The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

27 April 2005

Zoned out

City zoning regulations grow ever more abstruse, yet cities never quite become the utopias decreed by the planning committees.

Or, as Michael Bates puts it:

After eighty years of experimenting with zoning, it's apparent that zoning doesn't produce the kinds of neighborhoods and cities that are interesting and pleasant places to live. Decades of ham-handed regulation and government-driven redevelopment have created dead downtowns and suburbs with beautiful sidewalks that lead nowhere interesting. The traditional urban neighborhood has been outlawed. The automobile has gone from being a convenience to an absolute necessity for survival, and we've stranded the young, the old, and the handicapped.

(Aside: Suburbs have sidewalks?)

Miami, Florida has some of the most arcane zoning rules on earth, and has gotten little for it beyond very thick city-ordinance books. Miami 21 will, they say, toss out the books in favor of a "form-based" plan.

To see what this means in practice, I took a look at Plan Baton Rouge; the Louisiana capital is transitioning to just such a plan.

The existing Zoning Map makes use of eleven zoning categories for the Downtown. These zoning tech­niques, derived from postwar suburban practice, do not serve well the traditional urban fabric of the Downtown.

Over the years, the existing code has become increasingly compli­cated. It now requires simplification if development is to be easy and predictable; two very real incentives for developers.

The proposed Code consists of four documents: (1) The Regulating Plan, which is a map allocating the new zoning categories. (2) The Urban Regulations which are the central set of instructions keyed to the Regulating Plan. The Urban Regulations refer to the (3) Use Standards, Parking Strategy, and Frontage Standards and the (4) Architectural Standards. There are also a set of Management Standards that should be applied to new buildings and retroactively to all.

The Urban Regulations are here. This is the one I found most interesting:

[Definition of] A and B Grid: A zoning system by triage which assigns frontages of superior and inferior pedestrian character to alternating thoroughfares. This system assumes that certain building types intrinsically create inferior pedestrian experiences (drive-throughs, convenience parking, service stations). Rather than ban them altogether, the A and B street grid segregates them to different thoroughfares. This strategy, which emulates a street and alley system, maintains selected streetscapes at a high standard rather than compromise all the streetscapes somewhat. "A" streets must meet the provisions of this code. "B" streets are exempt from the frontage, parking locus and architectural syntax standards.

I can think of parts of Tulsa where this very process could have come into play very recently.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out. My postwar neighborhood is some sort of midtown/suburban hybrid, and has some mysterious zoning rules of its own; I'm curious to see how it could have been done differently under the Baton Rouge/Miami plans.

Posted at 11:33 AM to Almost Yogurt

I've been thinking for years that something like an A-and-B Grid plan was what would be needed -- short of relegating vehicular and pedestrian streetscapes to separate levels entirely, which would really only work in a high-density urban environment anyway.

Posted by: McGehee at 5:45 PM on 27 April 2005

Where I live is odd even by the standards of Oklahoma City; there's a very narrow park running for a third of a mile along a major thoroughfare, and one enters the neighborhood only from the far ends of the park. Considering that said thoroughfare is, for most of its length, the very epitome of the Urban Jungle, this small break in its ferocity comes as a surprise to passersby.

Posted by: CGHill at 9:33 AM on 28 April 2005

I can tell you right now that Miami's freakish zoning laws haven't made it a pleasanter place to live. On the contrary.

On the other hand, moving up to the part of Florida ruled by the Kingdom of the Mouse has introduced me to the other side of zoning. My favorite example so far is the city of Casselberry (in Seminole County), where I lived two years ago: along Highway 17-92 you'll come upon a Methodist Church where they sell pumpkins from the grounds during Halloween, then a titty bar that's right up the block from the police station, with a Home Depot further up the road, and behind all this is a quiet residential neighborhood centered by a golf course.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 5:48 PM on 28 April 2005

Sort of Houston Lite, in other words. I don't think that utopian plans in general can generate utopias, but it's always amusing to see what The Powers That Be think will do the job.

Posted by: CGHill at 6:01 PM on 28 April 2005