The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Posts Tagged ‘Urban Design

City Council Meeting 04/16/2013

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I did listen to most of Tuesday’s city council meeting. The council approved an annual budget, which is one of the most consequential things council does all year, and yet the meeting was surprisingly civil. Most of the votes were unanimous and there was none of the bickering that has dominated some recent council meetings. Since almost every vote was unanimous, and since there is a liveblog at the Carbondaze Gazette where you can read the play-by-play, I’ll just mention a couple of items that stood out.

First, retiring council members Chris Wissmann and Corene McDaniel are both possibly going to have streets renamed for them. My understanding is that these will be honorary renamings, and the streets will officially retain their current names. Hospital Street (between University and Illinois Avenues) will become Chris Wissmann Way, and East Jackson Street east of Wall Street will become Corene McDaniel Court. These honorary renamings are subject to council approval. I don’t have strong feelings either way about this, but it is the first time in my memory that retiring council members have been so honored. As far as I am aware, there is no Steven Haynes Avenue or Mary Pohlmann Boulevard.

Second, during discussion of the Park District’s fair days request for the annual Sunset Concerts, Mayor Joel Fritzler asked why there are never fair days requests for the concerts held on the SIUC campus. The city attorney replied that SIUC was granted some leeway as part of the agreement allowing the university to be annexed into the city. Council member Don Monty pointed out that SIUC is part of the State of Illinois and, since the state is a higher unit of government, is not subject to regulation by the city. The mayor argued that SIUC should not be above the law and asked the city attorney to investigate the issue. My suspicion is that Monty is correct, but we will see.

The final and most important thing I wanted to note is that the planned revision of the city’s subdivision ordinance is now going to be handled mostly in-house. The original plan was to hire the same consultant who worked on the recent rewrite of our zoning ordinance to help rewrite the subdivision ordinance. Now the plan is for city staff to rewrite the subdivision ordinance themselves and possibly hire a consultant at the end to help tighten up the new ordinance.

This is extremely important. Along with the zoning ordinance, the subdivision ordinance controls the form of the city. There are a lot of changes that should be made to the existing ordinance, but for now I’ll point to just two. First, the current ordinance requires a minimum block length of 800 feet and a maximum of 1200 feet. This is too large. We should be looking at something in the neighborhood of 650 feet as a maximum block length, with something around 500 feet being preferred. Second, the existing subdivision ordinance features what I consider unreasonable limitations for on-street parking. We should be trying to encourage on-street parking rather than discourage it.

Comments are welcome.

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Council Approves Neighborhood Business District and New Zoning Code

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I don’t have time to go into this in great detail, but I did watch tonight’s city council meeting. The big surprise is that council approved an amendment to the proposed zoning ordinance adding the Neighborhood Business (NB) district that was the subject of bitter controversy and debate last month. Council then approved the entire zoning ordinance. This means that Carbondale now has a new zoning ordinance and Neighborhood Business (NB) districts are permitted, as they were in the old zoning ordinance.

There were a number of other zoning related issues discussed and voted on at Tuesday’s meeting, and they deserve a longer treatment than I can give them tonight. In fact, my schedule will not permit me to cover this at any length until next week. I’ll just try to enumerate the facts and limit commentary until I can give it the attention these matters deserve. I’m going to restrict my comments to Item 5.6 (pdf) – which dealt with the reformed zoning ordinance –  on this week’s city council agenda (pdf). I’m also only going to talk about the items council discussed, with one exception — I’m going to briefly talk about accessory dwelling units, which did not receive a hearing at the meeting.

Council spent a lot of time discussing the proposed change allowing sharply limited commercial use within the Planned Unit Development (PUD) district. Ultimately I think council increased the complexity of the ordinance and reduced its utility. The proposed change would have allowed 1250 feet of commercial space in a PUD containing at least 25 dwelling units, with the amount of commercial space increasing by 50 square feet per dwelling unit over 25. Occupation of the commercial space would not have been allowed until at least 50% of the dwelling units had been completed, and commercial use would have had to cease if the remaining 50% of dwelling units were not completed within 12 months.

Here are the amendments to the proposed change to the PUD ordinance:

  1. Council member Don Monty Amendment 1: (a) change the minimum residential dwelling threshold after which commercial use is permitted to 50 units (from 25) and change the permitted commercial square feet to 2500 (from 1250 sq. ft.), (b) place a cap of 5000 square feet on any single commercial building in a PUD, and (c) remove the clauses requiring commercial use to cease if 50% of the dwelling units are not completed within 12 months.
  2. Council member Jane Adams moved to split Monty Amendment 1 into its three constituent parts as listed above. This motion was accepted. The votes follow.
  3. Monty Amendment 1(a) – Approved. Yes: McDaniel, Monty, Fronabarger, Fritzler. No: Wissmann, Adams, Jack.
  4. Monty Amendment 1(b) – Approved unanimously.
  5. Monty Amendment 1(c) – Approved unanimously.
  6. Wissmann Amendment 1 – No commercial space for a particular phase of a PUD development may be used until the dwelling units for that phase of the PUD development are 100% complete.  This carried unanimously.

Council next heard some miscellaneous amendments. Their substance and the vote counts are below.

  1. Monty Amendment 2: removed the right of anchor stores in shopping centers (think Macy’s at the University Mall) to have their own freestanding signs. Approved unanimously. 
  2. Wissmann Amendment 2: empower staff to define or illustrate exactly what counts as corrugated metal siding for the purposes of the design standards in the BPR (Primary Business) district. Approved unanimously.
  3. Wissmann Amendment 3: reduce minimum side yard setbacks in residential districts to 10% of the lot width, not less than 5 feet and not needing to exceed 15 feet. Approved. Yes: McDaniel, Wissmann, Adams, Jack, Fronabarger. No: Monty, Fritzler.

Next came the night’s big surprise, Lance Jack’s amendment reinserting the Neighborhood Business (NB) district into the new zoning code (it is already part of the current zoning code). Jack used the alternative language Don Monty proposed at last month’s council meeting, with the exception that Jack’s Amendment would permit NB districts within one quarter mile of one another, rather than the one half mile Monty had proposed.

Council member Jane Adams made a motion to defer the question. It was this motion that ended discussion of the NB district at the last city council meeting. The motion was defeated, with Adams, Fronabarger, and Monty voting to defer and Jack, Wissman, McDaniel, and Fritzler voting to continue the discussion.

Council member Jane Adams then made a motion to amend Jack’s amendment by deleting auto repair shops from the list of special uses allowed in an NB district. The motion was defeated, with Adams, Fronabarger, and Monty voting to delete auto repair shops as a special use in an NB district, and Jack, Wissmann, McDaniel, and Fritzler voting not to delete auto repair shops as a special use in NB districts.

Next came the vote on Jack’s Neighborhood Business amendment. It was approved, with Jack, Wissmann, McDaniel, and Fritzler voting to include Neighborhood Business (NB) districts in the proposed zoning ordinance, and Adams, Monty, and Fronabarger voting against including NB districts. At this point, council member Don Monty announced that he would now vote against the entire zoning ordinance — an ordinance he had planned to vote in favor of — because of his opposition to the NB districts.

Next, council voted on the entire proposed zoning ordinance, as amended. The ordinance was approved, with Jack, Wissmann, McDaniel, and Fritzler voting to approve the ordinance, and Adams, Monty, and Fronabarger voting to oppose the ordinance.

Normally, this is where I’d weigh in with a couple thousand words of commentary. Unfortunately, as I said above, I don’t have time for that tonight, and I won’t until next week at the earliest. I’ll just give you a few quick bullet points that I can possibly expand on later.

  • I think council messed up the PUD ordinance by limiting the size of commercial buildings instead of limiting the size of individual commercial establishments.
  • I think the reduction in minimum side yard setbacks is a great improvement and council was right to approve it. This bears some explanation, so I may get into this in a future post,
  • I think the hysteria over the Neighborhood Business districts is not justified by the facts. I also think that the ordinance as approved isn’t perfect, but it can be improved in the future. Specifically, it might be worthwhile to restrict NB districts to parcels on major intersections or fronting a major thoroughfare. We could use some other method to deal with former institutional properties like old churches and schools or the old National Guard Armory.
  • In general, I think the anxiety over mixing business and residential uses, which we saw in the discussions of the PUD amendment and the NB amendment, is misplaced. The important thing is to have design and performance standards that produce good outcomes. This can be achieved.

Finally, I want to briefly highlight one item that did not receive a hearing at tonight’s meeting: accessory dwelling units (ADUs). These are sometimes called “granny flats,” which led some council members to erroneously conclude that they were meant only for people to house relatives. ADUs had been under consideration for several months and were pulled out of the ordinance largely due to the influence of one council member and a handful of vocal citizens. I think and hope that this is an issue that people simply don’t understand, and that with better information, people will not be fearful of a well-designed ADU ordinance. I plan to write more about this topic in the future.

If I get the time, I may write another post about the issues at stake in the April 2, 2013 council meeting. That will not happen until next week at the earliest.

Comments are welcome.

UPDATE: If you’re interested in everything else that happened at the city council meeting, check the liveblog at The Carbondaze Gazette. 

My Thoughts on the Proposed Changes to the Neighborhood Business District

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A furor has erupted during the last few weeks over proposed changes to the Neighborhood Business (NB) District in our zoning code. I have received several requests for comment in my email, so I’ll add my voice to the discussion. I’ll start with a brief summary of what is being proposed, followed by a lengthy explanation and discussion of the disputes as I understand them. At the end, I’ll explain my own position on this amendment.

First the explanation. Our zoning code as currently written contains a Neighborhood Business (NB) District. Click here to see the code as currently written. Currently, there are no properties zoned NB. There is a proposal working its way through the process that would change the NB district in a few ways. Click here (pdf) to view the proposed text as amended (additions to the current code are underlined, while text being removed has a line drawn through it).

First, the rewrite would remove all permitted uses. No use would be permitted by right in an NB district. This is important to note. Instead of permitted uses, the rewritten NB district would allow certain businesses as special uses. The perceived benefit of this system is that it allows more oversight. The process for getting a special use permit allows council and the planning commission to impose certain conditions on the operation of a business. Second, performance standards would be imposed for the special uses permitted in the NB district. Third, some of the requirements in the district (related to size and distance between districts) would change.

So far, so good, right? Unless you’re strictly opposed to any business in a neighborhood, then more oversight and additional performance standards would seem at first glance to be an improvement. Now we’ll turn to the concerns raised over this amendment. The dispute, as I understand it, lies in three areas, each of which I will explain.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by The Carbondale Observer

March 19, 2013 at 6:05 am

Guest Post: Scott McClurg on the Neighborhood Business Zone and Jane Adams’ Mailer on that Issue

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Over the past couple of weeks, there has been increasing concern about the proposed change to the Neighborhood Business (NB) district in our zoning code. I have received numerous inquiries on this issue and I received one request for a guest post slot from Carbondale Planning Commission member and SIUC professor Scott D. McClurg. His post, which originally appeared as a note on his Facebook page, is below. The original note attracted several comments, including some from Council candidates. To view that note, click here. I will share my thoughts on the Neighborhood Business District in another post, which you can view at this link

If you live in Carbondale, you probably received an alarming flier about a “backroom deal” to “change the city’s code” on behalf of some “powerful business interest.”  As a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, I encourage you to read this flier carefully.  And, I’d ask that you take into consideration the following response.  From my point of view, Councilwoman Adams — the author of the flier — simply gets some things wrong, fails to contextualize the proposal adequately, and is engaging in the most cynical of political acts by trying to scare voters.

What is she wrong about?  The most important is the characterization that everything is being done in secret.  As a planning a Commissioner on the Planning and Zoning Board, I received the same notification about this text amendment as I always do — roughly two weeks prior to meeting .  We dealt with it during a public and broadcast meeting, just as we always do.  As I understand Carbondale law, this is a process we always use — this was not unusual.  Another thing that is incorrect is that this is “the mayor’s” proposal.  The proposal came from city staff and, to the best of my knowledge, not from the Mayor’s office.  He might have known about the proposal, but that would be news to me and, I suspect, other members of the Board.  From my position, I see nothing here to suggest that there is a “backdoor deal”.  The Board followed the same procedure we always use and also held a public hearing, in which we could hear public comment.  If Councilwoman Adams isn’t in touch with City staff on things that concern her, that is her failure as a representative.  And it doesn’t excuse her suggestion that this business is being conducted in private.

How does she fail to contextualize the proposal?  Her flier mentions, “The Mayor’s proposed ‘Neighborhood Business District’…”  Leaving aside that this isn’t “the Mayor’s” proposal, we did not to the best of my understanding create a new zoning district.  We did take the old Neighborhood Business District and recommend that it be turned into a special use.  The logic behind that change is because the current code in NB Districts has basically meant there are no neighborhood businesses, including the “quiet neighborhood cafe” mentioned in the Councilwoman’s flier.  Instead of creating a specific zone for NB, this change will allow businesses in other districts as a “Special Use.”

It is also important to note that the vast majority of the text in the filer is the old zoning language.  There is some new language and it more flexible.  I encourage both the Council and citizens to consider that new (and old language ; its important to debate it.  However, its irresponsible for the Councilwoman to not acknowledge the following — Special Uses both 1) require greater justification to be used and 2) allow the city to place more conditions on the character of the proposed property.  In other words, if the Council wants to support a neighborhood business but only under specific circumstances (size of building, parking, etc.), then it gets to dictate those terms.  And then only after notifying neighboring properties, holding a Planning Commission Meeting, and finally getting approved by the Council itself.

By the way, let’s talk about this process.  There is nothing in the current zoning rules that allow the Mayor and City Manager to push this through without the input of citizens and, most importantly, the Council.  This is the very essence of representative politics in a democracy — some people like an idea, others don’t.  We resolve these differences through prescribed laws and practices, with representatives being held accountable for their decisions by the voters if the decisions are disliked.  Given that the process is being followed, why should the Councilwoman make negative claims?  Is the Councilwomen implying that the rest of the Council is bought off or derelict in their duty?  If so, she should show us the evidence rather than imply that somehow the process isn’t being followed.  And if she thinks there are flaws in how we made public decisions here in town, why hasn’t she offered proposals to the Council to change the flaws?  Again, her implication that this is a “backroom deal” implies that the process isn’t working or that the game is fixed.  Well, implications are not evidence evidence of wrongdoing and I see no evidence to suggest she thinks we need to change our rules of government.

Finally, why is this cynical?  Clearly the Councilwoman has objections to the proposal.  Why not lay them bare to the public as they are?  Why dress those objections up scary language like “backroom deal” and suggesting the Mayor and City Manager are “benefiting” (without any actual evidence to back up such a claim)?  Why sully the reputation of the City Staff, Planning and Zoning Board, and the rest of the Council by implying they are either covering up corruption or to stupid to notice?  Quite frankly, I cannot speak to her motives.  But I suspect that when politicians — which Councilwoman Adam’s no doubt is — think their point of view is going to lose, they attack their opponents rather than their ideas.  And since I’m on the Planning and Zoning Commission, I will not sit by idly when someone makes such claims involving my volunteer work as a citizen. I will speak up, object, and ask the Councilwoman for the apology she owes many of us who work to make Carbondale a great place to live.  She doesn’t need to agree with any of us, but giving us enough respect to not impugn our character without evidence is not too much to ask.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone should speak for or against the change in the code.  And, I have no qualms about postponing the final decision if citizens want more time to be informed. A healthy debate is a great thing for the city and for its residents.  But don’t just take Councilwoman Adam’s word for what is going on.  Heck, don’t just take my word for it.  Please make your own judgement based on your values and the facts, and please don’t let some alarming flier trick you into not making your own choice.

Please share widely.

Ed. note: The preceding was written by Scott D. McClurg of Carbondale, Illinois. 

Written by The Carbondale Observer

March 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

Guest Post: D. Gorton on Zoning and the Future of Carbondale

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I attended the public hearing at the Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday. I was impressed by the large turnout and by the helpful comments made by the people in attendance. One comment — by neighborhood activist D. Gorton — stood out, and I spoke with him after the meeting to ask if he would be willing to have it published as a guest post. He graciously agreed. I thank him for the opportunity to print his remarks, which appear in their entirety below. 

Madame Chairman, members of the Commission, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the issue of the proposed zoning changes.

This is part of a broader effort to revitalize our town, so I would like to offer a brief context for our discussion.

When I first came to Carbondale, I was honored to meet and become friends with Helen Westburg and Randy Nelson. I’m sure there are many people in this audience who remember them. For those of you who do not, Helen Westburg and Randy Nelson lived on Cherry St. Helen was a faculty wife. Randy Nelson was her next door neighbor. Randy had lost his sight in aerial combat in the Pacific Theatre in WW2. Randy went back to college on the GI Bill and attained a PhD in political science. He became a professor at SIU. Most important for me was that Helen, who later became the first and only Woman Mayor of Carbondale, and Randy who became a member of City Council, spurred the enactment of the first zoning code in 1974.

So, my remarks are derived from conversations that I had with Randy and Helen. Any mistakes that I make are mine alone.

The great economic wave that washed over Carbondale after WW2 was in part the returning veterans on the GI Bill. The university exploded with energy and students. The Barrow family of Carbondale and the Brown family, along with many other leaders in the town, were visionaries. They sought out and hired Delyte Morris to take charge of the university. They also established Memorial Hospital and Carbondale Clinic. Think about that for a moment – the great institutions that remain in Carbondale were both molded by these visionaries.

The growth at the university was explosive. As a result it became very lucrative to convert single-family homes to rooming houses and rentals.

By the late 60s and early 70s, the areas near the university were referred to as “student neighborhoods” by the city – dismissing the remaining residents. There was little or no code enforcement and no zoning. The result was practically a war zone with students and remaining residents in deep conflict. In addition, slumlords rose up to consolidate the rental houses. They assembled hundreds of buildings.

In the elections of 1974, Randy Nelson and Helen Westburg, along with the League of Women Voters, pushed for a reform ticket. The reforms, importantly for our discussion tonight, included residential and business zoning.

The zoning changes that they made were recommendations from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as I understand it. It was a “model” plan that largely reflected American’s concerns of the early 1970s: suburbs, tract development, auto congestion.

Helen and Randy both said that over time they became deeply disappointed in the codes they had helped put into place. For example: the housing plats on Cherry St were aligned with the Illinois Central Railroad (N/S), but Cherry St was not perpendicular. As a result, the buildings were too close to the property lines, especially on the sides. If a building was damaged by a fire or tornado, it could not be rebuilt…. It could not be adequately insured…. And it could not be used in an appraisal of the property. In other words, the new zoning actually decreased the accumulated capital of the city in the older neighborhoods.

Moreover, the zoning, as a result of a compromise, went right down the middle of Cherry St. On one side were residents and on the other side were largely rooming houses.

Another issue was the enforcement of the codes. If the city issued tickets, the slumlords often managed to get them dismissed in Court. To this day, as I understand it, there has seldom been a successful prosecution for over-occupancy of a rental in a R-1 residential district.

Eventually the city appeared to have consigned those neighborhoods to the slumlords and consciously moved their efforts to the East side of Carbondale with the development of the Mall, the transfer of all of the schools including Carbondale Community High School, and housing developments.

The strip was treated in a similar manner of “benign neglect.”

Make no mistake, however, the University was still growing and the strip was still vital. That continuing growth masked the underlying problems in the city.

That is the context of 1974: continued growth of the university, continued growth of business, and tremendous pressure on housing to accommodate students.

Tonight, we meet almost 40 years later. What is our context today? How do we proceed in a manner that will not lead to disappointment? I say that because I know everyone in this room, and the Commission, wants the very best for our town.

First of all, growth has stopped. It has stopped at the university. It has stopped in the town. Sales are flat at the mall. In fact, I understand that the company Henry Fisher founded back in the 70s, Home Rentals, did not pay any of their property taxes this year and are now delinquent. A Carbondale institution, Mississippi Flyway, announced last week it was going out of business.

In my opinion the decline will continue. The university will get smaller, perhaps dramatically so. As a result there is little pressure on housing. I understand that hundreds of houses in Carbondale are either marginally occupied by occasional rentals or completely unoccupied.

I want to be clear: I do not think that a downsizing of the university is necessarily a bad thing. If managed properly, with an eye on quality, SIUC will get better students, an enlivened faculty and a robust institution for the future.

While some of the big box stores are doing well, the Mall appears to be struggling. And remember, that sales taxes are the main source of city funds.

What happened? Partly, our town is susceptible to the national trends. A huge economic bubble, caused in part by sub prime mortgages, destroyed the housing market. Manufacturing, which used to be important in the region, along with coal mining, is nearly non-existent. What some people call the “higher education” bubble threatens to permanently affect the university.

The rise of the digital revolution promises to upend whole sectors of our economy, including higher education, while developing whole new industries and new ways of  learning.

Unfortunately, I think we have made a series of poor decisions. The university, instead of driving for quality as envisioned by Delyte Morris, instead conceived itself as the “economic engine” of the region. That meant that their goal was to keep up the enrollment by any means necessary including lower admission standards. Moreover, there was a focus on capital improvements – bricks and mortar – that would create jobs. Incredibly the City of Carbondale voted to give away $1 million dollars a year for 20 years in support of this effort. If we had been following the idea of quality, we would have sponsored a $1 million dollar a year scholarship program for gifted students. But that wasn’t discussed.

We abandoned our older neighborhoods and people left our town to settle elsewhere. Our schools, once the pride of Carbondale, have sagged. The elementary school in particular is not attractive to young families who choose instead to live in other school districts such as Carterville, Giant City or Unity Point.

But, lets look at a nearby town: Marion. Why do they appear to be doing well? Marion capitalized on its assets. It is a freeway/gas station town. Its location on I-57 has been exploited by the City of Marion to build motels, distribution centers, repair shops and manufacturing. They have lax zoning and a go-go attitude to development. They have succeeded brilliantly in their strategy.

But Carbondale is not like Marion. Nor is it like Paducah or Cape Girardeau. All of those cities have built on their unique assets, as must Carbondale.

What do we have that is unique? Carbondale is in the top 3% in Illinois and the top 4% nationally in education levels. Carbondale has a research university. Carbondale has a well-managed medical community and hospitals. We are developing a robust high-speed internet structure connecting our major institutions. We have a major railroad. We are surrounded by beautiful countryside. We have youth and youthful energy. We have a deep and abiding commitment to fairness and racial justice. We are welcoming to gays and gay families. Carbondale is a deeply comfortable place to just be yourself. In fact, the other day I saw a bumper sticker: “Keep Carbondale Weird”. That’s not what I have in mind, but it certainly is part of the uniqueness of the city.

Several years ago, my wife and I decided to rehabilitate houses. It was largely a defensive measure since we were surrounded by slumlords who cared not a bit for the appearance of their properties. What we discovered was beautifully built bungalows from the 1920s with dimensional lumber, strong foundations and graceful lines. Make no mistake about it, many of them are in very rough condition, but they can be restored. They are spread in a wide arc through the neighborhoods near the university across Walnut and Main and on to the neighborhoods of the Northwest.

We learned that there is a wonderful market for these houses. They are near the university and hospital. We also learned that zoning makes a difference to our properties. As I mentioned before, we can not rebuild structures that were  built too close to the property lines in the 1920s. This is a strong disincentive for someone to buy our houses.

We learned that the old neighborhoods, which once boasted small grocery stores and other small businesses, were no longer able to do that under the code adopted in 1974. We learned that auxiliary buildings for rental were not allowed as well: the so called mother-in-law flats. These “mixed uses” are important to understand and discuss. While they are appropriate in some places, clearly they are not in others.

However, it’s in the creation of wise zoning and its fair enforcement that will help cities as unique as Carbondale thrive.

This zoning code and the changes that I have seen do not address the concerns that I have outlined. Nor are they responsive to the times.

Find a way to make office space, housing and amenities available to this highly educated population and let them create the businesses of the future. Allow them to create families and partnerships that will sustain our town. Enable young people and elderly to live comfortably together. Follow our Comprehensive Plan and develop amenities such as bike lanes, walking paths, parks and green spaces. Imagine a more sustainable city.

Bear down on quality and responsive transparent government. Have encouragement for hard driving businesses. Bring out the uniqueness of Carbondale and watch it prosper. It’s within our grasp.

In closing, I again want to thank the Commission for this opportunity. I trust that you are as wise and as committed to the uniqueness of Carbondale as the Barrows, Browns, Nelsons, Westburgs, and the other visionaries who help build this town.

Ed. Note: The preceding was written by D. Gorton of Carbondale, Illinois. 

Written by The Carbondale Observer

January 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

Preliminary Thoughts on the Proposed Zoning Code Revision

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I’m still on hiatus, but since I’ve been talking about the need to reform our zoning code for the last couple of years, I thought I’d weigh in briefly. The city is holding a public hearing at 6:00 p.m. today at City Hall in room 108. I’ve had limited time to look at the proposed changes. I have read the summary of changes, which I understand to be incomplete, but I have not made a side  by side comparison of existing code and the proposed rewrite.

Before I get into specifics, I’ll talk a little more generally. Our existing code is a total mess and we need a complete change in approach. I’m on the record supporting a change away from use-based zoning to form-based zoning. The proposed changes do not switch Carbondale to a form-based code, so, in my view, they are less than ideal. But there are at least some improvements over our existing code in the rewritten code that make it superior to the code as it exists today.

Here is my bottom line: If council considers this rewrite a starting point and further reforms are to follow, then I can live with this proposed rewrite. If, as I suspect, council considers this rewrite the final word on zoning reform for the foreseeable future, then we need to go back to the drawing board and make further changes before passing this proposed code. 

That said, here are a few of the good changes, the bad changes, what should have been in the new code, and a few nitpicks. If you want to follow along, then download the summary of proposed changes (pdf) and the full text of the proposed code (large pdf). The following should not be considered an exhaustive commentary, as there are certainly things I have missed and possibly things that I have misunderstood.

The Good

  1. Design standards for buildings in certain districts. This is the best change in the proposed ordinance. You can find the design standards in §4.6.1 of the proposed code. This would affect large buildings in R-3 (high density residential) and PUD (planned unit development), and all buildings in BPR (primary business) districts. These requirements will improve the quality and appearance of our public spaces and produce better environmental outcomes.
  2. Reduced side setbacks in R1 (low density) districts. These changes are in §2.11.11. Currently, the code requires side setbacks of 10% of the lot width, with a minimum of 8 feet. The minimum lot size permitted is 50 feet wide, but that still requires a minimum setback of 8 feet, leaving only 34 feet in the center of a lot to hold a building. This change would reduce the setback to five feet, which would leave 40 feet for a building on a lot 50 feet wide.
  3. Reduced front setbacks in pre-1974 neighborhoods. These changes are in §2.11.9. Currently, city code requires a front setback of 20% of the lot depth or 25 feet in the R-1-5 district, which has a minimum depth of 100 feet (that’s not specified in the code, but the code specifies a minimum lot area of 5,000 square feet and a 50 foot minimum width, so if you do the math that leaves you with a 100 foot minimum lot depth). The problem is in the old neighborhoods in the heart of town. The existing structures do not have such deep setbacks. This change allows a setback based on the average setback of existing buildings on the block in neighborhoods built before 1974.
  4. Decreased setbacks for BPL (planned business) districts. These changes are in §2.21.7 to §2.21.9. This drops the front, side, and rear yard requirements to ten feet. The old code required a 40 foot yard in the front and a 20 foot yard in the side and rear.
  5. Eliminated minimum lot size for BPL (planned business) districts. This change is in §2.21.5. The old code mandated a minimum of four acres. The revised code specifically declines to set a limit, though it says the minimum will “generally” be four acres or larger.
  6. Parking requirements for mixed use. These changes are in §4.7.4(J). This clarifies language in the existing code allowing parking requirements to be reduced in mixed use developments where the proposed users will not need the parking area at the same time. This shared parking provision reduces the space required for parking in a mixed use development.

The Bad

  1. Business Lawns. Not only does the new code retain the noxious and wasteful “business lawns” that I have criticized before, it actually increases their depth in the PA (Professional Administrative) districts from 8 feet to 10 feet. While the lawn requirements are reduced for a BPL districts, I’d like to see them eliminated entirely and replaced with an impact fee that would go into a fund controlled by the city and dedicated to the purchase of contiguous land for parks and usable green space development. Tasteful landscaping does not require wasteful use of land.
  2. Buffer Yards. This change is in §4.1.8, and begins with the following: “Buffers shall be required for all new development and redevelopment in Carbondale.” This is a step in precisely the wrong direction. Buffers are designed to separate hostile forces (0r, in this case, uses) from one other. We should be trying to integrate diverse uses into fully functioning neighborhoods. Buffers are an obstacle to that. I could burn through thousands of words heaping scorn on buffer yards, but instead I’ll link to a comment from a previous post explaining my thoughts on buffer yards. This is almost a deal breaker for me.
  3. Parking requirements for libraries and schools. These are in §4.7.4 (I). The required parking for libraries is doubled in the new code. The required parking for schools is also increased, which would make it nearly impossible to return to neighborhood schools should the school districts wish to do so.

Things That Should Have Been Included

  1. Duplexes and “granny flats” in R-1 districts. There is no reason to have an R-1-5-D district. Duplexes and “granny flats” (secondary residential uses, generally in converted garages in backyards) should be allowed by right in all R1 districts. They could still be subject to R1 occupancy rules (one family and no more than one non-related person). If people are afraid that an irresponsible landlord would use this as a way to break blocks, duplexes and “granny flats” could be permitted only on an owner occupied lot. One way to do this would be to allow no more than one rental on a lot in an R1 district. That would allow a homeowner to rent one unit but would prohibit a landlord from renting two units. This is a common sense change.
  2. The changes permitting greater freedom in neighborhoods built before zoning in 1974 are nice, but they should go much farther. I’ve written about this before (see this link), but I will write about it again here. I suggest creating a new district. Call it a TND, for Traditional Neighborhood District, and apply it to the parts of town built before zoning. Allow the small or nonexistent front and side setbacks, rear access parking, secondary dwelling units, and neighborhood businesses that used to be a part of the fabric of American neighborhoods until misguided zoning outlawed them. Allow new developments to choose to be zoned according to the existing code or to be zoned as Traditional Neighborhood Districts. This would have the advantage of addressing some of the issues council member Jane Adams brings up in her blog post on proposed zoning rewrite.
  3. Sometimes people get upset about what they see as “spot zoning.” But if you want to get some of the benefits of a form based code without giving up your use based code, then small districts are the way to go. I’d like to see it specified that a district can be as small as one side of one block – say, for example, all the lots facing Willow Street, or Oakland, might be zoned one way, while neighboring lots are zoned another way. Small districts allow regulation of use while allowing varied uses in proximity to one another.
  4. Related to number 3, I’d like to see the zoning code zone building standing before 1974 in ways that allow them to be used for something approaching what they were designed for. A prime example is the sometimes controversial Oakland Auto Shop. The building, built before zoning as a Coca-Cola warehouse, is currently zoned R1. That is a joke. That building is not appropriate as a single family home. It, and every other commercial or institutional building standing before zoning, even those in primarily residential districts, should be rezoned to allow uses appropriate for the building. That may not be an auto shop, but in the case of the building at on the southeast corner of Oakland and Sycamore, and in several other cases, it is surely some commercial use.

Nitpicking

  1. I approve of the design standards I mentioned in “The Good” item 1. But I do have one nitpick. The BPR district requires a minimum height of 2 stories. I’d prefer to base minimum and maximum heights on the width of the public right of way plus the required setback. A wider right of way with a deeper setback would require a higher height minimum. A narrower right of way with a shallow setback would require a lower height minimum.
  2. In “The Good,” item 2, I praise the reduction in side setbacks. Yes, five feet is better than eight, but I’d prefer to reduce them even more. A side setback of three feet, no matter how wide the lot, would be fine, provided that provisions are made to prevent fire hazards. If you are willing to use masonry construction instead of wood, then a three foot setback is plenty.
  3. The new code requires the longest dimension of a home to be parallel to the street (§2.11.6). Has anyone from the consultancy hired to write the code visited Carbondale? Our beloved bungalows almost never have the longest dimension facing the street. Fortunately, this change only requires the longest side to “generally” face the street. It is still a silly regulation that should be struck from the code.

It is worth remembering that the summary document is known to be incomplete. The other changes in the code may be good or bad. We should not accept this code as-is unless it is understood to be a work in progress that will be amended in the coming months. A better solution would be to make changes to the code before it is passed. Improve it now and it will require fewer amendments later.

Comments are welcome.

Written by The Carbondale Observer

January 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

Better Regulations for Better Housing

with 8 comments

I was driving south on Poplar last weekend and I noticed that the “for sale” sign in front of the house on the northwest corner of Poplar and Walnut (5oo W. Walnut) had been replaced with a “for rent” sign. I sighed when I saw the number on the sign and realized that Home Rentals bought the property.

I have to admit, I felt pretty deflated. Of course Home Rentals bought the property. Home Rentals buys everything. I don’t need to spell out what that means. Another of Carbondale’s nicest older homes is in the hands of a company whose reputation among long time residents is…well, let’s just call it less than sterling.

I subscribe to the Arbor District email list, and I was heartened to see that the Arbor District is monitoring the situation. It really clarifies the issues to see an officer of a company with a “less than sterling” reputation enjoying a life of privilege and ease while watching the quality of Carbondale’s housing stock decline noticeably. I hope the members and board of the Arbor District will maintain their vigilance and continue their efforts to improve the quality of life in Carbondale.

I also saw the post on the Carbondaze Gazette offering the following information:

The company has looked at the growth of the medical industry in the area and believes, with suitable renovations, it would make an ideal rental for medical professionals moving to the area.

I really don’t know what to say to this. Will the renovations involve covering the brick with clay-colored vinyl siding? Is the company capable of maintaining a property in a condition that would appeal to medical professionals? Readers can draw their own conclusions.

I don’t begrudge people wealth and success when they achieve it by doing something productive and useful to society and the community. It’s a lot harder to accept it when people get rich by doing harm to people and communities. It’s tough to see bad behavior rewarded, and it’s a rebuke to those who think unregulated free markets always produce good outcomes.

Carbondale’s economy has four main pillars: education, medical services, retail, and real estate – especially residential rentals. Real estate has generated a lot of money for some people in Carbondale. Some landlords build nice properties and maintain them well. They provide a valuable service to the community.

Others build insta-slums or they buy nice properties and let them decline. They intentionally allow over-occupation, which can drive down the value of neighboring properties. They cover their properties – and huge sections of the town – with the same cheap, ugly siding. And they get rich doing it.

I like to believe that people can change for the better. Some would call it naive, and maybe it is, but I know that at least some people can stop behaving badly. If a person or company – a landlord, for example – had a bad reputation and wanted to change it, the behavior would need to change.

That would mean maintaining properties in excellent condition, making sure to obey restrictions on occupation (especially in R-1 districts), building attractive properties that enhance the community rather than detracting from it, evicting problem tenants, and generally being a good neighbor. If the behavior changes, the reputation will change.

Of course, not everyone wants to change. Some people don’t care whether what they do improves or harms people and communities. As long as they’re making money, they’re happy. That’s a shame. It’s also why we have regulatory power. Clearly our existing regulatory structure hasn’t prevented bad behavior. It may be time to look at new policies and regulations.

A strict set of design standards could prevent some of the unfortunate aesthetic outcomes. Zoning reforms could prevent the shabby urbanism that makes up most of central Carbondale. A different approach to property taxes could make slums financially unfeasible. People are sometimes suspicious of change because so much change is for the worse, but we should remember that change can be for the better.

It is the city’s responsibility to regulate in the public interest. The county may also have a role to play. But the ultimate responsibility belongs to the citizens. Local government will respond to pressure from citizens. If it doesn’t respond, local government is easy to change. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that there are elections coming up next year.

Comments are welcome.

Written by The Carbondale Observer

August 30, 2012 at 7:45 am

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