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Cleveland considers a zoning update to allow more urbanity

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/22/15 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

On the date (October 21, 2015) that Marty McFly set the Delorean time machine to land in “Back to The Future, Part II” Cleveland considered taking its zoning code back to a place that will support more urban, walkable places.

Since the 1920s, zoning has moved cities like Cleveland and the main street depicted in the Hollywood blockbuster light years away from producing the kind of places that are comfortable to walk or bike. Initially, zoning helped move people away from smokestacks. Arguably, it went too far in "separating uses" or living and commercial space. By the midcentury, city zoning was carbon copying the suburbs—expanding lot sizes, reducing density and allowing parking lots in front for the convenience of cars.

<br />Clevelanders on a bike to work day moving through the urban space of Gordon Square.

It's a recognition that cities of Nashville and Cincinnati had about a decade ago: That zoning was standing in the way of “delivering the (urban housing) product that Millennials and Baby Boomers want,” national expert Hazel Borys told a crowded room of city leaders at the Global Center for Health Innovation yesterday.

Nashville had significant growth through the Recession, she noted, and Cincinnati is starting to because of an invention that "Back to The Future’s" Dr. Emmett Brown might be proud to call his own: Form-Based Code.

“(Cleveland) You’ve said you want a form-based code,” said Borys, whose firm PlaceMakers, LLC created Nashville’s. “They produce 10% higher city revenue per acre than suburban development.”

The “DNA” of a form-based code—density, buildings that meet the street, shorter blocks, higher WalkScores—can already be found in areas of Cleveland.

In Tremont, Shaker Square, Ohio City, University Circle, and Gordon Square where, she added, Cleveland’s "UF (Urban Form) District" is a good baby step, she noted. It will be applied this year to Detroit Avenue between W. 77th & W. 85th and on Lorain Avenue between W.123rd and W. 136th. Cleveland is considering other areas where it could produce urban development.

A form-based code emphasizes that which produces walkable spaces, Borys said, like removing off-street parking requirements for new buildings. Having a complete street network works hand in glove.

So, for example, a form-based code could be applied to the perimeter of Gordon Square where suburban-style buildings a block away on W. 65th Street make it a less comfortable pedestrian experience. A form-based code would attract only compatible development.

“Is this a link or a place?” Borys said. “If it’s a link, the goal is about saving time. If it’s a place, it’s about spending time.

“The block perimeter has to be smaller,” she added. “In colder cities, like my hometown of Winnipeg, it makes it much easier. When I’m walking the dog or with my child, it gives us more places to turn around.”

Walkable City and Suburban Nation (co) author, Jeff Speck, noted that Cleveland’s downtown block size of 300 feet is the ideal range to spread the DNA that Borys talked about. The well-travelled Speck did reserve two specific criticisms for Cleveland. Noting the symbiotic rise in bike lanes and urban population growth, Speck said that Cleveland is “behind” in its bike infrastructure. He also challenged city leaders to rethink the design of Opportunity Corridor to produce a vibrant, urban place.

Speck’s tough love for Cleveland grew out of serious concern for the way auto-oriented streets and built form have made “the first generation less likely to live longer than their parents.”

Former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls recalled the decade-long work of educating city officials but more importantly, residents to why form-based or “3D” zoning will make a difference in the lives of four neighborhoods selected for a pilot project in 2013. Cincy still has strong “bones” like shorter walking blocks and buildings that line the street, making for a pleasurable pedestrian experience where once 600 miles of streetcar lines crisscrossed town.

“Act now while you have the interest from the mayor,” she advised.

Indeed, Mayor Jackson took the stage, stating that form-based zoning is “a great tool” in producing a more sustainable, but he added, a more equitable city.

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Deborah White
5 years ago

Changes would definitely help. I lived in Cleveland 1984-1989 - first Ohio City then The Hat Factory lofts in the Warehouse District. It was frustrating for urban-living (Manhattan & Haight-Ashbury) non-driving to see the huge disparity between downtown Cleveland as it was -- "hollowed out" -- and what it could have been. Then the dept store shut its downtown former flagship store and then downtown's only grocery store and I gave up, quit my job and moved back to NYC without one. Commuting in order to buy food was the last straw. I hope things are better DT now.

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