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Thoughts on Zoning Strings

Zoning Past

The City of Atlanta is exploring new ways to define and limit how properties are developed as part of the ongoing zoning ordinance rewrite. Over the last 100 years, there have been a range of approaches to regulating land development. Euclidean zoning, the traditional use-based system for regulating land in the US, has been found wanting for decades. A more recent alternate approach to address Euclidean shortcomings are Form Based Codes. A brief history of this approach can be found here (thanks to Wikipedia).

Zoning Strings (ZS) are another new way of packaging land regulations in cities, and the concept is being explored as a solution for Atlanta. In light of this, we’ve spent time researching the proposal. Our goal has been to try and determine if ZS are truly a better way to code for better outcomes, or just another zoning strategy that will perpetuate the same problems cities are currently struggling with.

Typically, cities begin a zoning rewrite process by defining a unifying vision and outlining goals to achieve that vision. Then, they calibrate regulations to achieve those goals. We reference everyone back to the Atlanta City Design (ACD) as the guiding vision document for Atlanta’s zoning rewrite (and CDP update and Tree Ordinance rewrite, too). We also note that while this document is very much on point, it was crafted in 2015-2017, before the current housing crisis become so acute. All that to say, the call for a more equitable, inclusive city is far more urgent today than when written.

The ACD outlines five core values: Equity, Progress, Ambition, Access, and Nature. These values exist in tension, and require balance and tradeoffs to achieve the ultimate goal of Dr. King’s “Beloved community.” Balance means that no one pillar trumps the other. For example, folks clamoring to protect the City’s tree canopy at all costs but not simultaneously looking at ways to expand more equitable housing choices are not truly promoting the ACD vision of the Beloved Community. At KUA, we believe that our codes and regulations need to be calibrated to allow more housing choices throughout the City, if we ever hope to be equitable and inclusive. We also believe that more housing choices can be achieved in balance with all of these core values.

Zoning Present

So how do ZS fit into this picture? Before we answer that question, let’s look at how they are intended to function. We think a better name for Zoning Strings would be Zoning Mixer. Zoning Mixer makes more sense to us as a description, because the way ZS work is akin to the visual of a simple sound board. Imagine this board with different dials and one critical lever, each with a range of settings. The sound board gives users the ability to customize all kinds of control outputs with a limited number of inputs. In other words, it provides users with a range of customized land use controls that can be mixed and matched based upon the context of place: the type of neighborhood, type of street, parcel location, etc. The hope is that using standardized settings with custom combinations will simplify oversight by the Office of Zoning & Development. The ultimate goal is to create a user-friendly, predictable and flexible ordinance.

Something that hit home in the most recent public zoning meeting were thoughts about our current zoning ordinance, and what it will take to overhaul it. Our current zoning ordinance comes from 1981, and even at that time it was an incredibly poor fit for our city fabric. Over time, the ordinance has been updated to include some performance and form-based methods. This hybrid zoning approach is very typical of US zoning ordinances today, and Atlanta’s current ordinance is as bad as they come. Because we love metaphors, imagine an orchestra. The City has a goal of creating an urban symphony, but we were given some old instruments that are significantly out of tune. Atlanta has spent the last forty years patching and modifying these instruments to customize a less crappy symphony, often on a community-by-community basis. The current instruments are still out of tune, and very hard to play, but they do suck a little less and are slightly more calibrated to each community compared to what we started with in 1981. Examples of these community specific zoning districts are Special Public Interest Districts, Neighborhood Commercial Districts, and Historic Districts. While these districts have many positive urban benefits, it’s important to note that they make the zoning code much harder to understand, use and administer.

From a political perspective, zoning is power, and neighborhoods tend to like the customization they’ve received under the current ordinance, even if they are a poor fit. No community is going to like the idea of losing their specially calibrated ordinance, unless they are promised a new, shiny, equally calibrated one. Any zoning rewrite proposal that doesn’t provide this special calibration will likely have a hard time passing.

We think that an effective Zoning Mixer should provide a methodology for standardized customization. The dials can be calibrated across a range of individual settings to better ‘fit’ the context of the specific community. The current ZS dials include the following: Form, Frontage, Site and Use. Form speaks to the massing (height and size) of a building. Frontage is about how buildings engage the street (including sidewalk requirements, front setbacks and street-facing elevations). Site includes non-building related elements, such as parking, access, side and rear setbacks and signage. All of these dials should be relatively straightforward to use and customize.

The most critical component on the Zoning Mixer board is a really, really powerful lever: the Use Lever. It defines what types of uses are permitted on a parcel of land. Zoning is inherently exclusionary by its very nature: zoning ordinances are designed to exclude certain uses from certain parcels across the city. This exclusion made a lot more sense 100 years ago when cities were legitimately worried about locations of heavy industry relative to where people lived. But since that time, zoning has morphed to exclude traditional uses such as corner stores, granny flats, and duplexes from wide swaths of our city. Note that the City of Atlanta’s 1929 zoning ordinance allowed duplexes, granny flats, and some home businesses in all dwelling districts.

The Use Lever is the most important part of the mixing board to pay attention to. The specific settings on the dial have tremendous impact. If the lowest setting still only permits one single family house without a granny flat, then we will not have made any housing choice progress with this zoning rewrite. It’s important to point out that this is the current Use setting for Buckhead, and they may want to keep that option. But to be fair, they are allowed to have detached servants’ quarters currently. If they lose the ability to provide servant housing and instead must allow grandmothers to have their own cottage on property, is that a step forward? Seems like it might be.

The other typically important input is the Parking slider. In ZS, this is part of the Site dial. Gratefully, this is no longer as critical to Atlanta, thanks to really important parking policy reforms passed as part of the Zoning Quick Fixes in 2018-19. These reforms eliminated all parking requirements for properties located near MARTA stations and for buildings built before 1965. Additionally, the city’s Inclusionary Zoning policies eliminate parking requirements for most rental housing developments within the Beltline Overlay. We need to make sure these current policies stay on the books. Ideally, we could go even further.

Upgrading our current broken system to a new mixing board as a tool is helpful, but it’s just a swapping of tools unless we adjust the settings on the Use Lever. The current system is massively unwieldy, with approximately 200 different zoning districts in Atlanta today. Staff levels for the Office of Zoning and Development (OZD) are critically low, we believe in the single digits. We hope Zoning Strings will allow a more concise tool to provide this expected customization, with a standard set of inputs/dials on the soundboard.

The first city in the nation to apply a full version of ZS will be Los Angeles. We say ‘will be’, because they haven’t officially adopted their new ordinance yet. We were told that LA has a Planning Office of hundreds of staff. They also have a population that is almost eight times that of Atlanta’s. Their current projected budget for 2023 for their Planning Office is $62 million. Atlanta’s proposed budget is approximately $23 million for 2023. But this is absolutely NOT a fair comparison. Atlanta includes their building department within that $23 million. LA has a separate line item of $139 million for their building department. LA’s budget is really easy to access here. Atlanta has a 500 page PDF you an wade through here. Crazily, the non-profit that put the budget access page together for Atlanta FORGOT to include a link to City Planning on their home page. WTF ATL?

We are hearing that the City plans to engage neighborhoods to work through custom settings calibrated to place and current residents’ desires. This leads to the question of how long and lengthy will the calibration process be? What are the staffing levels required to do this calibration? Is the city going to provide adequate resources to the Office of Zoning & Development to staff up to do this? Our current Office of Zoning is too critically short staffed to administer the current dysfunctional ordinance. We are not optimistic they will be properly resourced to undertake the necessary mapping and overhaul.

One other interesting observation from reading about LA’s new code is that they include a fifth option on their mixing board: Overlays. They still need these, even with all the customization provided. One would expect there might need to be some form of Overlay function for our current districts like the Beltline. We are curious if there will be enough baked in settings to address historic districts, or if those will require their own overlays as well. It seems like a number of current Overlays may need to be maintained through a rewrite. Which then leads to a follow up question: is there reasonable hope that ZS+Overlays will actually streamline the zoning process for the City?

Zoning Future/Our Concern

The Zoning String proposal has the potential to provide each community with a custom toolkit to calibrate to the current exclusive standards already in place, just done a little more exactly. It might also allow each neighborhood to play its own NIMBY symphony. Like any tool, use them with care and caution. Consider the difference between a handsaw and a power saw. Odds are low that you’ll cut your arm off with a hand saw, but it is going to take you forever to build a house. Power saws are critical to speed things up, but they also have the ability to amputate and cause great harm if not used properly. We need to make sure our city is staffed with people that can safely handle power tools like ZS.

We also expect that agreeing on a form of regulations like ZS will take time, and calibrating to individual communities will also take a large amount of time and resources. The current housing crisis and proposed 2023 budget would indicate that we are in short supply of both. That’s why pushing for interim housing choice expansion is critical. The current mayor has spent his first two years working to shore up public safety and keep Buckhead from seceding. Both efforts are critical for the success of Atlanta, but we are not seeing any zoning-related housing policies coming forth from his office. We also expect the severe short staffing of OZD limits their ability to do much besides barely keep the lights on. This leaves City Council as the hope for any interim policy.

There are multiple new council members that are pro housing choice. We need to push them, now. The best place to start on interim housing policy is Amir Farokhi’s failed policy from 2020. This is a case where the policy was good, but the roll out and messaging was substandard, to be polite. To be fair, the policy was being updated in near real time based upon community input. The revised policy changes were definitely lost in the noise of people being upset about initial proposals. And Buckhead. Buckhead’s exclusionary tendencies aren’t going anywhere, and neither is our current housing crisis. Recent comments by our Mayor in Atlanta Civic Circle suggest that he is realizing his goal of rolling out public land for affordable housing is moving a lot slower than anticipated. This puts even more pressure on interim housing fixes like Amir’s legislation.

Atlanta absolutely must find a more effective way to provide housing and opportunities for all citizens. There is no doubt in our minds that the current system is failing our City. We will continue to watch how Zoning Strings is intended to be rolled out and how it would be deployed. We’ll report out more as we continue to refine our thoughts on this part of the zoning rewrite process. In the meantime, it is reasonable to let your councilperson know that we need more city resources dedicated to support the current operations in City Planning, particularly Office of Zoning and Development. It is budget season RIGHT NOW, so please email your elected representatives about this now, and let’s push Council on interim housing policies too!


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