Coding for the Future: Casting Off Outdated Regulations, Cities Reinvent Zoning for a Changing Marketplace

America’s long “suburban moment” began just after World War II, when city after city began adopting zoning codes that became the DNA of an urban form we would later dub “suburbia.” The strict separation of uses — single-family residential from multifamily, office park from retail center, etc. — all connected by car. As residents began to leave central cities for these kinds of places, many of those cities doubled down on suburban-style zoning in a vain attempt to stem the ebb tide.

Today, many parts of the country are enjoying something of an urban moment. Not only did traditional, walkable urban neighborhoods hold their value during the recession, many were the first to rebound and today are intensely sought after. New residential construction is predominantly in multifamily housing in urban locations.

The millennial generation is famously putting off acquiring drivers’ licenses and vehicles and navigating instead by smart phone, bicycle and transit, and gravitating toward places that make it easy to do so.

At the same time, however, many cities have discovered that their graying zoning codes are an impediment to capitalizing on this urban energy. For the first time in decades, they are adopting new methods of shaping development that encourage mixing, rather than separating, uses and that sacrifice less urban space to the automobile. Fast-growing tech magnets like Austin and Raleigh are looking to manage growth in smart ways while meeting young workers’ demand for urban neighborhoods that are walk-able and bikeable. Los Angeles, long synonymous with auto-driven sprawl, is taking steps to redraw development rules in order to encourage, rather than outlaw, walkable development. Older industrial cities like Cincinnati and Buffalo hope to lure tech-oriented young talent to town while reversing the suburban exodus of decades past.

To do so, they look to build on the character of their traditional neighborhoods, casting off or dramatically updating the suburban-style zoning codes they adopted in the post-war era.

“Every city I talk to wants to update their codes to compete economically,” said Colin Scarff, principal of Code Studio in Austin, Texas, who is consulting on a number of such efforts. “Getting the development regulations right can put you ahead of your competitors by making it easier to build the kinds of places that meet the growing demand for urban living.”

Cincinnati’s New Vision

Cincinnati is among those taking the most comprehensive and bold steps, several experts said. They are moves born of a realization that continuing old habits was unlikely to reverse years of population loss, and that the city’s good, urban bones were a huge asset to build upon, said Roxanne Qualls, a former Cincinnati mayor and city council member who helped spur the city to develop a new vision for redevelopment and the regulatory reform to make it happen.

“Smaller cities like Cincinnati are really trying to capture more of the market, to stop people from moving out aggressively from the core, and attract residents in the numbers that spur the necessary regeneration,” Qualls said. “Our older neighborhoods are great, but they had been degraded over time by a real auto-oriented form of development.”

The effort began nearly seven years ago with a three-year process to craft the first new comprehensive plan in 30 years, said Charles Graves, the city’s director of planning and building. City officials quickly realized that implementing the vision that arose from the input of hundreds of citizens would require scrapping or rewriting existing codes and policies. In 2010 the city applied for, and won, a $2.4-million planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to “develop an integrated Unified Development Code to replace current disjointed and outdated development regulations and policies,” including the zoning code, subdivision regulations, building codes, and street-design policies, according to HUD. At the same time, the city was pursuing a streetcar that would become a spine for walkable neighborhoods.

Among the most ambitious resulting moves was a decision to shelve an outmoded zoning code that prohibited all but a single use in any given area in favor of a more “form-based” development code. The new code describes the function of a given street or neighborhood, and the relative size and arrangement of buildings that should serve that function.

“Form takes precedence over use,” Graves said. “If you have an acre of land in a neighborhood business district, the form-based code would say you could have a building no taller than 6 stories, with parking in the back, the entrance at the street, and the first floor is usable for commercial. But the building’s uses could be office, apartment, condo or hotel, or a mix.”

The new zoning designations were developed in large part by studying Cincinnati’s own traditional neighborhoods and distilling the elements that residents and stakeholders appreciated most, according to Dan Parolek, principal of Opticos Design and a consultant on the form-based code. “It was easy to extract the DNA of these places to embed them in the new form-based code,” he said.

Along with a form-based code, which was approved for use last year by a unanimous city council, Cincinnati also is reducing the parking requirements that were prohibiting smaller infill projects or adaptive reuse of older structures, Graves said. In addition, the city has adopted a “complete streets” plan that seeks to convert overly wide, high-speed city streets into more pleasant corridors that are safe for walking and biking.

Buffalo’s Bold Moves

Buffalo, similarly pressed to find a new economic niche in the post-industrial era, has taken a similarly comprehensive track with its ambitious Green Code. Under Mayor Byron

W. Brown, the city has pursued a vision of “economic resurgence, community renewal, and environmental repair” that has triggered a wholesale rethinking of its development codes and land-use maps.

“Buffalo is a place that has struggled in recent times, but is really pushing the envelope with the Green Code,” said Scarff, whose Code Studio has been part of the consulting team. “They’ve rethought everything.”

The city’s new land-use plan contains specific plans for the waterfront and the redevelopment of industrial brownfield areas.

The Green Code includes an update of the city’s 60-yearold zoning code with a new form-based code, but it goes farther still.

“Most communities aren’t willing to revisit their zoning maps,” Scarff said. “You can spend a lot of time and effort redoing the zoning ordinance, but if you don’t change the map, it has minimal effect. People are still operating under old rules. Buffalo has gone after the whole map and the text at the same time with a real emphasis on mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development.”

And, at the same time, city leaders have advanced a nearly unprecedented proposal to eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide. “That’s an extremely bold step,” Scarff added.

Raleigh’s Response to Fast Growth

Raleigh is a fast-growing city in an even faster-growing region. From around 300,000 residents at the start of the 2000s, the city has swelled to more than 420,000, on the way to a projected 600,000 six years from now.

“Our big question going into our comprehensive plan rewrite was, ‘Where are we going to put these people?’” said Travis Crane, Raleigh’s planning and zoning administrator. Under the city’s low-density zoning, he added, “If we continued to grow under existing regulations, we’d build out in 20 years, using all the land we had.”

Raleigh’s existing zoning code was adopted in 1959, written when the city was a modest southern burg on the cusp of suburban growth. With amendments over the years, the zoning book “grew to 700 to 800 verbose pages,” Crane said. “It became difficult to interpret. There were 22 triggers for discretionary review, which added months or years of complexity to development projects. The quality of projects suffered because of the costs of getting entitlements to develop.”

The 1959 code limited most buildings to a single story and a single use, with setbacks from the street that rendered walking difficult or unpleasant. “Vertical, mixed use in our traditional form was made illegal, and building that way required overlay districts and other cumbersome strategies.”

The city’s new Unified Development Ordinance is meant to simplify the development approvals by using a form-based code and designating seven “growth areas” where multistory buildings and traditional town-center features are called for. Accounting for about 30 percent of the city’s land area, the growth areas include downtown and zones around regional malls and other centers that will be linked by transit, including a possible rail line that is under discussion, Crane said. The remainder of the city will stay as mostly low-density, single-family neighborhoods for the foreseeable future.

Today, multistory residential buildings are “the development de jure” in Raleigh, Crane said. “We’ve seen an influx of technology companies such as Red Hat and Citrix coming to our warehouse district. [North Carolina] State is a big player in the city. So the housing is attracting a millennial workforce and students.” Raleigh hopes that its new growth vision will continue to attract and keep residents in well-designed urban neighborhoods for many years to come.

Los Angeles Joins the Competition

Los Angeles is pursuing similar goals for somewhat different reasons, Scarff said. “They are somewhat concerned that they might begin losing out to cities like Denver and Austin and a little worried about where they might be in 50 years. There’s a real push to increase the city’s competitiveness in the world marketplace.”

With little choice but to build up after decades of building out, Los Angeles has been pursuing a smart-growth vision along with its burgeoning rail systems for several years. But its underlying land-use policies and development codes remain frozen in amber, says Erick Lopez, a city planner in the code studies unit at LA’s department of city planning. “The structure of the code was put in place in 1946 and the large majority of the city is still subject to it. We have great policies and visions, but the code was never changed to make them a reality.”

The city has just launched a sweeping review and update dubbed Re:Code LA, complete with a heavy duty advisory board including several battle-hardened neighborhood activists, and Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at UCLA who is perhaps the nation’s leading expert on parking policies and their affect on city life. That may be one reason “we are considering letting the market decide how much parking is needed,” Lopez said.

Edward Starkie is an economic analyst with Urban Advisors, based in Portland, Ore. He provides market research to city planners and urban designers as they craft plans that they hope will attract the right mix of residents, retail, restaurants and office to make successful, vibrant places. He has two critical pieces of advice for cities thinking about taking on an overhaul of their development strategy.

“What I try to tell planners who get excited about doing really neat stuff is that no matter what you’re coding, you have to ensure that there is a public vision that is agreed upon,” he said. “If not, every time someone wants to do something, it opens up a long debate about what’s happening to the neighborhood. And you have to have buy-in from the real estate community, because they are the ones who have to have a grasp of what you’re after and they have to inform it, or developers will say they can’t make it work, or REALTORS® will say you can’t lease that kind of property there.”

As a REALTOR® herself, former Mayor Qualls would not dispute that last point. In Cincinnati, at least, “All the theory gets confirmed when I talk to clients,” she said. “They say they want a walkable area that’s dynamic, where they can get to restaurants and shopping and access public transportation.” Today, that can be hard to find outside a handful of high-demand, classic neighborhoods. But a new vision and revamped, simplified development rules are laying out the red carpet for those who want to build on the “good bones” of many other sleeping beauties. That will help Cincinnati find renewed vigor, and she said, “I get to sell more of the city that I love.”

David A. Goldberg is the communications director for Transportation for America, a nationwide coalition based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for transportation policy reform. In 2002, Mr. Goldberg was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University, where he studied urban policy. 

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