‘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.
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.