Posts tagged ‘zoning’
In recent weeks, I have fielded several inquiries about how to expand our relatively new Commercial Residential (CR) zoning to some of the commercial areas of Montgomery County. Landowners, it seems, are eager to have a chance to redevelop commercial areas in a more community-oriented, practical, profitable and energy-efficient way.
We need to make infill work for us if Montgomery County is going to accommodate all of the people who want to live here. That includes our kids and grandchildren who grew up here and hope to stay as well as seniors looking for compact, accessible environments.
Yet, current zoning rules do not help what we see as the next phase of land use changes. Montgomery County has aged past the era of large, single-family subdivisions – the simple fact is that we lack the land and our single-family housing market represents 97 percent of our residential land area. We need to evolve and that means concentrating our growth in commercial areas, many of which could look so much better. It’s no surprise that our commercial areas largely reflect the 1950s style of retailing in the suburbs. Fine then, not so great now.
How does zoning make good growth happen? One would think the numerous commercial zones we have would mean an abundance of opportunities to create development that meets the needs of residents. Not exactly. Montgomery County has a lot of land with antiquated zoning that may encourage developers to underuse land and choose uses that do not reflect the type of projects the county needs.
In fact, much of our commercial zoning only allows for single use zoning. Moreover, some of those 121 zones are way out of date. Where we want a mix of uses near metro stops, where we know people want to live, several of our commercial zones do not permit it. And we end up with low level strip malls with oceans of parking, an unattractive pedestrian environment and not a soul in sight after 5 p.m.
The zoning creates challenges for planners responding to applications in areas where we hope for walkable, mixed use neighborhoods. If mixed uses are not permitted, then single purpose applications are going to be submitted, and prime real estate for creating great places will be lost for the life of the lease of the new retail space.
The north block of the Falklands will soon be subject to an application for staged, mixed-use development as illustrated in these renderings prepared by Shalom Baranes Associates, architects for Home Properties. This application will set the bar for future mixed use development in the County. It blends residential and commercial uses and a higher range of affordable housing with market rent housing. The architecture, blend of uses and comprehensive site planning, represent how our “smart growth” areas should evolve .
This is very important in today’s real estate market. Property owners look for tenants. New projects that are more complex, like mixed-use buildings, create financing challenges and risk. Complicated zoning rules create more barriers.
Take the H-M zoneas an example of an obscure zone creating headaches for property owners. The zone permits hotel and motel uses. Only. There are not too many places with this designation and this is a good thing. Does anyone still build motels in infill sites?
One of these sites is in Pook’s Hill, near the Bethesda Marriot. Six acres zoned H- M. Is another hotel needed there? What about a residential project with ground-level retail instead? Would residential uses to meet the growing demand for a range of housing types in the county, particularly rental apartments or condos with a range of unit sizes be a more practical, desirable use?
Our zoning includes rules that create issues for neighborhoods adjacent to commercial areas. In some commercial zones, parking for the commercial use can be provided on a lot in the adjacent residential area. This commercial encroachment is allowed, but, understandably, residents are not pleased.
In the past, this permission has been considered as a way to create a buffer. But that is being questioned today. Does allowing commercial parking in a residential area protect the neighborhood?
The CR zone has a great many protections for existing residential neighborhoods. One of the details in the CR zone is its approach to parking. It does not allow parking off site. To further protect the neighborhoods, the CR zone imposes a new standard: a greater setback for buildings that includes an angular plane to provide added protection for adjacent residential areas. Site plan review, which is a public process requiring a Planning Board hearing, is required in this new zone for most projects.
Perhaps the best evidence of weak commercial zoning appears along our commercial corridors. Does our commercial development set us apart from any other place? If we stand on any arterial road here, does it look any different from any similar place around the country? This “before” video of White Flint shows an area that is already changing as a result of our new CR zoning.
The county is considering a rapid vehicle transit strategy that would see enhanced buses traveling on arterials and serving nodes and corridors throughout the county. Many people see an opportunity for existing commercial land at major intersections that may be served by the new lines as prime sites for neighborhood-scale mixed use.
Not all transit stations are equal in terms of what type and scale of uses are appropriate. However, it is sound planning to ensure our commercial areas have zoning that can be a base for well-functioning, attractive, environmentally sound growth that meets the needs of a growing population.
We also need to consider our office parks, which require everyone to drive. The office parks typically are located on acres of grass managed with chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides. Is there an opportunity to create a zone category that transforms these single purpose uses and instead encourages housing next to the office building? This could reduce driving, provide additional housing, offer affordable housing and reduce monthly costs for people choosing to live near where they work.
The department will release the commercial part of the zoning rewrite effort at the end of November. (The residential zones draft has been available for some time.) We hope to generate discussion of the draft that addresses such questions as:
1. Should we expect more amenities from our commercial areas?
2. How can we provide for greater public participation in how the commercial areas evolve?
3. Should there still be single use commercial zones, or is it time to think differently?
4. What is the best way to introduce revised commercial zones?
We are working to create a commercial zoning approach that brings more integration between different uses and provides for the creation of walkable streets with new amenities for new and existing residents. This approach can help build commercial areas that are more active, pedestrian friendly, and provide a lifestyle that many seniors and the young graduates and families we need for the future, may choose to live in.
Commercial Residential Zone Amendments to the Montgomery County Council (pdf, 1MB) – Tuesday, September 27, 2011