First rewrite of city’s zoning laws in 40 years promises major changes
Published: October 29, 2012
Come the revolution, most corner liquor stores will be given two years to convert to other uses, like art galleries and cafés. Taverns will have to show that at least half the liquor they sell is consumed on premises. Downtown land speculators will not be able to pave empty lots and collect parking fees in perpetuity, though waterfront landowners will know that their holdings will be zoned industrial forever—or, at least, until the next rewrite of the city’s zoning code.
The revolution, also known as “TransForm Baltimore,” or maybe “Rewrite Baltimore” (the web site is rewritebaltimore.org), hit City Council last week, to applause. But the clapping was mainly for Kara Kunst, the council aide tasked with reading the title of each new bill for the record: The zoning bill’s 225-word title took up two-thirds of a page with nary a period.
The bill itself weighs in at 344 pages—not including maps, tables, and figures. It is the first comprehensive rewrite of the city’s zoning code in more than 40 years.
Government watchdogs have followed the bill’s drafting for four years, but most residents will get their first taste of the new law in coming weeks when the Department of Planning sends out 170,000 fliers announcing hearing dates. “We’re producing a users’ guide,” says Planning Director Thomas Stosur, who has quarterbacked the drafting of this huge document, now in its second public draft. He says he hopes the guide will be no more than 20 pages “that track closely to the actual chapters and titles and codes.”
The new code is designed to streamline and simplify the array of Planned Unit Developments (known as PUDs), special zoning overlay districts, and other rules and regulations that have grown up in the present code like trees through a roofless rowhouse. The overlapping rules and complex permitting processes they engender make it hard for developers to do what they do. “Right now, we have 75 different urban renewal plans,” Stosur says, “and in many cases, the urban renewal plans were written 20, 30, even 40 years ago and haven’t been updated.”
Stosur says the new code will make it possible to “phase out” these plans over time and reduce the need for PUDs, which add years to a development timeline. “We want good development to be able to happen as a matter of right,” he says.
In the proposed code, good development is adaptive reuse of factory and commercial buildings for “mixed-use” projects encompassing housing, studio, office, and even light manufacturing. Ironically, this idea of “good development” is almost the opposite of the version passed in 1971. The current zoning code was designed to phase out commercial uses in residential areas and to separate uses generally (a key tenant of zoning). The new draft is heavily weighted toward mixed-use communities, with both residential and business cheek-by-jowl, one atop the other.
“We are very concerned about the reversal of ‘commercial nonconforming use,’” says Mary Ernish, a west side resident who has recently agitated for more and better city audits. “The whole premise behind nonconforming use was to rid the city of nuisance commercial properties that were located in residential areas. Eighty years getting rid of nuisance properties in residential neighborhoods, and now Stosur and friends think it’s a great idea to bring it back.”
Joan Floyd, a Remington resident and longtime activist against developers, sent Stosur her thoughts about the proposed new commercial zoning designation, called C-1: “In Remington, the result of having nonconforming corner properties on rowhouse blocks has been blight,” Floyd wrote in an e-mail she shared with City Paper. “In most instances, the next-door rowhouse is in perpetual limbo, and is usually empty. There is no good reason for anyone to fix it up and live in it, when the corner property is, or can turn back into, a tavern.”
City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot has called the concentration of liquor stores in poor residential areas a public health threat, citing increased violence and other poor health outcomes. The city has been targeting the nonconforming stores for about a year now. A lawyer for the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland called the two-year zoning phase-out “probably not legal,” according to a June story in The Sun. Stosur says the liquor-store proposal “is, right now, the proposal we have already started receiving the greatest push-back on.”
The 100 or so nonconforming liquor stores and the “taverns” that operate as seven-day liquor stores are special targets, Stosur says, but the overall thrust of the C-1 designation (and the plan overall) is to allow good development where it makes sense, particularly in residential zones that already look and feel commercial. “Think of the big houses on North Avenue near school headquarters,” Stosur says. “They’re zoned like R-8 [residential], but it’s a busy street and not that great to live there on the first floor. So we might designate through a council process an overlay district to allow first floor commercial uses.”
Floyd thinks these could create more potential liquor stores in residential areas. “And no one is actually talking about buying out the liquor licenses when retirement of the licenses is the only thing that could actually make permanent change,” she says
One potential bright spot is the maritime industrial zone, called MI.
For decades, the port businesses have had to deal with encroaching condos and yuppification as the last generation’s plans for waterfront development were built out. The existing industrial zone, called MIZOD, for Maritime Industrial Zone Overlay District, has been subject to a 10-year-sunset, making it hard for industry to plan long-term.
In the new code, this district becomes permanent, Stosur says.
“That’s terrific unto itself,” says Rupert Denney, general manager of C. Steinweig, a Dutch-based logistics company with an expanding port presence. “If this sort of legislation is enacted and adhered to, it basically tells a lot of people that Baltimore is open for business.”
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