Miami looking to dump zoning

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A reader sends along a Miami Herald article (free registration required) about Miami's plans to dump its antiquated zoning code for a form-based code. It would be the largest city to adopt this approach to land use regulation, an approach that promises to make the process work better both for developers and for property owners. (Tulsans can learn more about form-based codes this Wednesday at TulsaNow's forum on the topic: "Passing the Popsicle Test: Building a Better Tulsa by Design." It's free and open to the public; 6:30 pm at the OSU-Tulsa Auditorium.)

A new high-rise condo building is cited as an example of the problems with the current code. Edgewater, an older neighborhood of single family homes, began to decline in the '70s and was dramatically "upzoned" to allow high-rises. Now you have a street of bungalows interrupted with a nine-story building with nothing but a garage entrance facing the street. Miami is trying to find a way to accommodate redevelopment and increasing density, while respecting the integrity of existing neighborhoods and encouraging a walkable environment. (A densely developed area combined with a streetscape that discourages walking is a recipe for traffic nightmares.)

The article cites several of the problems with the existing zoning code:

The explanation begins with the fact that parts of the current code date to the early 1900s, city officials say.

Since then, new regulations have been layered atop the old, so that the code has become dauntingly complex, filling several volumes and requiring developers and homeowners to hire lawyers for any significant work. Coconut Grove, for instance, has 22 different zoning designations, according to the planning department.

Sometimes, zoning has been rewritten for individual projects. Variances introduce even more unpredictability. Canny land-use lawyers make a living exploiting loopholes, and developers' political pull has often determined the outcome. The result is inconsistent decisions that lead to urban incoherence and embittered residents.

"We have a city that's the result of people being able to build whatever they want," said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the prominent planner and University of Miami architecture dean hired by the city to oversee Miami 21. "It was never planned, just platted and developed."

The current code regulates building uses and density, Plater-Zyberk said, but says little to nothing about urbanism -- the art of ensuring that individual buildings blend into a cohesive landscape that respects the human scale. There is nothing in it about how buildings should meet the sidewalk, where parking garages should go, where entrances should be, or requirements for streetfront shops and cafes to spur pedestrian activity.

Let me try to translate: Miami's current zoning code is concerned with controlling factors that don't really affect the city's livability, while ignoring the factors that really do make a difference. After eighty years of experimenting with zoning, it's apparent that zoning doesn't produce the kinds of neighborhoods and cities that are interesting and pleasant places to live. Decades of ham-handed regulation and government-driven redevelopment have created dead downtowns and suburbs with beautiful sidewalks that lead nowhere interesting. The traditional urban neighborhood has been outlawed. The automobile has gone from being a convenience to an absolute necessity for survival, and we've stranded the young, the old, and the handicapped.

New Urbanists, like Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who was quoted above, look back and seek to learn from the way cities were built before zoning codes were widely in use. Plater-Zyberk is one of a growing number of New Urbanist design professionals developing new approaches to land use regulation that provide more freedom for developers, provide more predictability for everyone involved in the process, and promise better results.

Miami 21, Miami's proposed new approach to land use regulation, has a home page, with links to a FAQ and a slideshow (a very large PDF file) illustrating the complexity and ineffectiveness of the current code and the promise of the proposed approach. One slide promises that the new approach will "make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective thus thwarting speculative development and reducing fear and opposition of development." And later, "The developer and the public have a clear set of regulations to know what to expect from the very beginning, in any given area, both in the public and private realm."

A clearer, fairer, more predictable process, resulting in better communities -- that should be what we're all after. Let's watch and see if Miami 21 can deliver on its promises.

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City zoning regulations grow ever more abstruse, yet cities never quite become the utopias decreed by the planning committees. Or, as Michael Bates puts it: After eighty years of experimenting... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 25, 2005 10:38 PM.

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