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Building the 21st Century City: Best Practices in Zoning

From left to right, Jillian Watson, Brian Drobnick, Hazel Borys, Greg Soltis, and Margaret Kavourias

This past month, the Cleveland chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the city of Cleveland’s Planning Commission hosted Building the 21st Century City: Best Practices in Zoning at the Global Center for Health Innovation.  Margaret Kavourias, AICP and Greg Soltis, AICP from RDL’s planning studio attended the daylong event along with hundreds of other planners, architects, urban designers, lawyers, and government officials.  The purpose of the conference was to begin a dialogue about the city of Cleveland’s zoning code which has not been rewritten since it was established in 1929.

Among the speakers were; Mayor Frank Jackson; Freddie Collier, the Director of City Planning for Cleveland; Kyle Reisz, City Planner for Cleveland; Jeff Speck, city planner and urban designer and author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time; and Hazel Borys, Principal and Managing Director of PlaceMakers, a comprehensive planning and design firm.   Margaret and Greg had the pleasure of speaking with Hazel, one of North America’s brightest planning minds, during one of the recesses.  She mentioned that she had been to many similar efforts across the continent, but was especially hopeful about the level of enthusiasm and positive energy in Cleveland.

Current zoning code in most American cities is Euclidean (single use) and essentially makes illegal the dense, walkable mixed-use places people are flocking to in Cleveland neighborhoods like Little Italy, Tremont and Ohio City.  When new development is proposed in these neighborhoods, developers have to apply for zoning variances, create “Planned Unit Developments” (PUD) or intercede in some other creative way to create mixed-use, people scaled buildings and streetscapes.  The City Planning Commission tried to make the process easier by applying tools, such as zoning overlays to circumvent the single use developments prescribed in the city’s outdated zoning code, but the process is still more difficult, costly and time consuming than it needs to be.  The solution to these issues, as it was posed at the conference, may be the creation of a new hybrid zoning code that blends together elements from Euclidean zoning, Form-Based zoning and Incentive Zoning.  This would allow for a more flexible code that emphasizes an urban environment whose shape and design benefits the people of the city.

The different types of zoning being considered for Cleveland’s new hybrid zoning plan are explained below.

  • Euclidean zoning, which gets its name from a landmark court case involving the city of Euclid, Ohio vs Ambler Realty Company in 1926, divides a municipality into single use districts where usually only one use is allowed.
    Euclidean Zoning Graphic

Figure 2: Los Angeles Department of City Planning. Euclidean Zoning.

  • Form-Based zoning regulates development by focusing on the scale and placement of buildings, emphasizing the building’s relationship with the street and the overall neighborhood.
    Form Based Zoning Graphic

    Figure 3: Duany Plater Zyberg and Company. Rural Urban Transect 2008. Center for Applied Transect Studies.

  • Incentive zoning enables projects to exceed standard requirements if they provide some form of benefit to the local community, such as a park or a transit stop.

The conference wrapped up with the panel of speakers fielding questions from the attendees. The big takeaway from the day is that the City of Cleveland is determined to rewrite its code in the coming years to allow for the kind of urban neighborhoods people desire in the 21st Century; which ironically look very much like the city’s neighborhoods prior to when the code was written in 1929.

About RDL

RDL Architects is a nationally recognized, award-winning architecture firm headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio and is licensed throughout the United States.