Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Prince George's County embarks on a zoning rewrite: Part 1

When I got the email about PG County having a series of public meetings this week to launch their effort to do a zoning rewrite to translate the latest version of the County's master plan, Plan Prince George's County | 2035, which was influenced by the Envision Prince George's (planning document) vision plan into regulatory force, I couldn't help but think about similar efforts in DC and Montgomery County.

DC's zoning rewrite effort started in late 2007 after the passage of a new Comprehensive Plan in late 2006.  After seven years, so far there isn't much to show for it in terms of passed changes, although this year is the first year when many sections are likely to change.

Compared to DC, Montgomery County was faster and more successful as they started their effort in 2009--pushed by a change agent planning director, Rollin Stanley, who was brought in to shake things up and he did (he's now in Calgary)--which passed, mostly intact, and favorable to intensification, last year.
The New Urban transect is a good visual guide to thinking about "density" in the context of more urban and less urban settings.

Both processes have been marked by a great deal of contention, with similar antecedents:
  • in both places the most organized residents are older and are
  • committed to a "less urban" land use and transportation planning paradigm
  • they think things are fine the way they are
  • many feel that their values are under attack if you don't preference and prioritize single family housing and automobility (I wrote about DC in this context here, "Understanding why Upper Northwest DC residents don't buy into the sustainability mobility paradigm; "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city")
  • denigrate of transit (and biking and car sharing) because of purported inefficiency and/or because transit is ridden with others while people do not have to share cars that they own
  • see few many benefits from changes that allow greater density or reduced accommodation for automobiles
  • are uncomfortable acknowledging that different areas of their respective jurisdictions should be treated in a more nuanced fashion--as decidedly urban or sub-urban--with more appropriate zoning regulations depending on the respective spatial organization. 
Although I think that DC also made a bunch of mis-steps, and should have used the framework of the Nashville Community Character Manual as a better way forward to reorganize the city's approach to zoning in the "Sub-urban" (T4) and Urban (T5/T6) districts that typify much of the city ("Urbanism and smart growth as pejorative terms;" "Right sizing development").

So where is Prince George's given the examples of DC and Montgomery County?

I asked Chad Williams, the Prince George's County Planning Department staff member who's leading the zoning rewrite team and this is what he wrote:
Two things that I believe sets Prince George’s County down the right path are: 
1. We are starting with a great deal of momentum. 
a. Our Plan Prince George’s 2035 General Plan was approved last year and establishes a clear vision and path to the county’s future success by building on our Metro stations, proposed Purple Line stations, and other significant centers of current and future activity; prioritizes the implementation framework to emphasize three near-term “Downtowns” (New Carrollton, Largo Town Center, and Prince George’s Plaza) with two longer-term Downtowns (Suitland and Branch Avenue Metro), three other “Regional Transit Districts” (College Park/U of MD Metro, Greenbelt Metro, National Harbor), and our “Innovation Corridor” along US 1 and MD 193 as the focus of county implementation efforts; and recognizes the county contains urban, suburban, and rural places. 
b. The County Executive and the County Council have confirmed New Carrollton, Largo Town Center, Prince George’s Plaza, Suitland, and Branch Avenue Metro as the county’s priority places through legislation and implementation actions (Plan 2035, TIF districts established in late 2014, prioritization letters to the State of Maryland, etc.). 
c. Approximately 80 percent of the county has been subject to a new master or sector plan over the last decade; working with the public to develop these plans has strengthened the county’s understanding of the issues that affect our communities and our residents, workers, and visitors. 
d. All parties—from the highest level elected officials to individual property owners—recognize the county’s current Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations as major impediments to economic development, revitalization, and transit-oriented development. 
We’ve known this for some years, and have unsuccessfully attempted rewrites several times in the past, but now the iron is hot and it is time to strike. ... 
We are in a position where we can learn not only from the experiences of our peer jurisdictions but also from national best practices and our own experiences with our prior efforts at revising our codes. 
Our path to success starts with community and stakeholder consensus building, education, and building on rather than re-doing or discounting a decade of outreach and public input.  
Understanding that we have priority places that should be very urban, transit-oriented neighborhoods while recognizing the county still has—and likely will always have—a sizable suburban segment and an historic rural and agricultural heritage helps us reconcile and balance the demands and expectations of a more traditionally suburban mindset with the emerging transit and connected street grid infrastructure needs of an increasing urban populace.  
Emphasizing the importance of “transitional” areas at the edge of an urban/TOD place where it meets existing residential communities is especially important in Prince George’s County given the location of our heavy rail transit stations. Identifying and eliminating zoning and subdivision barriers to new development, particularly mixed-use development, is one of our major goals. To get here it will be key to work with everyone to ensure both the regulations and process are predictable, appropriately detailed (not too many regulations, which is a common problem with our current overlay zones, and not so few regulations that overall quality suffers), and supportive of Plan 2035 and the county’s goals.

Finally, we do find many parallels to the Montgomery County experience that are relevant to Prince George’s County, which is not surprising since both counties include the M-NCPPC. A couple of examples include the reduction and consolidation of their zoning structure (we currently have 73 zones) and use tables (350 pages of use tables and footnotes alone in our current Zoning Ordinance; at least 9 Maryland counties have entire zoning ordinances that are shorter); consideration of form-based elements that influence Montgomery County’s CR zones; greatly simplified review procedures and streamlined timeframes; and potentially the addition of a corrective map amendment process, which Prince George’s County does not really have today.

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