Sunday, December 4, 2011

Planning Inertia at 85

Eighty five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard and decided the landmark case which established zoning as an appropriate tool for controlling and directing the growth of American cities. That same year, Lexington fell in line and created its own Planning Commission and developed a system through which to guide the city's expected growth. Four years later came the first Comprehensive Plan, a detailed guess as to how the city expand and where the needed infrastructure would be built to accommodate such expansion.

1926 is also about the time that I believe Lexington began to get away from the easily navigable and walkable city it once was. I have come to feel that zoning played a big role in making Lexington and most other cities into the suburban sprawl that we see and many of us detest.

According to Edward T. McMahon, in his recent article in Urban Land, “Zoning is merely a tool. It is a means to an end. It can be used constructively as a positive force for community good or it can be misused. Zoning is what you make of it.” and “It is good for protecting what is already there and for preventing nuisances. It is not as good for shaping the future or for improving the quality of new development.”

In fact the above mentioned case, Euclid v Ambler Realty, was brought strictly to preserve the simple and quiet nature of a small village outside Cleveland, Ohio. The Village wanted to prevent the incursion of industrial development into their then simple community. They wanted things to stay the way they were. The irony is that after sitting vacant for a couple of decades, a factory was built on the land as part of the war effort and continued as such for several more decades, probably due to existing zoning.

Zoning codes try to prevent bad things from happening while failing to lay out a vision of how things should be. Early zoning codes were simple and had few levels of each particular land use type. Many zones allowed for interesting mixes of intensity and diversity. Lately, our local codes have become more and more complex with multiple layers of residential, business and industrial zones and sometimes confusing yet similar size, setback and parking requirements. Too often we Americans believe that if a little zoning is good, then a lot of zoning is better. Both in size of development and in the complexity of regulatory requirements.

Lexington, as well as many other American cities, grew quite well for the better part of its history. Starting with residential and some minor commercial activity along its main streets, until they began mimicing the larger, older cities “back east” with their dedicated downtown commercial and societal uses. Usually a persons place of occupation was no more than a few steps from their home, if not located directly within the house itself.

Even as recent as the late 19th century, stores and manufacturing uses were interspersed with the remaining residential along Main St as shops and lumber yards stood cheek and jowl with churches and carriage makers. There was no zoning but folks seem to have co-existed well enough to grow.

I guess it was the 1870s -1880s when our first ring subdivisions began to spring up when whole farms would be developed. They were mostly residential but nodules of civic and commercial uses seem to be sprinkled about fairly liberally and particularly at the edges. Walking distance from the majority of the housing and along the main roadways. Still, there was no zoning and we all didn't seem to mind. The convenience of the corner store made “going to town” something special.

The invention and rapid expansion in use of the “horseless carriage”, especially after the first World War, and the dramatic shift from an agrarian to a corporate society led to a need to aggregate like people and uses into larger and larger areas. The proponents of zoning felt that this new tool could help direct the inevitable growth which the previous decades indicated was coming.

These previous decades also pointed to the periodic changes in popular desires of the residents. Land uses were allowed to evolve or shift over time and as some neighborhoods, particularly in the lower economic ranges, became available new uses brought a resurgence of activity and life. The introduction of zoning brought the appearance of stability and the assurance that undesirable changes would have to leap many more hurdles than before. The longer that a certain area had been zoned as it was meant that the likelihood of change was diminished. A form of “planning inertia”.

After WWII and the “baby boom” the perceived need to alter and intensify the zoning codes led to a much more suburban model of code than had worked in Lexington's first ring subdivisions. The older neighborhoods were stable and zoning would see to them remaining so. Fancy new shopping “centers” and the automobile(with cheap fuel) made the idea of the corner grocery seem like the “old days”. First there were the interior clusters of retail and eventually the shopping strip along major roadways.

Residentialy, the zoning allowed for sprawling, single floor ranches and some split-levels with wide and deep front yards. Some of them went on for acres and acres and the zoning meant that what was next door was going to be that same. Zoning enertia was not going to let anything change in the suburbs, but a one-size-fits-all scenario brings the same set backs and parking requirements to the older “stable” neighborhoods and that begets change. Areas that at one time were allowed to front the sidewalk and serve the pedestrian residents are now catering to the vehicle and displaying a family asset to the passing world.

The above is why I take exception to the following quote from the article:
“Zoning allows developments to proceed as long as they are consistent with the current uses of the neighborhood commons or in a way that the neighborhood has agreed in advance (through the political process) to allow.”
Edward T. McMahon

Zoning will allow developments to proceed if the are in agreement with the broadly applied community standards but not always with the current uses or the neighborhood commonalities. Maybe zoning codes should be enforced by what the actual neighborhood has agreed upon through the political process. What if the developers were allowed (again) to put in place what the neighbors need without the suburban style parking and set back requirements? Many of the multifamily units in Ashland Park/Chevy Chase can barely distinguished by the general passerby but the same number of units in areas outside New Circle Rd are readily seen as apartment type places. Such places are shunned by families looking for stability in housing.

If zoning is aimed at limiting or possibly preventing, precisely those changes in the use of property that are disruptive of neighborhood character, then they can also limit or prohibit a welcome alteration which may greatly enhance the existing neighborhood character. Inertia of any type can be hard to affect and while social inertia is moving quickly(and picking up speed) our zoning inertia is dragging us back to the mid sixties.

Zoning, it is said, is about balance but it may need a bit more help to get it on its way.

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