Zoning Practice — November 2007

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Jeff Hirt and Joe Sellars, co-authors of the October 2007 Zoning Practice article "Goodbye Main Street?"

Question from Yolanda Jackson, City of Dallas, Office of Economic Initiatives:

What is the number one major obstacle related to zoning for redeveloping the CBD's Main Street? Are there some zoning tools applicable to this subject that will discourage vacant storefronts?

Answer from authors Jeff Hirt and Joe Sellars:

There are numerous aspects of a zoning code that can affect the viability of the downtown, depending on the community and the code you're working with. There is however one overarching theme in this regard — zoning codes across the country are vastly oriented to more suburban development patterns with less attention to areas like downtowns. This includes everything from setbacks to parking requirements to open space dedication to density. Many forward-thinking communities have recognized this by adapting their zoning codes and creating plans over time that attempt to accommodate redevelopment downtown, some successfully and some with limited success. While there is an extensive list of zoning-related obstacles to downtown redevelopment, we'll highlight a few of the major ones we often encounter in our work around the country as a land use consulting firm.

In just about every community, the ability to accommodate parking downtown is substantially different than most other areas. Yet many communities have parking requirements that apply across the board — whether it's a suburban strip mall, a neighborhood commercial district, or a downtown the size of Dallas's. Zoning code strategies to combat this include reduced parking ratios, encouragement for shared parking (particularly for businesses with different peak hours — e.g., banks and bars), and the ability to administratively waive parking requirements downtown to a certain limit.

Open Space/Landscaping
Like parking, many zoning codes have landscaping (e.g., percent of site) and open space/parkland (dedication or set aside) requirements more geared for suburban built environments. These requirements can be difficult (if not impossible) for redevelopment projects to achieve downtown given site constraints. Communities around the country have gotten creative and reduced requirements like these with tradeoffs. For instance, stating a project may have reduced landscaping/open space if certain amenities are provided (e.g., street furniture, artwork, rooftop gardens, etc.) has proved effective in many communities for downtown redevelopment.

Design Standards/Streetscape/Uses
Many zoning codes do not recognize that having a vibrant downtown must include an increased emphasis on building design and the character of the streetscape, particularly for the pedestrian experience. Many planners also seem to feel that mandated mixed-use (e.g., residential above commercial) will in itself create enough round-the-clock activity for a vibrant downtown. This is certainly a critical component, but it's effective only when done in tandem with certain development standards. Planners and code drafters should seek to maximize complimentary uses and recognize that residential uses (i.e., apartments and condominiums) very rarely, if ever, provide enough market support for the commercial uses in a mixed use project. To be truly successful the commercial component must attract visitors from the outside. To do that, zoning and urban design regulations should strive to enliven the street. Pedestrian-friendly amenities such as outdoor seating, front facades that open onto the sidewalk, and other design components help buildings to interact with the street and draw attention from those who live outside the area. Offices might be placed on the second floor, where they can serve as a buffer between ground-floor retail and restaurant-type uses and the upper-floor residential uses.

Procedural Flexibility
Procedures for obtaining zoning approvals often times do not recognize the unique challenges redevelopment downtown presents. The zoning code and design review processes, therefore, should be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of development plans and options rather than forcing development plans to always conform to the letter of the law, even when the law seems progressive and creative from the planner's perspective. The planning literature is full of ideas for revitalizing downtowns, and local officials should have enough leeway to recognize that often the best-fitting ones are not in the city's current code. Menu-based approaches and alternative equivalent compliance techniques can be especially helpful. For instance, Austin's Mixed-Use Design Standards mandate that certain buildings choose from a list of amenities, each worth a certain amount of points. Such amenities include upgraded building materials and facade articulation.