Will the Unified Development Code Divide Us?

You may have recently received a mailing from the city of Roswell regarding the “Initiation of Proposed Map Amendments.”  Essentially this letter was sent to inform some residents, roughly 13,000 of them, that their property may be rezoned as part of the Unified Development Code, an effort to update the city’s antiquated zoning ordinances.  The letter I received was careful to point out that “all of the existing rights allowed on the property will remain,” and that if I am “satisfied with the suggested conversion of my property category, I do not need to do anything.” In case you are wondering, I am satisfied and I’m not doing anything and according to Brad Townsend, planning and zoning director, only about 20 people have voiced their concerns.  I am excited to be moving from “C-3 Highway Commercial” to “DX Downtown Mixed Use!”  The overwhelming majority of residents will see no change in the way their property is intended to be used.

 

To be blunt, I’m skeptical of zoning.  I think it’s mostly unnecessary.  Most of the best places in our country and the world were built before the advent of zoning.  Many of the great places in Roswell were built without zoning.  Prior to zoning, people generally knew what made sense to build in a certain spot.  Granted, industry encroached on residential areas in inappropriate ways as the industrial revolution picked up steam, especially in large cities.  The natural response was to create regulations that separated incompatible land uses.  Our obsession with single use zoning began in the 20’s & 30’s and by the time the 50’s rolled around, post-war construction was booming and we had relegated virtually every land use to a specific place on a map whether it made sense or not.  Now, virtually every city in the country has a similar zoning code and those codes for the most part mandate a suburban development pattern.  Question to ponder... is suburbia a product of the free market or government regulation?

That said, the unintended consequences of 40+ years of post World War II zoning and suburban development started to become noticeable in the 1990’s as some people began to see sprawl as a problem.  More and more data started to point to our highly zoned and segregated development pattern as a contributor to many issues such as the obesity epidemic, global warming, environmental degradation, declining social capital and placelessness.

We built a country so uniform that it is now difficult to tell whether you are in Florida or Kansas except that one state has small rotating storms and the other has big rotating ones. A rough estimate is that 30 million buildings have been constructed in the past 50 years.  Out of those, 99+% are wholly unremarkable from an architectural standpoint.  Try to think of one place that was built in the past 50 years that is incredible that did not require some sort of variance to get built.  What I’m saying is that our modern zoning creates mundane places that are in no way memorable.  

Now, I’m a realist and understand that no American municipality would dare try to completely repeal it’s zoning codes.  But they can change them. The famed architect and planner Andres Duany is fond of saying “no one has ever dismantled a bureaucracy, not Napoleon, not Hitler. You can, however, change what they administer.”  Ideally, we want to create more Canton Street and Sloan Street and less Alpharetta Highway and Holcomb Bridge.  Our current codes can easily permit an auto oriented strip mall in most sections of the city but it’s much more difficult (impossible) to replicate the section of Canton Street from Norcross to Magnolia which is arguably the most successful 300 feet of retail and residential OTP.  Why would a zoning code make it illegal to replicate that?  Is it unsafe? Is it unsightly?

The UDC begins to help alleviate this problem.  It’s not radical but it is a change.  It even has pictures to illustrate design requirements.  It works to bring the 2030 Comprehensive Plan to life by coding for what we want to see rather than coding for what we don’t want to see.  The new code is intended to help everyone, from layperson to developer, understand what development on a certain property or roadway should look like.  Code Studio, the firm that was selected to write the UDC, is top notch.  They have worked with a committee of stakeholders from our city to draft a document that will help the city achieve the goals set forth in the 2030 comprehensive plan.  They have written similar codes for Raleigh, Denver and Memphis which tells me that they know what they are doing.  

At this point, most of the work is done but there is still time to opine.  There will be public comment meetings held August 19-21 around town.  Times and locations can be found on the city website.