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Legalizing New Urbanism

Some states ease laws, allow ‘traditional neighborhood development’

October 23, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Farr Associates

Planners at Farr Associates helped Chicago revise its zoning ordinances. One change sharply limits traffic and encourages pedestrians and retail activity along 26 commercial thoroughfares

Across the country, ever more people are rediscovering the joys of living in traditional neighborhoods, ones where they can buy a newspaper, pick up a gallon of milk, and even stop by the office to check email—all without ever getting in their cars.

But, according to developers, planners, community leaders, and Smart Growth advocates, many attempts to build more of these so-called “mixed use” neighborhood and town center developments hit a very large wall: They are illegal. Across much of the United States, such seemingly common-sense designs are often stopped cold by rigid zoning codes that were enacted in the mid-1950s, when America’s love affair with the automobile and suburbia was blossoming. The codes segregate housing, offices, stores, and civic buildings from each other. They trap Americans in their cars, drive up the cost of building and maintaining water mains, sewers, and roads, and dilute the quality of life in a sea of traffic congestion, pavement, and bad air.

Now proponents of New Urbanism — a development philosophy that emphasizes walkable neighborhoods and downtowns, big front porches, and garages firmly relegated to the back yard — are trying to cut through those outdated laws and zoning codes and clear the way for smarter development. In Michigan, the challenge is particularly severe, even though Governor Jennifer M. Granholm is a Smart Growth advocate and launched the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council in 2003 to help reform the state’s outdated development patterns. With 1,800 local governments in charge of exactly that many sets of local zoning laws, Michigan’s road to statewide acceptance of New Urbanism is a long one.

But, while obsolete master plans and zoning laws complicate New Urbanist development in Michigan, some other states are seeing a strong surge in so-called “traditional neighborhood developments” or TNDs. A few states — including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut — have passed new laws rolling back old restrictions and allowing TNDs. Proponents say these new statewide laws raised awareness of TND and their anecdotal evidence suggests that they are even expanding the mixed-use market. So far, such laws apparently reflect local, grassroots values and shape new visions for future development in those states.     

Difficult and Cumbersome
Robert Lipka, an architect based in Romeo, Mich., said that he constantly encounters local zoning ordinances that make it very difficult to develop neighborhoods where a loaf of bread and a library are just a walk away.

“Local government, surprisingly, is one of the biggest adversaries,” Mr. Lipka said. “They really like the text of the conventional zoning ordinance — they like it oversimplified so it can’t be screwed up. When you talk about New Urbanism and mixed use, they worry about compatibility and people calling and complaining. So they just want to avoid conflict.”

Mr. Lipka said he often submits two parallel plans for a development proposal — one that requires an exception for, say, higher density and open space preservation, and one that follows the letter of the existing local ordinances. He said that he can often get the conventional plan approved in about thirty days, but that it takes months or years for less conventional, more innovative plans to be approved, if they ever are: “The township will hem and haw about the PUD (planned unit development), and will say, ‘Why don’t we accept the plan that meets the ordinances?’”

Yet some Michigan developers are finding some enlightened local governments with zoning codes that give them much more running — and walking — room. One such developer, Guy Bazzani, said he has found some open-minded local governments that are interested in more innovative development, including Grand Rapids, where his firm is located. That has helped Mr. Bazzani move forward with some mixed-use urban projects, which that city’s planning department and government see as a progressive approach to development. He said the city’s master plan is a very good one, and that the city is working to better match its zoning codes with that master plan.

“We want it to be a pedestrian friendly, urbanist model,” he said of his work. “It just takes time to cut through the law. That’s what’s difficult and cumbersome.”

“It’s in the Code”
Some developers in other parts of the country are able to move their New Urbanist proposals forward more quickly. In Pennsylvania, in 2000, for example, state Representative Bob Freeman sat down with Tom Comitta, who owns his own architectural firm, to figure out the best way to amend their state’s municipal planning code to allow for TNDs. The amendment they wrote, known as Article VII-A, empowered municipal government to enact, amend, and repeal zoning provisions in order to allow traditional neighborhood developments.

Mr. Comitta, president of Thomas Comitta Associates, believes that the law’s greatest strength is that it reassures cautious local officials who might normally hesitate to approve a TND.

“Now that it’s explicit,” he said, “we can tell the municipal solicitor, ‘You can do a TND ordinance—it’s right here in the code.’”

The amendment, which reads like a local ordinance rather than a typical piece of legislation, is an educational tool as well as a progressive law. It not only opens the door wider for TND, it actually shows communities how to design, approve, and build such projects. The ordinance is clear and comprehensive, addressing everything from sidewalks to renewable energy to urban infill—projects built on vacant lots or old, run-down properties.

Comprehensive Planning Required
Some states are taking an even broader approach. In Wisconsin, in 1999, the state Legislature and then-Governor Tommy Thompson legalized traditional neighborhood developments. The law requires comprehensive planning throughout the state by 2010, and requires every city or village with a population of 12,500 to enact a traditional neighborhood development ordinance, which legalizes New Urbanist-style developments.

In order to facilitate the process, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Urban and Regional Planning developed a model ordinance that defines and illustrates traditional neighborhood developments as compact, mixed-use projects that accommodate walking, biking, and driving. The model ordinance also provides a blueprint for approving new projects that cuts much of the red tape, uncertainty, and delay that, all too often, plague traditional neighborhood developments.

Brian Ohm, a professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison who helped develop the model ordinance, said that the law represents progress for traditional neighborhood development in Wisconsin, even though compliance among the 57 affected communities hovers just above 50 percent.

“As you look statewide,” he said. “Wisconsin probably has more TND ordinances than other states.”

Character Counts
Connecticut took a different, subtler approach to encouraging more traditional neighborhood design. In 1998, the state enacted the Village District Act, which allows local governments to use “community character” as a reason to allow or deny development within their borders. While the legislation does not mention traditional neighborhood developments specifically, it is designed to protect the village greens, walkable downtowns, and architectural standards common in the state’s small towns and villages, many of which are centuries old, and essential to their enduring charm.

The law allows rural, suburban, and urban communities to guide development in a way that is appropriate for their community, rather than dictating a particular kind of urban development. It also allows towns to protect their architectural and civic planning heritage without going through the process of declaring themselves a historic district.

The law’s flexibility presents some difficulties, however. Local governments who want to make use of the Village District Act must engage in extensive planning that sets criteria for what is and is not permitted, a hurdle which discourages participation.

But, even with such complications, Connecticut’s Village District Act qualifies as a significant step forward in a country where the interest in traditional neighborhood design is surging and laws that regulate building them are lagging far behind. That seems particularly true in Michigan, where Governor Granholm’s land use leadership council made recommendations two years ago that, if enacted, would make some easier for TNDs. But the council stepped gingerly around the political minefield of telling 1,800 long-independent, local government units what they can or cannot do, and instead emphasized state-based incentives and goals to encourage more traditional neighborhoods.

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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