re-zoning here fell into the near vacuum of the business plan like comp plan that revealed almost nothing in terms of a physical vision of Baltimore's future.Soon the new zoning code effort degenerated into  what one could describe as a modern translation of the old code and its zones. (From my January 2012 article)