New zoning fad creates old-style business districts

Dan Bobkoff Apr 4, 2011

New zoning fad creates old-style business districts

Dan Bobkoff Apr 4, 2011

Bob Moon: This land is your land, this land is my land. But the government can decide how it gets used. More and more communities are looking to the future,
and getting a little nostalgic about the way things use to be. They have visions of nice shops and busy sidewalks, maybe apartments on the upper floors, and homes a short walk away. There’s just one problem: zoning laws.

Dan Bobkoff, of the public media project Changing Gears, tells us why.

Dan Bobkoff: Before big-box stores and strip malls and a car in every driveway, it was normal to live in dense neighborhoods.

Anthony Flint: A place where they can walk to a corner store, maybe live above a store. And those kinds of things, that’s illegal in America today in so many of our communities.

Illegal because of zoning. Anthony Flint is with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. He says cities have spent much of the last century separating the shops and factories and homes. And that made sense in the beginning.

Flint: You didn’t want to have a slaughter house next to a residential apartment.

But the effect was an almost complete segregation of uses.

Jeff Pritchard pulls up a colorful zoning map on his laptop. He’s in charge of planning for the Cleveland exurb of Streetsboro.

Jeff Pritchard: You’ll see we have a downtown business core.

On the map, industry is colored purple, homes are yellow, and the commercial district in the middle is pink. But there’s no overlap. No yellowy pink spot with housing and shops in the same place. And, when Pritchard took me for a drive, I could see what happened.

Bobkoff: This is the town square?

Pritchard: This is the town square. Yes sir.

Let’s be honest. There’s no town square. It’s just an intersection amid big-box stores.

Bobkoff: I think you have every chain I’ve ever seen! You have a Lowe’s and a Home Depot, a Walmart and a Target.

This is one of those communities that’s exploded with growth since the 1960s thanks to easy highway access. But Pritchard believes the public is starting to turn away from cities like this. He thinks high gas prices and changing tastes and demographics mean Streetsboro will have to look more like those towns of yesteryear. And, his weapon will be a new kind of zoning that’s spreading around the country — places like Peoria, Ill., Denver and Miami.

Ana Gelabert Sanchez: A city where they can actually get up in the morning, be able to walk out, be able to have activities happening on the street.

Ana Gelabert Sanchez spent the last decade as Miami’s city planner pushing for that dream. She convinced city officials to try something of a revolution in zoning called form-based code. It’s all about the look and feel of a neighborhood. So, the city no longer dictates that residential goes in one spot and shops in another. Instead, form-based code might say a building should be three-stories high and its doors must open to the sidewalk, but it can be used for anything: apartments, shops, or both.

Sanchez: People wanted to be able to have the mom-and-pop stores at the ground level.

Lolita Buckner Inniss: I almost radically disagree with this notion that everybody had this lifestyle, that everybody wants this lifestyle and that everybody needs this lifestyle.

Lolita Buckner Inniss teaches at the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. She says dense living wasn’t so great back in the day. Why else did so many poor city-dwellers long to move up and out to single family homes in the suburbs? And, she’s seen many fads in urban planning hurt poor and minority residents. But few cities are going fully to form based code. Most are using it to transform certain neighborhoods.

In Streetsboro’s huge Walmart parking lot, though, Sean Smetak and Becky Slattery had a hard time believing.

Bobkoff: Could you imagine this strip having sidewalks and people walking?

Sean Smetak and Becky Slattery: No, no, it’s too busy. It’s definitely too busy.

But, they say, they have no love for the way it looks now.

In Streetsboro, Ohio, I’m Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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