In 1971, Richard Nixon was president, gas cost 40 cents a gallon, bell bottoms were in style, and Baltimore’s current zoning code was passed. A lot has changed since then, and Baltimore is rewriting its code in an effort to keep up. But just like DC’s, the rewrite has faced quite a few hold ups.
Most cities want mixed-use development, and a growing number of people want to live car-free. These are big changes for Baltimore, which was an industrial town when the current code went into place.
The proposed code would provide a big boost for smart growth
There’s lots to be excited about for those who want to live in a vibrant and walkable city. Under the proposed new code, areas around rail transit stations will have special transit-oriented development designations that will allow for denser development and less parking.
The code also calls for removing parking requirements from some zones altogether and relaxing them in others.
Under a new category known as Industrial Mixed-Use, obsolete buildings can become artists’ live-work spaces or workshops for industrial entrepreneurs. And under a provision known as Neighborhood Commercial, structures in rowhouse neighborhoods that were once used as corner stores can once again be used for business.
By allowing long-abandoned buildings to be developed and setting policies that favor people over cars, the new zoning code has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life in Baltimore.
Baltimore’s City Council is holding things up
Unfortunately, the zoning code has spent the last nine years waiting for the Council to approve it.
In 2006, the City Council passed a master plan that called for a zoning rewrite. Work on the new code began in 2008, the Planning Commission held hearings in 2012, the City Council held its own hearings in 2013, and the Council Land Use and Transportation Committee started going through the entire code page by page in 2014 . The committee still isn’t finished.
With the 2016 elections approaching, many observers are concerned the Council may not even pass the bill!
Part of the reason the process has taken so long is that City Council members are pushing for a large number of changes. Fourteenth District Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke wants to remove those parts of the code that ease parking requirements, and she has shown a great deal of hesitation towards anything that increases population density.
The Council also wants to continue being involved in specific local land use cases. Under the current code, the Council is responsible for approving certain conditional uses. A conditional use is a use that, due to the impact it has on the surrounding area, is best approved on a case by case basis. This is referred to as “conditional by ordinance.” In most cities, a zoning board handles these issues.
The proposed code would remove this authority from the Council and make all conditional uses subject to zoning board approval. There is a clear consensus among Council members that conditional by ordinance should be in the code for certain uses.
Council members like having this power, as it gives them the authority to approve development in their districts based on what they feel is in the best interests of the affected community. They also don’t trust the zoning board as they feel its decisions are too often in favor of developers.
One use currently subject to conditional by ordinance is that of multifamily conversions in rowhouse districts. Under the proposed code, anyone who owned a rowhouse could convert it into a multifamily dwelling as long as they met very strict standards set forth in the code. However, many Council members want to retain conditional by ordinance when it comes to this use.
Councilwoman Clarke also wants to remove Neighborhood Commercial from the code. Neighborhood Commercial would allow for a limited number of commercial uses to be opened in structures located in rowhouse neighborhoods that have historically been used for commercial purposes.
Corner stores were once staples of Baltimore communities. But over time they became associated with crime, loitering, and general urban decay. As a result, and due to planning philosophies that favored a complete separation of uses, these stores became nonconforming uses when Baltimore passed its last zoning code in 1971. This meant that once stores closed for two years, only residences could be built in them. It also made it impossible for new stores to open up.
Many have questioned this policy in recent years. Since these stores were in structures built for commercial uses, many of them became vacant and have remained that way. Many areas of the city are food deserts where residents lack access to fresh food and vegetables. In Baltimore and around the country, and mixed use development is becoming increasingly desirable.
Historic preservationists, community development professionals, and some neighborhood organizations, sick of all the vacant properties in their communities, have strongly supported Neighborhood Commercial. But Councilwoman Clarke continues to remain skeptical of this designation, and Fourth District Councilman Bill Henry wants it to be made conditional by ordinance.
The Council members argue that since some businesses operate in an irresponsible manner, all businesses should be banned from residential areas or subject to approval from the City Council.
These proposed changes would be detrimental to Baltimore
Requiring certain conditional uses to go before the Council presents a problem. When a conditional use is handled by the zoning board, the decision is based on a clear set of criteria set forth in the code. When conditional uses go before the council, politics takes over and the outcome becomes difficult to determine.
This adds a great deal of uncertainty to the process and makes it difficult for developers to obtain financing. And that means it’s a deterrent to investment in some of Baltimore’s most distressed communities.
Conditional use by ordinance is especially harmful to small developers who lack political connections. Designating uses such as Neighborhood Commercial, multifamily rowhouse conversions, and residential development within Industrial Mixed-Use zones as conditional by ordinance will have a negative impact on development and set up significant obstacles to population growth in the city.
The detrimental impact of parking requirements has been well documented on this site and elsewhere. Given that much of Baltimore was built before widespread use of the automobile, parking requirements just aren’t practical in large parts of the city. Many of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods could not be built were they to follow modern day parking requirements.
Supporters of the new code are pushing it forward
A number of different groups are working to get the code passed. The Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the Maryland Building Industry Association, the Community Development Network of Maryland, and the Baltimore Development Workgroup recently signed on to an open letter to the City Council calling for the code to pass.
The Citizens Planning and Housing Association is also running a blog in support of the code that covers the Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee’s work sessions.
It is the job of the City Council to thoroughly vet all legislation in order to ensure it is in the interest of their constituents. However, land use works best when everyone is playing their proper role and individual land use decisions should be left in the hands of the zoning board. It’s time for the Council to pass the code and keep its most transformative provisions intact.