Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Is Campus Zoning Due for a Shake-Up?

It's no secret that anchor institutions, like colleges, universities, and hospitals, are vital to the economic and cultural health of many communities. And it's also no secret that these institutions and their host communities don't always see eye to eye on plans for campus growth or change.

In the November issue of Zoning Practice, "Zoning for Eds and Meds, Joseph DeAngelis, AICP, and I make the point that anchor institutions are neither static nor uniform. Consequently, planners who serve communities that host major institutional campuses would be wise to take note of how demographic and technological trends may shape the campus of the future.

Trends Affecting Campus Usage

Long-term declines in U.S. birthrates, combined with recent declines in immigration, mean that the total number of college-aged residents will drop 15 percent between 2025 and 2029. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has accelerated the increased use of remote learning and online alternatives to traditional degree programs. In combination, these trends may lead to significantly decreased demand for space on some college and university campuses.

For health-care campuses, the increased use of telehealth and standalone outpatient procedure facilities are likely to reduce the total number of visits to many hospital campuses. This is true, even factoring in the aging of the U.S. population.

Major educational and health-care institutions have helped many communities navigate the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In exchange, the cities, towns, and counties that host these anchor institutions often take a light touch when it comes to campus zoning.

Approaches to Campus Zoning

There are two common approaches to zoning for educational and health-care campuses. Cities, towns, and counties can require or allow anchor institutions to submit master development plans, which, once approved, govern land-use and development on the institution's campus and planned expansion areas. Or they may establish special base or overlay zoning districts for institutional campuses that include districtwide dimensional, site or building design, or performance standards.

Some communities blend these approaches by adopting a special base or overlay campus district that authorizes educational or health-care institutions to apply for a deviation from the district's development standards by submitting a master plan. Both common zoning approaches are, generally, more interested in the transition between campus and community than with the land-use mix or built form of the campus interior.

So far, few communities have mapped form-based zoning districts to educational and health-care campuses (Denver being a noteworthy exception). But as some campuses look to shrink their physical footprints, form-based codes may prove to be a useful tool for managing this change.

By focusing on the desirable future built form, rather than specific permissible uses, a form-based code can help a previously self-contained campus become better integrated into its surrounding community. If an anchor institution chooses to sell off land or buildings, form controls can promote adaptive reuse or redevelopment projects that help weave the remaining campus into the fabric of the community.

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Top image: Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia (Source: VCU Capital News Service / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0))

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA.

November 12, 2021

By David Morley, AICP