New zoning codes – the District is not alone Reply

What do Boulder, Chicago, Denver, Fort Collins, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and St. Petersburg have in common with the District of Columbia? The answer is that these cities either recently completed, or substantially updated, their existing zoning codes. In addition to those cities, Baltimore is currently nearing the finish line for its major zoning rewrite, and Los Angeles has recently started to update its code. Is there a reason behind this seeming rash of new codes?

As is the case in the District, the previous zoning codes in these cities were decades old and unwieldy. Most of the codes were written in the years following World War II, when separating land uses was all the rage (in many cases, the encroachment of “noxious” uses into residential areas led to zoning restrictions which separated residential, commercial and manufacturing uses). In recent years, these old codes have proved to be ill-suited to the needs of evolving cities:

• The American economy has largely transitioned away from heavy manufacturing, removing many of the noxious uses from many cities.

• Mixed-use zoning is increasingly prevalent in American cities and many residents want to live near where they work and shop.

• Attitudes toward the private automobile are changing. The lynch-pin of many existing zoning codes was the supremacy of the private automobile, and zoning regulations (much like Federal and local transportation and land use policies in general) reinforced the notion that everyone should aspire to suburban living, which required an automobile to meet even the most basic of needs. Now, many people prefer to live a car-free or car-light lifestyle because there are a wider variety of transportation options, to be more environmental friendly, or just to save the expense and bother of car-ownership.

• Finally, there is the changing demographics of the country, with more retirees and recent graduates seeking to live in walkable communities built as mixed use developments that would have been frowned on by the old codes.

In revamping their codes, these jurisdictions used somewhat differing approaches specifically suited to each place — from conventional use-based zoning to form-based codes that replace use districting with design controls. However, the common link is that these cities sought to replace unclear and antiquated codes with streamlined versions which better allow for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, and transit-oriented development.

A few of the most recently developed codes, including those created by Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Miami, merit a closer look. Over the next few days, we are going to post a summary of each. First up in this series – Philly!


First stop – Philadelphia – Zoning Matters

Philadelphia’s new zoning code, adopted in August 2012, reflects a five-year effort by the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ to revise its 1962 code. Guidelines for the new code included:
• Providing consistency and improving usability of the zoning code;
• Making future construction and development more predictable;
• Encouraging high quality, positive development;
• Preserving the character of existing neighborhoods; and
• Involving the public in development decisions.

Center City Philadelphia (Photo:  Massimo Catarinella)

Center City Philadelphia (Source: Massimo Catarinella)

Philadelphia’s 1962 code, which included a myriad of amendments and overlay maps, was considered by many to be antiquated, overly cumbersome, and difficult to understand; the new code is designed to be fairer and more predictable. Philadelphia’s new code is streamlined and written in plain language. It includes charts, graphics, and illustrations to make it easier for developers, community groups and individual homeowners to use. Philadelphia’s new code improves cross-references and separates various zoning controls, with Districts in one chapter, Uses in another chapter, and Dimensional Controls in another – reducing the need for users to flip back and forth to find the appropriate section. The new code reduces the number of Zoning Districts, creates a few new Districts, and includes a less obtuse naming system. Similar to the District’s ZRR, individual uses are grouped into general Use Categories and Subcategories rather than specifying each type of use permitted.

Philadelphia’s new code reflects profound changes in how the city’s residents live and work. The code is intended to allow for sustainable growth while preserving the city’s well-established neighborhoods. It encourages density, pedestrian friendly commercial corridors, transit oriented development, and waterfront access. For example, the code permits more density to be built in Center City’s commercial district and the waterfront by right (without a variance). Additionally, the code seeks to maintain the city’s pedestrian friendly streetscapes. For example, row houses with front garages are now not permitted on most streets.

Philadelphia’s new code is similar to the District’s in that it encourages development near transit nodes, promotes walking and bicycling, and reduces vehicle parking requirements in an effort to reduce the cost of housing by separating the cost of parking so that those who don’t use cars are not forced to pay for parking to be included in their housing costs. For example, under Philadelphia’s new code, developers are required to provide only one parking space for every three apartments, (parking spaces were previously required at a one-to-one ratio under the old code). The new code allows developers and residents more flexibility in meeting parking requirements by permitting adjustments to the required number of spaces for shared parking and reduced-need populations (including seniors or disabled persons), as well as for proximity to mass transit. Like the District’s proposed code, Philadelphia’s code encourages interior and perimeter landscaping of surface parking lots. Additionally, Philadelphia’s code provides parking credits for car-share parking spaces and bicycle parking.

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