Monday, October 27, 2008

A contrary look at transit-oriented zoning

I heard an interesting proposal last week from architect-planner Terry Shook, who keeps a sharp eye on what's happening to properties along the Lynx Blue Line. It's a different way to look at the property-value increase along the line -- who benefits and who should benefit, and whether the city is letting developers get off too easy on the design of TOD projects.

The way it works now: The city, hoping to spur transit-oriented development (TOD) projects along the rail corridor, generally has taken the initiative to rezone properties to the TOD zoning. This creates an incentive to developers, which is why the city has done it.

But, as Shook points out, it also raises the value of the property, even if no developer has bought it yet. So in many cases it's the original property owners, not the developer seeking to do TOD, who benefits from the new, more intense zoning.

Why not, he suggests, hold off on giving out the TOD zoning until a development proposal comes in? That way the city has some leverage to hold over a developer whose proposal might not, otherwise, have great design? He offers in evidence the very tall project going up on Tremont at Camden Road: Its street-front design isn't very good, although it meets the TOD zoning requirements. If a property is already rezoned for TOD, the planners don't have as much leverage as they might if the owner was having to win a rezoning.

Here's some quick armchair analysis: The Shook idea would mean developers have to fight for a rezoning, which could well be a disincentive. Yet it would also mean the developers wouldn't be paying as much for the land, assuming that TOD-zoned land costs more to buy than industrial- or business- or other-zoned land. So while one incentive would be removed, there'd be another in its place. And if developers aren't paying so much for the land, they'd be more amenable to including affordable units in their projects -- especially if the city planners were pushing them to do so, in order to win a TOD rezoning.

I'm not saying Shook's idea is the solution to all problems. I'm saying it's an interesting view to ponder. Any developers or planners or property owners have thoughts, either pro or con?


Rick said...

"And if developers aren't paying so much for the land, they'd be more amenable to including affordable units in their projects -- especially if the city planners were pushing them to do so, in order to win a TOD rezoning."

Thank you Mary for finally admitting that transit and its associated development have as much to do with social engineering as anything else. The honesty, even if inadvertent, is refreshing.

I've got a better idea. Create a new zoning category called CRAP (Communally Regulated Available Property). Then you could put all land into that category which would conveniently allow you to tell everyone exactly what they can do with their own property.

It would be so much easier don't you think?

Lee said...

Rick - ALL zoning is social engineering. If you look back at the history of zoning, it was started because land owners, developers, businesses, and industries were not building places that were safe for the people who lived and worked there.

The claim I'm sure you'd like to make is that 'the market', if left to its own devices, would provide safe and humane environments.

This claim is wrong, proven wrong over and over in this country (and not just in development - look at our economic markets) and everywhere else around the world.

There are situations where intervention is called for. Yes, it is social engineering. And sometimes that is a good and necessary thing.

Uncle Dennis said...

The value of the land would increase whether it has TOD zoning or just the promise of TOD. Value is relative.
I believe the power is rightfully in the hands of planning, and they need to adopt and keep higher standards.


Rick said...

Actually, Lee you would be wrong in your assumption about my feelings about "the market". Then again...always taking the oversimplified road is easiest isn't it? That's what I was critiquing about the suggestion in this article. If getting exactly what the pro-transit people want in every single facet of development around the transit stops is their goal, then they need to just say that and make it happen. That's what the fictitious CRAP zoning would allow them to do.

I know that zoning has its place. In fact I've participated in multiple rezoning efforts to make sure development efforts near my home were not detrimental to my own property value. However, zoning was not intended to allow some government technocrat to decide every single detail of what goes on in the world outside their taxpayer funded ivory tower.

In my humble opinion, manipulating the zoning code to get "say so" on the street-front design of a building that meets all other zoning regulations would fall into that micro-managing category.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with how the rezoning process can work, but let's say they went with the idea thrown out by Mr. Shook. Leave the zoning alone until some developer comes along wanting to build TOD on it. Well, what happens if the current owner of the land decides to just keep the existing zoning and move forward. Did you know for example, that certain categories of commercial zoning allow for apartments? I've seen it happen before where the developer calls your bluff and says "ok, you won't give me what I want in the rezoning, I'll just build what the current zoning allows. My current zoning allows me to build low quality apartments. I'm going to build that instead of the high quality condos you want. Guess what? There's nothing you can do about it."

Lee, would that make you feel better?

Anonymous said...

Humble opinion? You sure about that?

stephen said...

Why is it so hard for developers to make a friendly street-front design? Nobody should have to tell them to.

Anonymous said...

Shook's idea can be achieved by simply requiring design review. go ahead and pre-zone.

While zoning can have an impact on property value, the facility has a substantial impact even without the zoning. It doesn't matter if it is a light rail line, freeway, airport, or sewer line, the facility increases the value of the property no matter what it is zoned. Funny how getting an easement or right-of-way is called a taking when the property owners value will skyrocket due to the public's investment. too bad the courts don't take into consideration the resulting impact of the public investment when deciding how much the easement or right-of-way is worth.

To make Lee's point, if developers wanted to make great communities for all price points they wouldn't whine about sidewalks and street trees. Look at the neighborhoods around that went in when they were not required. They are easy to find, as they are not there.