Dreaming of zoning

‘Tis true, I have been dreaming about zoning regulations.  My dream was about a development of new buildings and whether each one fit the regulations.  There were hideous structures which clearly met the requirements of the code and there were thoughtfully designed and intelligently sited structures which didn’t including one which did not meet the requirement of having the front facade parallel to the street because the front facade was at a 30 degree angle (but fulfilled all pedestrian-friendly requirements and was highly compatible with its neighborhood).

I view dreams as sophisticated brain farts rather than Freudian, but even random escapes of mental gas can be useful.  I see two things here – one personal and the rest policy-related (the personal one has policy implications, too).

First, the personal. This is my house.  DSC00958House snow vertical

The colors are not typical, although in the context of my older neighborhood of homes of varied sizes, styles and colors it is compatible.  Then there’s the addition at a 45 degree angle (designed by Peter Schmelzer over at Vivus).  I would like to ensure that any regulations allow for innovation and individality as property is used and reused to meet changing needs.  I ask: would the regulations allow my house?

Policy: One of the big questions when it comes to zoning and land development regulations is: how much regulation do we want?  Northfield has sort of headed in the direction of a form-based code and toward more regulation of how buildings are placed on their site, how big they can be, and what architectural features are appropriate.  The Council, as policymakers, needs to decide how far down this road they would like to go.

On the design regulation side, I’m a little nervous about how many architectural details we should specify.  The current draft stipulates that for large multifamily dwellings (aparments or townhomes) the developer is shall to “provide a minimum of three of the following design features for each  residential unit facing the street” and lists recessed entrance, covered porch, several window styles…I’ve been trying to imagine what the worst combination of features I can concoct.

For building location and massing, I’m completely on-board however.   Downtown looks and feels the way it does because the buildings abut the sidewalk (we call that zero lot line development), the entrances are obvious and prominent, there are windows to look into and out of, street trees, benches, and it is at a scale which is walkable.  Compare River Park Mall which close to downtown, but with a very different feel.  The parking is most prominent with the 1 story building set back from the street.  Pedestrians walk around the outside of the parking lot reaching stores by cutting across the parking lot or going all the way around.  The entrances are tucked under a porch of sorts and the facade is just flat We can also complain that there is no attention to the river side of the mall.  If, when River Park Mall is redeveloped, Northfield required a more downtown development pattern (zero lot line development, parking at the side, multi-story and mixed uses, focus on the river) we’d see something different and better.  For residential areas, ensuring that houses face parks and streets with garages set back from front facades would effect similar changes in our more suburban developments.

Another policy consideration: by stipulating site and design requirements in great detail in the regulations themselves, the burden of decision-making shifts away from the model of Planning Commission recommendation followed by City Council decision-making (which is typical now), to more administrative (city staff or city staff with add’l assistance from what we’re calling the Design Review Committee) approvals.  Does the City want to give decision-making power to city staff without oversight or input from appointed or elected officials.  On the plus side, administrative approvals are quicker and supposed to be easier – this makes developers happy and makes the city easier to do business with.  On the other hand, the process becomes less transparent and accountable.   I’m cautiously in favor of more administrative approvals, although I think Council needs to be involved in bigger projects…but I’m not quite sure how.  Still thinking here (perhaps another dream or two is needed).

Yet another policy consideration: form based regulation vs. use-based regulation.  Right now, the city has established zoning districts and there are uses for structures which are permitted in each one with the presumption that if a use is not listed, then it is not permitted.  Form-based codes rely more on the size and placement of the building – the form of development – and less on use (the shift would be that if a use is not explicitly prohibited it is allowed).  I’m in favor of de-emphasizing uses.  Some of the most torturous decision-making I’ve been involved with or witmessed in Northfield has been related to whether or not a particular business fit into a use category.  Some uses (say whose selling pornography or guns) should be strictly regulated in terms of where they can locate.  The much broader range of businesses are probably better located by their impacts in terms of parking, pollution (air, noise or light), traffic, etc. than by caring whether it is a clinic for animals or humans or a general office or a medical office.   Council needs to weigh in on how much it wants to control uses vs. size/shape/impact.

2 thoughts on “Dreaming of zoning

  1. Betsey,
    I’m definitely late in finding this post, but it was great to see a City councilor really thinking through this new LDC.

    I haven’t read the whole document thoroughly, but when I was looking over it for the Nonmotorized TF discussion, I really cringed when I got to the section dictating architectural features. I like the vision for what this LDC would produce, but I just hate the idea of strongarming good community design; you’re clearly uncomfortable about having nitpicky standards, too.

    It seems the most problematic regulations are ones that require an arbitrary number to work. One of my favorites is on line 3886:

    “All doors and windows shall be articulated through the use of lintels, sills, and thresholds. Windows larger than 20 square feet that are not used for display purposes shall be divided into panes through the use of mullions and/or sashes.”

    20 square feet? I realize the point of this is to avoid a generic big box just adding the biggest, cheapest, ugliest window possible to get up to the minimum standard for window coverage, but I’m not sure creating a big box with “mullions and/or sashes” is going to really improve the situation.

    Most of these changes really seem to be after one goal — the goal you mention in reference to the River Park Mall: to build on a human scale. After all, the downtown was built in a way we really appreciate not because of a 300 page land development code, but because there were no cars.

    So how do we make developers want to build on a human scale? Get humans out there! This LDC has two critical changes that I think will significantly improve that. The first is setting sidewalks on both sides of every street as the standard. Not only does it make neighborhoods more pleasant and safer, it sends a clear message that the street is for people as much as it is for cars. The second change is the mixed-use neighborhood zone. I know this a key concept of the code, and I think it’s a great opportunity to create walkable, functional neighboorhods even well outside the downtown.

    Mixed-use is probably the #1 improvement that brings us closer to human-scale development. But really, mixed use is simply regulating less.

    • Thanks, Sean. I’d hoped to be blogging more about the land development code review process including the issues you note and many more. Unfortunately, the review process is taking a lot of time and I haven’t had much time to gather my thoughts to blog. Sidewalks on both sides of streets IS included, I’m happy to say. The “walkable, functional” idea is key – I’m trying to push regulations which think about the connections and corridors as much as the site on which a building is located. There’s an open house August 18 at the Armory, for a first public look at what’s on paper so far.

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