Is Your Zoning Code Holding Back Your City?

By Natasha Alfonso-Ahmed, Director of Urban Design & Planning

Many cities that are facing blight and lack of development interest are watching how other cities around them are thriving and don’t understand why. While there are many factors that can contribute to lack of investment, one main factor that cannot be overlooked is the existing zoning regulations. It’s important to be proactive and evaluate if amendments to the existing zoning regulations are needed on a regular basis, rather than wait for a development to initiate an amendment. We all know what typically happens when a development initiates a change – the community feels threatened. If cities are cognizant of the changes in the market early on, they are better able to embrace growth and plan for it. By planning for change, cities have the ability to make better decisions on the appropriate development pattern for new development, in terms of density and height, as well as the desired public benefits that can enhance the quality of life for residents. This means taking a real close look at the regulations and understanding if they are too relaxed or too restrictive.

Some cities, for example, don’t realize that the densities they currently allow, for a particular district that is intended to be in an urban high density residential area, are too low. In fact, in many of these areas the maximum permitted heights are way higher than what will ever be needed to fill the envelope with the maximum permitted densities. In order to check if the density matches the height, cities should conduct site design studies that can generate multiple development scenarios, including at maximum build-out.  Another important thing to consider is whether the standards will encourage the right type of development. If the goal, for example, is to attract quality development but every development application that comes in is sub-standard it’s time to look at how the code addresses building design and the public realm. Developers will invest in cities that have the best kept streets and buildings. Zoning codes should have clear building and street standards that define the minimum percentage of active use and fenestration required along the ground floor, sidewalk and landscaping widths, tree requirements, lighting, street furnishings, etc. Last and most importantly, cities need to evaluate their development approval process. Is it simple, clear and hassle free? Is the city truly business friendly?

One successful example is RMA’s award‐winning redevelopment strategies for North Miami Beach, which have spurred land sales of over $200 million, with an estimated $500 million in new construction now underway or approved. Our firm was hired to reinvent the City in order to compete with other thriving municipalities. Since implementing RMA’s form based zoning regulations and Mixed‐Use Comprehensive Plan Initiative, which won the APA Florida Award of Merit, the City has become a coveted location for developers. Prior to RMA’s involvement, investment in the city was hindered by restrictive codes and poorly planned incentive programs. The City was previously viewed as anti‐business and anti‐investment. Their reputation changed with the City’s new leadership and resulting vision plan. RMA conducted a thorough market and financial feasibility assessment of North Miami Beach which helped guide the vision plan. The assessment led to market based code revisions on height and density, attracting new developers. Thanks to the new vision plan, there are now over 1,500 residential units, 270 hotel rooms, 215,000 sq. ft. of retail and over 100,000 sq. ft. of office space approved or underway. The vision plan and form based zoning regulations centered upon the principles of good urban design and achieved a balance between the needs of the community and the market realities.