The Unified Development Ordinance has the potential for profoundly altering the character of our city. It is supposed to incorporate existing ordinances, design review, and other elements of land use decisions to create mega document. In addition, it is supposed to incorporate an overall green strategy to emphasize environmentally sound principles.
Unfortunately, due to its hugely ambitious premise, it means rewriting all of our zoning codes rather than tweaking them. While the goal is laudable, it comes with the threat that with the right political influence the damage could be significant.
In the interest of full disclosure, two principals of Behan Planning and Development, the consulting firm that the city has contracted with to write the UDO, are John and Cynthia Behan who are neighbors. I like and respect them both.
Unfortunately, reading their recently released “zoning diagnostic report” was a difficult and worrying experience.
Recently there was a public meeting on the report which I was unable to attend. At the meeting it was disclosed that the original report submitted to the city by BDP was one hundred and ninety-one pages. The city’s planning staff rejected this report. According to John Behan, his firm then worked with the planning staff to rewrite the document. The result was a new document that was reduced to fifty-four pages.
At the meeting, Matthew Jones, an attorney who specializes in land-use law, asked for a copy of the original. At the time he did not get an answer. On September 28th, I went to the planning office to seek my own copy. Lindsey Gonzalez works in the outer office and takes requests for documents. Ms. Gonzalez is always very gracious and following my request, left me to find out whether the document would be available. I waited at least fifteen minutes and when she finally returned she told me that she had been instructed to take my telephone number and I would be contacted. As of the posting of this blog entry (October 7), no one has called me.
From the very beginning of this process, I have expressed concern about its opaqueness. The contract was quite ambitious. It required the establishment of an advisory board comprised of representatives of the city’s departments. It also had a time line that involved meetings throughout the community and a continual output of documents with specific dates meant to keep the community educated as to the progress of the project.
The advisory committee was never established and emails to the Mayor, who assumed the official role as project manager, asking why this part of the contract was not being adhered to were never answered. In addition, after meeting with the Chamber of Commerce the planned meetings with the neighborhoods and community groups were dropped. Instead, there was a single “charrette” at which the public was invited to meet with Behan Design and Planning (BDP) and representatives of the planning staff and that was it.
Months went by with the scheduled steps of the project, as posted on the UDO website, missed.
In defense of BDP, the project was badly underfunded. Rewriting the entire city’s codes with ample input and transparency would have been a very expensive endeavor. This problem was never publicly acknowledged and addressed. One cannot help but contrast the UDO process with the many hours of public meetings, all recorded and posted on the city website, that went into the writing of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Many important controversial items were explored in great detail, and it all happened under the public eye.
The “zoning diagnostic report” was supposed to be based on the issues with our existing codes as identified by what is now euphemistically called “the stakeholders”. In the case of this project that should represent pretty much everyone. In fact, many of the “issues” addressed by this report appear here for the first time, and there is not any indication on the UDO website’s record of public input of any “stakeholder” ever mentioning them. John Behan was kind enough to return my call and when I asked him where all these new issues came from he told me they came from the Planning Staff.
Since the process of rewriting the diagnostic report was so opaque and the original document submitted by BPD is unavailable, it is impossible to know how much of this document was actually written by the planning department. Our planning staff, unfortunately, is more often seen as facilitators and as a resource for the builder/developer/real estate industry than advocates for the protection of our neighborhoods. This document should have been a fully accessible report written in a way that the average citizen in our city could understand it. Instead it identifies “issues” in a vague, cryptic manner and produces similarly vague and cryptic solutions to these “issues” leading to many concerns about how these proposed changes could impact development in the city.
Let’s just take two examples:
*The document identifies as a community issue that the roof lines in the center of our city are too uniform. There is nothing in the public record on the UDO site that anyone raised roof lines as an issue. To address this problem the “diagnostic” recommends that we dispense with the current specific height limit and instead create a new limit based on the number of floors a building may have. Leaving the height of buildings based upon the nebulous concept of “floors” invites excess.
*The document proposes that in order to reduce the need to apply to the city zoning board for variances, something called “neighborhood context” should be used to determine lot sizes instead of the current specific requirements on lot size. One could speculate for a long time as to what “neighborhood context” is. You will not find any explanation in the document. A well written document would have not only explained what this concept is but provided at least a discussion of how it might be implemented that would allay the worry that neighborhoods with a few small non-conforming lots could end up with tiny subdivisions.
Tellingly there are also two items missing from this document.
An issue that came up repeatedly at the public “charrette” was the frustration people felt over the routine violations of existing ordinances. As expressed by an attorney for a developer several years ago, the general policy is “do it now and ask for forgiveness later.” You will not find this identified as an issue in the diagnostic report and therefore of course there is no attempt to help solve this all too common problem in our city.
Another issue not discussed is the problem with the canyon effect of certain blocks downtown. Architects and planners recognize that a balance between the height of buildings and the width of the street and sidewalk is essential to creating a quality environment that will attract pedestrians. The “diagnostic” is concerned about the problem of uniform roof lines. It also identifies a problem of the lack of transition from the tall buildings in the city core and the adjacent neighborhoods (you know that they will want to be building higher buildings in the neighborhoods for a smooth transition and not lowering them in the core) but there is not a word about the obvious problems of the impact of tall buildings and narrow streets. I should note that no one referenced this problem at the “charrette” or in the documents submitted to the UDO. Still, if they are going to be concerned about roof lines, it is stunning that people whose profession is planning would fail to acknowledge the far more serious problem of having streets that pedestrians avoid.
I have excerpted from the actual “Diagnostic” a number of items to illistrate the problems with the document.
This is a link to the full document. Below are just a few more examples of the problems with the document. Link to Diagnostic
Issue: The Transect Zones have limited as-of-right uses [what does this mean?] leading to unnecessary work for land use boards and increased cost for applicants [ What are examples of the unnecessary work that the boards and applicants are going to be freed of?]
Potential Solution: Consider including some uses as Permitted or Permitted with Site Plan Approval [Aren’t the uses already decided by the Comprehensive Plan?].
Issue: The City has encountered difficulties in fulfilling two-story usable space intent [What is usable space intent?].
Potential Solution: Revise and clarify the intent and performance criteria of the minimum two story requirement.
Issue: City needs to provide better clarification of mix of uses at a neighborhood and project level [What Confusion Does This Refer To?].
Potential Solution: Revise intent of Transect Zones [Shouldn’t this be a comp plan issue?] to clarify desire for a mix of complementary uses. Consider providing additional flexibility in some Transect zones to accommodate a mix of uses with a single development or property, not limited only to a mix within each building.
Issue: Current transitions between Transect and adjacent residential zones are abrupt and not graduated.
Potential Solution: Incorporate layered transition zones which step down from taller commercial districts when adjacent to smaller residential districts [Where in the Comp Plan was this goal expressed and what does this do to the issue of building heights as currently required? Do you think that they are going to lower the buildings in the Transect district or allow taller buildings in the adjacent residential district to achieve this? That is a rhetorical question].
Potential Solution: Include more graphically-oriented design guidance.
Issue: There are challenges with current zoning regulations to ensure that development is harmonious with its surroundings, achieves appropriate height and density transitions, and protects neighborhood character.
Potential Solution: Institute context based review considerations into the design standards for Transect zones [“context based” means?].
Issue: Current maximum height, build-to, build-out requirements have produced uniform buildings where the objective was (where did this objective come from? It wasn’t in the comprehensive plan) to have greater diversity in building type, layout, roof top, and facade treatments.
Potential Solution: Revise building height requirements to be based on number of stories instead of total number of feet to provide more height variations [Another area for serious potential mischief. Without a height limit, and using the vague concept of “stories”, where might this go?”]
Potential Solution: Provide design guidance for transect zones which require massing of larger buildings to be visually defined by smaller scale elements [What are “smaller scale elements?].
Under “Evaluate Zoning Districts”:
Issue: Under performance and utilization of existing zones such as Warehouse District [“Such as” ??—what are other examples? What does under performance mean here? What does under utilization meant here? ].
Potential Solution: Review and identify current zones that could be eliminated or replace with more productive land-use options [Anyone hazard a guess at what this means? “More productive land-use”?].
Under an issue about how “Small businesses often struggle with financing and capital…” we get
Potential Solution: Review current area, bulk, parking and other lot configuration requirement to identify options which could increase allowable building footprint area to help incentivize redevelopment or permit new additions.” [The reader might ask how does allowing what appears to be lot size assist a small business with financing and capital?].
Under “Area And Bulk” they identify the issue: “Required front setback sometimes prove problematic leading to buildings too close to the street and inconsistent with the neighborhood and/or adjacent properties.”
Solution: “Investigate the potential for front yard setbacks which are based on the immediate neighborhood context, rather than by zoning district, to account for differences in neighborhoods.” [Not only did this issue not come up at any of the public events I know of, I am wondering who is complaining about the required set backs in the current zoning requirements. I have no doubt based on the recent projects granted by the Zoning Board that developers very much want to be unburdened by this requirement but not the people who live near these new projects]. Or how about this nebulous other “potential solution,” “Review all front yard setback requirements in relation to the actual built environment.” [Do any of the readers of this blog know what an actual built environment is? Is it the lot itself? Is it the lot along with the immediately adjacent lots? Is it the block?].
On Page 37 there is a table. The row for “Lot Widths” has the recommendation: “Review current lot width requirements to ensure compatibility with existing lot widths.” [This is apparently to scrap the current defined widths required by zoning and change to something, as yet undefined, based on the “existing” lots (whatever that would mean)].
Similarly “Lot Size” has the recommendation to “Review all of the current lot size and coverage percentages to ensure compatibility with existing lot sizes and neighborhood character.” [What area adjacent to a particular lot will be used to determine compatibility? What impact a few small non-conforming lots will have on this determination remains unknown.]