Last week, the County Council approved a new kind of hybrid zoning — the Commercial Residential (CR) zones. Combining traditional zoning provisions, such as use and dimensional standards and form-based provisions, such as street faĂ§ade requirements and angular plane setbacks, these zones have been created to ensure :
â€˘ Better predictability of allowed use, density, and height
â€˘ More integrated services, residential opportunities, and public amenities
â€˘ More sustainable growth patterns concentrated in existing commercial areas
The CR zones are a family of zones based on a combination of use, density, mix, and height. A zone combines these factors and will be seen on the zoning map as, for example: CR2 C1 R1.5 H60.
This sequence means that any property in that zone can develop to a maximum density of 2 FAR (floor area 2X lot area) and of that 2 FAR up to 1 FAR may be non-residential and/or up to 1.5 FAR may be residential. The height for any development is limited to 60 feet.
This establishes the predictability of the zones â€“ all of this information is indicated by a simple sequence on the official zoning map. The proposed White Flint zoning map is an excellent example showing the transition of uses from a predominantly commercial core with tall buildings to areas with more residential opportunities and lower buildings near existing detached-house residential zones.
A key aspect of the CR zones, however, is that the maximum density can only be achieved when public benefits are provided. The â€śmenuâ€ť of these benefits is listed in the zone and is based on several categories:
â€˘ Transit Proximity
â€˘ Master-Planned Facilities
â€˘ Dedicated Right-of-Way
All CR zones are allowed to build to 0.5 FAR according to the â€śstandard methodâ€ť with basic development standards and general requirements. To obtain anything above that, a developer must provide benefits and amenities to support the â€śincentive densityâ€ť â€“ the difference between the base density and the density of the zone. For example, a CR2.0 zone has an incentive density of 1.5 FAR (2.0 â€“ 0.5). The developer may only build the additional 1.5 FAR if they provide a certain number of benefits, for example, improving transit access, providing affordable housing, constructing public open space, or constructing a green roof listed in the zone.
The ordinance, of course, provides much more detail regarding these considerations, the review process, development standards, general requirements, and public benefit criteria.
Before moving to the DC area two years ago, I had lived in New York City for the previous 18 . Never owned a car there (or a local driverâ€™s license!),and it wasnâ€™t until I relocated here that I realized how effortless it was to live a pedestrian life there…Stores were abundant and usually well stocked; restaurants, museums, and galleries were everywhere (…mostly frequented by tourists that we locals had to put up with); and in general whatever you needed ), was at your disposal 24 hours a day.
Itâ€™s been a bit of a struggle for me to sustain a similar pedestrian life here. I am still coming to terms with giving up an almost zero carbon footprint to the point of considering purchasing a car. (Iâ€™m not quite there yet, but even getting groceries in Montgomery County without one can be quite the task!). This is all understandable, given most of our urban centers are still in their infancy, but it has been interesting to me over the past two years that we have heard our efforts to organize density at the planning department characterized as attempts to â€śManhattanizeâ€ť the county. Far from it. Be assured, the phenomenon we now know as Manhattan came to be as result of a very specific set of circumstances that are not present in the county, and will not be, even if a few 300-foot buildings are constructed.
Once you have lived in a place such as NYC for a while, and if you pay attention to whatâ€™s around, you will get a â€śfrom the ground upâ€ť understanding of what the city is all about. Itâ€™s curious how visitors tend to look â€śupâ€ť most of the time, without realizing all the excitement happening around them. I am, of course, oversimplifying this, but could it be this is perhaps why some are so fixated on height as a main issue?
What I am trying to say is this: New York means a lot of different things to many, but itâ€™s a great laboratory to study urban life; one that can teach good lessons emerging semi-urban centers such as ours could benefit from, if we can get past our hang-ups about what’s too tall, or what’s too much. To observe how a complex city such as New York functions, and attempt to understand it as an interesting foil for human activity, can give us clues on how to steer our efforts to make our centers lively, and real.