Zoning for Prosperity

Streamlined Regulations and Urban Design Guidelines as an Economic Development Strategy


In the lore of urban America, Buffalo, NY, is often held up as a poster child for the post-industrial decline of the once mighty cities of the so-called Rust Belt. Founded on the eastern shore of Lake Erie in the late 1700s, Buffalo enjoyed more than a century of boom times that began with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and flourished until its once world-leading steel and other industries began to lose out to international competition in the late 1900s. The 8th largest American city in 1900, Buffalo hit a peak population of 580,000 in 1950.By the 2000 census, Buffalo had lost nearly half those residents, with a population closer to 293,000.

Today, roughly 14,000 vacant housing units mar Buffalo neighborhoods, and the city has demolished 4,000 dilapidated buildings this year alone, according to Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of Buffalo’s office of strategic planning. But Buffalo has one thing many other places do not have, Mayor Byron Brown says: “Excellent bones.” Indeed, few cities can boast a similar quantity of well laid-out, traditional neighborhoods and high-character architecture. The older parts of the city attract national and international interest for their walkable charm.

In those assets Mayor Brown figures he has located the seeds of economic revival. If the city can succeed in replicating that level of quality as neighborhoods change and redevelop, he and others there believe, Buffalo can expand its reputation as a great place to live and do business, thereby attracting more people and businesses. But to get there, Brown says, Buffalo has to throw out its zoning code and replace it with what the mayor calls a “Green Code”.

“We have been talking about reforming our antiquated, overly complex, non-user friendly zoning codes for quite some time,” Brown says. “It has not been updated in any meaningful way in 59 years. We want a code that forms the foundation of a new, place-based economic development strategy.” Conventional zoning, which focuses almost exclusively on separating land uses —residential from shops, business from institutional — mandates anything but traditional, walkable environments, and has been tarred as the DNA of placeless sprawl.

The “Green Code” will focus more on the form of neighborhoods, the urban design elements that go together to determine character — how far buildings are setback from the street, whether parking goes in front or back, how multi-story buildings step down to low-rise as they move away from a busy street. “We want design that will be walkable, will be built with materials that are environmentally stable, that will encourage public transportation. We will invest in a sense of place, around schools, parks, neighborhood shopping districts — the features that attract people to neighborhoods.”

While the Green Code moniker belongs to Mayor Brown, roughly 300 cities around the country have, in the last few years, begun to adopt similar “form-based codes,” usually as voluntary overlays for certain districts, but increasingly as mandatory guides to urban design. And nearly all of them have done so, at least in part, as a way to make themselves more attractive to economic development, according to Hazel Borys, a form-based codes expert with PlaceMakers consulting.

Good urban design both generates more tax revenue and saves money on infrastructure, Borys contends. “In general, zoning is written to drive a tax base,” she says. “Experience shows that walkable, compact, mixed-use, connected neighborhoods are going to be worth more over the long haul than sprawling, placeless areas.”

Local governments often chase the revenue from developments such as big-box retail — the Walmarts and Best Buys — only to find that those stores become obsolete after a period of years, after which the stores move or close, revenue plummets and the tax base never recovers. Well-designed, mixed-use town centers may see a variety of uses come and go over the years, but the core value remains as people continue to live, work or shop in the area. A recent study of property tax yields in Sarasota, Fla., found that compact, walkable areas— such as a downtown or Main-Street town center— produce several times as much revenue per acre as conventional strip shopping centers, big-box or other single-use development. At the same time, spread-out, automobile-oriented development costs about a third more in roadway, water and sewer infrastructure, many analyses have shown.

Some places — such as Taos, N.M., and Kona, Hawaii— depend on their urban charm to draw visitors and support an economy based on tourism. Borys, whose firm worked to develop form-based codes for both those places, said coding for good urban design has proved essential, as outside developers have threatened to introduce a standardized, car-oriented formula that undermine the character of such communities. “They want to preserve the existing character because they know that’s what generates the revenue, not sprawling strips that could be anywhere.”

For other places, where “sprawling strips” tended to dominate the landscape, form-based zoning reform may be part of the answer to restoring value to out-of-date commercial corridors. That was the approach taken in Arlington County, VA, to revitalize the Columbia Pike corridor connecting the county to Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1998, the county worked with a stakeholder organization to create a long-range plan for economic redevelopment, zoning and urban design reform and investment in transportation and other infrastructure. What emerged was a vision of gradual redevelopment that saw parking lots and large single-story buildings remade as a walkable corridor of mixed-use, multi-story edifices. After an extensive public involvement process, the county adopted a form-based overlay for Columbia Pike in 2003. Today, much of the envisioned redevelopment has occurred, to the point that local jurisdictions are pursing funds for a streetcar that will evolve a street from “cars only” to a more appealing and safe street for people on foot or bicycle.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the role that thoughtful planning and well-articulated development codes can play in recruiting and retaining corporations and entrepreneurs— especially for places that traditionally have had little in the way of either land use planning or economic development. Louisiana is a state with many such communities. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, 21 of 64 parishes (or counties) had no zoning ordinances on the books, and most did little or nothing to plan for growth and development. In trying to promote post-hurricane revitalization, the Louisiana Department of Economic Development recognized this as a serious impediment to recruiting investment from outside, says Boo Thomas, executive director of the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), a Baton Rouge nonprofit that works to help Louisiana communities plan for sustainable growth and development.

“They had done a survey and found that one of the largest impediments to recruiting industry was the lack of planning and consistent regulatory processes,” Thomas said. The department created an initiative called “development-ready” communities, and contracted with CPEX to develop model form-based codes that could be readily adapted to individual jurisdictions, most of which did not have resources to hire consultants to develop such codes on their own. With support from the National Association of REALTORS®, CPEX and consultants held dozens of community meetings and researched the traditional urban design in numerous Louisiana towns to develop the Louisiana Land Use Toolkit, which is now being implemented on a pilot basis in two parishes.

One of those is Tangipahoa Parish, about 45 miles north of New Orleans. A sleepy parish of 100,000 when Katrina hit, Tangipahoa suddenly saw an onslaught of new subdivisions to accommodate roughly 30,000 souls who moved there in the wake of the storm. With no zoning or comprehensive plan, parish residents could only watch as rapid development transformed the landscape. Since then the county hired its first planner and is now navigating the shoals of creating its first zoning ordinance as a test case of the Land Use Toolkit.

“After the storms we got inundated, with no codes in place. Anything could happen, and did,” says Alyson Lapuma, Tangipahoa’s first planning director.

Today, five years after the storms and in the midst of a prolonged recession, the parish is once again struggling to attract the right kind of economic growth, she adds. “Our director of economic development has told us we’ve lost businesses because they don’t want to come to an area where they don’t know what’s going to happen on either side of them. To me, economic development is the biggest reason to do this.”

Despite recent experiences, change still comes hard, Lapuma says. “Now that the Katrina development has gone, some people have the idea that we don’t want to do anything that might stop development, so we’ll take anything.”

For Buffalo, an older city with scads of accreted regulations, the task is both to streamline and simplify approvals, while ensuring that development proposals are shaped by a clear knowledge of what the community wants to see, says Mayor Brown.

“The new code will provide predictability for developers and residents alike. Developers and investors will know when they want to do a project that it is likely to be supported by the community,” he says.

The reform is critical to ensure the city can compete, Brown continues. “For the last 50 years Buffalo has lost population to the surrounding suburbs, and now the region as a whole is losing population. So one of the goals is to put us in a position where we more effectively compete with other cities and regions.”

The mayor acknowledges that the code alone, while necessary, is not sufficient to ensure residents and investors that the city’s neighborhoods will remain stable and well cared for. As one other element, the city is investing $10.4 billion to rehabilitate schools so that they are state-of-the-art facilities that can once again be sought-after neighborhood anchors. And the city has cut property taxes by 15 percent, with the expectation that hoped-for redevelopment will build the overall tax base.

There are signs the strategy may pay off. “The fastest growing neighborhood in the city is downtown,” Brown says, “where we’re converting an old warehouse of office buildings to apartments and condos. Part of our plan is to make it a 24/7 live, work, play environment. We seem to have new projects coming online despite the real estate downturn.”

Mehaffy, Buffalo’s strategic planning director, says he believes that success can be spread to other areas, in part via the Green Code.

“Buffalo took its hits, undoubtedly, in the late 70s and early 80s, and tens of thousands of jobs left,” Mehaffy says. “It took us a while to adjust but we are adjusting. And now we have a good city with great quality of life and people who are passionate about the city. You’re talking to a biased guy, but I have to say I think our economic prospects are good.”

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