New Zoning Code Moves Baltimore Forward

On December 5, 2016, the Baltimore City Council passed and the Mayor signed into law Transform Baltimore, the first rewrite of our zoning code since 1971. You can view the text of the new code right here. The maps can be viewed here.

A zoning rewrite was first proposed in 2006 when the city published its master plan. The Planning Commission held hearings on the code in 2012 and the City Council held its own hearings in 2013. Starting in 2014, the City Council Land Use and Transportation Committee went over the entire code page by page in a series of work sessions that took over a year. The Land Use and Transportation Committee then voted on over 700 amendments to the code. We would like thank the Planning Department and City Council for all their hard work on the code.

CPHA has been following the zoning rewrite from its inception. Of particular concern to us were those portions of the code that reduced the number of nonconforming liquor stores in some of Baltimore’s most impoverished African-American communities and required “taverns” with BD-7 licenses to actually function as taverns, not liquor stores. In addition to our organizing around reducing the number of alcohol outlets, we also extensively covered the work sessions, and gave our analysis on the amendments submitted at them.

By and large, the code that was passed by the Council is a great step forward for Baltimore. Here are some of the important issues we were following, how they ended up in the final code, and whether we feel there needs to be any additional work done with them.

Alcohol Outlet Density Reduction

Closing down non-conforming liquor stores in our residential areas, requiring taverns to function as taverns, and mandating no new liquor stores be opened within 300 feet of existing ones (with the exception of downtown) was a high priority for CPHA. It was arguably the most controversial provision of this code. Many powerful and entrenched interests were opposed to it.

However, due to strong community support, this part of the code was maintained. From the two young people who testified before the Planning Commission, to the 250 people who showed up to a City Council hearing, it was thanks to everyday citizens taking action to better their neighborhoods that this provision was passed.

However, there is still some work to be done. First and foremost we need to ensure that this part of the code is enforced. This will require collaboration between communities, the planning department, code enforcement, the liquor board, and the health department. Specific problem establishments remain and legislation to reduce their harm on neighborhoods deserves greater attention. Furthermore, while many neighborhoods have way too many liquor stores in them, they are underserved when it comes to many other services and amenities. The City should prioritize assisting liquor stores scheduled for closure and advance any opportunity to convert the business into a new form that benefits the surrounding communities.

Conditional Uses

A conditional use is a use that is best determined on a case by case basis. In Baltimore, there are two types of conditional uses. The first is conditional use via zoning board. In this type of conditional use, a property owner or developer must apply to the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) and the BMZA decides whether or not said use is appropriate for said property.

A second type of conditional use is known as conditional use via ordinance. Under uses with this requirement,  the City Council decides whether a project can go forward. Unlike the conditional uses decided via the BMZA that are decided on an established timeline and based on very specific criteria, conditional use decisions made via ordinance lack transparency and can be influenced by special interests. It for this reason that CPHA has repeatedly urged the City Council to limit the use of conditional use by ordinance in the zoning code.

With the exception of multifamily conversions (discussed below), the final zoning code does a decent job of striking a balance between conditional uses and “by right” uses. It also limits the use of conditional use by ordinance.

Neighborhood Commercial

Neighborhood Commercial is a use allowed in structures zoned residential but that have been historically used for commercial uses. The most prominent example of such a structure are structures historically used as corner stores located at the edge of a block of rowhouses. When the city passed its last zoning code in 1971, new commercial uses were outlawed in these structures. Existing businesses were allowed to continue as non-conforming uses, but if they were left vacant for at least two years, these structures could only be used for residential uses. As a result many of these structures became vacant. The Neighborhood Commercial provision of the code will allow these structures to be used for a limited amount of commercial uses provided they receive BMZA approval.

Ensuring Neighborhood Commercial remained in the code was a major goal of CPHA. Though there were attempts to remove it from the code, put onerous restrictions on it, or make it conditional by ordinance, the original Neighborhood Commercial provision survived. Special thanks goes to the Greater Remington Improvement Association and Bikemore for mobilizing support for Neighborhood Commercial.

Industrial Mixed-Use

Abandoned and underutilized industrial properties can be found throughout Baltimore City. Though these structures are no longer useful for large scale manufacturing, they are ideal for small-scale maker spaces, artist live-work spaces, and certain light industrial uses. The new Industrial Mixed-Use category (I-MU) will allow for these uses as well as multi-family residential and some commercial uses as well. I-MU zoning is an innovative concept that will give new life to older industrial buildings.

There were several amendments that would have severely limited the uses allowed in this category. Most of them failed.

However, there were amendments added to the code that will require industrial uses make up at least 50% of the total uses on a lot and that non-residential uses make up at least 60% of all uses. if a lot is within 300 feet of a residential zone it does not have to follow these requirements. These amendments are designed to ensure lots and buildings zoned I-MU will conform to the spirit of this legislation through ensuring that industrial uses and artist live-work spaces are protected from residential and commercial encroachment.

Multifamily Conversions

In certain districts, the previous zoning code only allows for single family homes to be converted into multifamily dwellings through the conditional use by ordinance process. The new zoning code continues this policy. This is a missed opportunity that deserves rethinking; in a city where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for even those with moderate to middle incomes, the city should not be putting up barriers that limit the supply of multi-family homes.

Parking Requirements

The harm caused by excessive parking requirements have been covered extensively by CPHA. As part of a nationwide trend, our new code eliminates or reduces parking minimums in a number of areas. Amendments were submitted that would have removed these changes but most of them were defeated.

However, there are still areas for improvement. A proposal known as payment in lieu of parking that would allow for reduced parking requirements provided a developer pays a fee that would go towards transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure was removed from the code because the Planning Department felt Baltimore was not yet ready for such an arrangement. We hope the city will will work to set the mechanisms in motion that will allow for this concept to go forward.

Baltimore’s reductions in parking requirements may not go far enough. For example, Buffalo removed all parking requirements from its code earlier this year. Baltimore should take a look at the many municipalities across the country that have reduced parking requirements to see if there are areas where requirements should be reduced further.

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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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