If the word “zoning” makes your eyes glaze over, get yourself some coffee or something and try to focus for a second.
Here’s the thing: For a few years now, the Office of Planning has been working on revamping the rules that govern how the city looks and feels. Regulations that dictate how many parking spaces a building needs and where they should be placed, what kind of landscaping is required, the size and dimensions of open space in and around apartment buildings, and the potential for commercial uses in residential neighborhoods are all being tweaked and modernized.
However, the slow-moving process may be completed too late to affect the wave of private sector development that’s now working its way through the pipeline. If that happens, many of the progressive changes that are incorporated into the front end of development planning won’t make it into new projects (although in many cases, the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment have already been granting exceptions to developers who want to incorporate these changes anyway).
Recognizing this, David Alpert & Co. have been pushing for one of the most critical pieces of the zoning revision—regarding large parking lots in front of commercial centers, which are easy to build and difficult to erase—to be instituted as quickly as the process allows, through a “text amendment” that patches the current code. It’s already too late to fix the problem of acres of surface parking in places like Dakota Crossing. But if it sails through the Zoning Commission, it may apply to the new Aldi being built in Ward 5, and it could take a little longer and still impact the Walmart in Ward 7, which will have to be approved as a planned unit development.
There are other pieces of the zoning revision that would impact more projects if they were instituted sooner, namely the Green Area Ratio regulations, which would require a certain amount of landscape elements like vegetative roofs, tree plantings, green walls, and permeable floors. Other pieces are permissive rather than proscriptive, meaning that they will allow neighborhoods to evolve in different ways: For example, proposed rules for residential zones will allow more retail establishments in the middle of streets, which can be incorporated into existing buildings at any time.
The issue of timing, of course, recalls the whole problem with another big change that didn’t come fast enough: Inclusionary Zoning for affordable housing, for which regulations weren’t written until the last of the projects built before the real estate crash made it through the regulatory process. You can have the most progressive rules in the world, but they don’t matter unless things are being built to be affected by them.