Report on Infill In Distressed Communities Demonstrates Need for New Zoning Code

Baltimore’s new zoning code has been in the works since 2007 but the City Council continues to drag its feet.  A new report details just how much is at stake.

The new report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities  is titled, “Attracting Infill Development in Distressed Communities: 30 Strategies.”  Baltimore, like many other cities, contains large numbers of vacant or underutilized structures. This new report names 30 different strategies that have been used to redevelop distressed communities across the country.  Many of the strategies mentioned have been used, or could be used, in Baltimore.  Some of them are even included in our new zoning code.

The report begins with an overview on the benefits of infill development.  One of these benefits is that infill development can save municipalities money versus developing greenfields.  CPHA also notes that Smart Growth America recently issued a report explaining that the city of Macon, GA could get quadruple the tax revenue by focusing on development in built up areas, instead of spreading it out to areas on the edge of the city.  Infill development also brings major quality of life benefits through the creation of walkable communities, and can help stabilize distressed communities. It also responds to the increasing demand of many Americans to live in walkable communities.

But the report notes there are many challenges when it comes to generating infill development.  One issue is that the market may not be able to support such development on its own due to the distressed nature of these areas. On a similar note, investors may be hesitant to invest in such projects, as there is more uncertainty with regards to the return on investment in these areas than there is in more affluent locations.

Another challenge referred to by the report is what it calls “greenfield-infill” relationship.  Since demand in regional markets is not infinite, greenfield development can absorb demand that could otherwise go towards infill development. The last issue mentioned by the report is the condition of an area’s infrastructure. Many times the infrastructure in these areas may need to be improved on, adding to the cost for developers.

The report divides its 30 strategies into two categories.  The priorities, policies, partnerships, and perception strategy sections are based around ensuring a foundation for infill development in distressed communities by reducing the costs to developers, and creating a market for such development.  The other category consists of strategies for funding infrastructure and the infill development itself.  This post will focus on those portions that are most relevant to the zoning code, while discussing the other strategies in a future post.

The first strategy discussed by the paper is that of identifying a priority area for investment.  The sheer scale of investment needed in places like Baltimore means that renewal strategies must be targeted towards certain areas.  Prioritizing communities for investment can also lead to a greater return on that investment.  For example, the report notes that revitalization of an entire block could have a greater impact on the perception of an area than several storefronts spread throughout a neighborhood.  In choosing a targeted investment area, cities may wish to look at areas where there are higher property values; infrastructure already exists; or public investments are already being made.  Regardless of where the decision is made to target investment, there must be significant public engagement so that the people already living in these areas have a say as to what is happening in their communities.

Under the policies section there are three closely related strategies.  These are easing parking requirements, adopting flexible zoning codes, and passing an adaptive reuse ordinance.  All of these strategies are included in our new zoning code.

CPHA has discussed the harm caused by parking requirements in previous posts.  Many of these points are echoed in the report.  However, it also mentions that many lenders want parking in order to finance a project, and it may also be expected by members of the community.  Potential solutions to this problem include shared parking facilities for uses that are not active at the same time (for example, a residence and an office can share parking); parking permit programs; and parking cash-out programs, where employees trade away a dedicated parking space for cash and agree to take transit, walk, carpool, or bike instead.

Not only does our new code include the elimination of minimum parking requirements for certain uses (something that is strongly opposed by some council members) but among other innovations, it includes a provision for shared parking facilities like the one described above.

The next recommendation of the report calls for flexible codes.  The idea behind flexible codes is to allow for a mix of uses while still maintaining the integrity of a community.  Form-based codes like our new zoning code are explicitly mentioned in the report as a way to accomplish this goal.

An adaptive reuse ordinance is another strategy mentioned in this report.  The purpose of an adaptive reuse ordinance is to establish zoning regulations for older obsolete structures. With these buildings, it may be more difficult for developers to redevelop them under the same rules as those used for new construction.  The Industrial Mixed-Use zoning designation was created with these goals in mind.  It allows for the conversion of older industrial buildings that are quickly becoming obsolete into other uses such as artist live-work spaces.

The new zoning code, as it currently stands, will enable many of the strategies recommended in the EPA’s report to become possibilities for Baltimore. In addition to good zoning, though, our most distressed communities also need strategies to address perception, partnerships, and perhaps most of all, funding – which we will cover in the next post.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

This article was written by Gregory Friedman. Click here to meet our writing team.

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