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Zoning Equals Better Buildings, Cities

<![CDATA[Using parking zoning laws in a different way resulted in this pedestrian-friendly streetscape in Coral Gables, FL. Turn to p. 50 to see how an art installation added an extra dimension to this space. Photo: Steven Brooke, courtesy Cooper Robertson]]>

New York and Miami are two examples of cities that are using zoning regulations to move beyond defining usage.

This rendering is an example of what will result from a 40-yr. effort to connect Midtown Manhattan with the Hudson River through the 40-block Hudson Yards district. Photo courtesy Cooper Robertson

By Donald Clinton AIA, MRAIC, LEED AP, Cooper Robertson

For architects and urban designers, understanding zoning tools can be key to good design and good opportunities. While in much of the country municipalities try to create planning policies before drafting zoning codes, New York City and Miami (with its form-based code), for example, use zoning as the dominant tool for implementing planning policy. Whether that’s the best way to proceed or not, it hasn’t stopped those cities from innovating on policies for improving the quality of life and addressing other social concerns. Many of the ideas can help other towns and cities better manage change.

Over the years, cities such as New York have frequently used the incentive of allowing increased building height or density as a tool to drive planning policy. For this strategy to succeed, a city or county needs to be growing and thriving, with ample demand for rentable and saleable space. It also requires creative zoning ordinances that balance the costs of meeting public goals with the benefits a landowner gains through taller buildings or higher density on their properties.

When it comes to mixed-use neighborhoods, the historic role of zoning has been to segregate uses by district. Yet, today’s commercial and industrial facilities are generally not the “noxious neighbors” they once were. Today, diverse mixed-use neighborhoods are desirable places to live, helping to reduce commuting needs and leading to communities that evolve more successfully as cities grow and change.

One of the most promising vehicles for creative zoning is the concept of a “special district,” in which the rules are tailored to the unique characteristics of the location. Special-district strategies can foster design-driven regulation within the confines of those areas. In this way, cities and towns create designs for what they would like to see in their neighborhoods and buildings, and then they write a “lean ordinance” to allow those designs to happen.

An example is New York City’s Hudson Yards 40-block business district. For this area, Cooper Robertson prepared an urban-design framework and zoning plan that succeeded in expanding Midtown Manhattan westward to the Hudson River, overcoming a number of challenges. Among other things, the project team proposed extending a subway line to the center of the area—an essential ingredient to attracting offices and an expanded convention-center complex. These investments and an expansive public realm helped stimulate adjacent private development.

Using parking zoning laws in a different way resulted in this pedestrian-friendly streetscape in Coral Gables, FL. Turn to p. 50 to see how an art installation added an extra dimension to this space. Photo: Steven Brooke, courtesy Cooper Robertson

Dozens of cities nationally have clear opportunities for applying ideas from zoning codes such as those in New York City. For example, large projects in most areas must go through at least some form of discretionary review, even if the project follows all of the local zoning rules. These can be by discretionary committee or town council, or both. A better idea is to devise zoning that lets projects get built “as-of-right,” which basically means: Follow the rules and all you need to do is file for a building permit.

In much of the country, minimum standards are set for parking and no upper limit is imposed. Large sections of Manhattan require that no parking be provided at all. If parking is permitted in certain areas, strict limits are imposed on how much can be provided. This tailoring of parking to context is now spreading elsewhere, acknowledging that less parking is needed where good transit options exist. This strategy and strategies for shared parking garages can reduce development costs and make housing more affordable and economic development initiatives more feasible. The approach was applied in Cooper Robertson’s streetscape project for Coral Gables, FL, making it more pedestrian friendly and encouraging a lively dining and retail district.

Overall, an understanding of the tools of zoning can be key to good design and the creation of value. While every city has its own set of issues regarding zoning—including the unique challenges of New York—valuable solutions for widespread, common challenges can be found in many of America’s greatest places.

Donald Clinton, AIA, MRAIC, LEED AP, is a partner at Cooper Robertson, New York ( He has represented private and institutional clients before the New York City Planning Commission and led complex projects through their planning and entitlement phases, including the Fordham Univ. Lincoln Center campus and the Lincoln Center Constituent Development Plan.

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