10/1/23 - Toward a More Coherent Theory of Zoning

This is a little different than our usual fare. I want to talk about the idea of zoning on a continuum that runs from minimalism to maximalism. This is a level of theory that is not clearly evident in the ZAP, especially with regards to the example we're going to run through.

At one end of the spectrum, zoning can be written to legalize exactly what exists, minimizing non-conformity. To the extreme, this would result in illegal spot zoning, as each lot in the city would be zoned exactly for what exists there, with vacant lots being agglomerated onto whatever is nearest to them. This isn't practical, both because of the legal issue and because it would result in entirely too many zones. Even so, this hasn't stopped some local municipalities from trying. Take a look at the Pittsford Village Zoning Map sometime, and work through the ramifications of having a dozen zones for only 1,700 lots (Limited Office Residential applies to exactly 6 lots in the village!).

At the other end of the spectrum, zoning doesn't even exist, and everything is allowed everywhere. Obviously this, too, creates potential conflicts (though the Town of Caroline still has no zoning). Barring that extreme, maximal zoning would size given zones to allow for rational future development at the desired (future) intensities with minimal need for rezoning to get there. For example, if a high frequency transit node exists, as much of that node as reasonably possible would be zoned for potential future densities to take advantage of the location.

All of this can be a little esoteric, so I want to walk through one very specific example in the city. This exact same exercise could be (and should have been) done for each of the hundreds of key intersections and neighborhoods in the city. And for the example (drumroll please!): the intersection of Parsells and Greeley in Beechwood.

The lots on Parsells are all zoned R-2 right now, and anything not fronting Parsells is zoned R-1. Nothing terribly exciting. Let's take a look at what the comp plan says about the intersection, and then how that translated to the proposed zoning.

2034 Plan Character Areas

ZAP Proposed Zoning

As you can see, the Boutique Mixed Use (BMU) district has been applied to 8 parcels at this intersection. One of which does not even front Parsells, though that lot, 121-123 Greeley, is an office building. Two of the included parcels are currently 2-family residential buildings and the remaining are some manner of small commercial or mixed use. Now I want to take a look at two other options for zoning this intersection.

Minimally Zoned Intersection

Maximally Zoned Intersection

In the minimally zoned example, only the 6 parcels with existing mixed use/commercial buildings are left in the BMU district. One could also argue that 70 Greeley should be zoned Medium Density Residential (MDR), as it's an existing 2 family. Either way, this minimizes the nonconformity of the existing mixed use/commercial buildings and minimizes the prospects for neighborhood change at this intersection in the future.

In the maximally zoned example, we create the potential to assemble 4 120'x158' parcels that could each be redeveloped into (checks BMU regulations) a 3 story mixed use building (or series of buildings, since BMU limits buildings to 80' of street frontage for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but that we'll surely talk about in a different post). For reference, here's a 3-story mixed use building in Buffalo in almost this exact same sort of neighborhood. It's 100'x 52', or not allowed of-right in BMU as proposed.

363 Grant St. Buffalo, NY.

I'm reticent to offer a decisive conclusion here. I favor a maximal version of the zoning. We only do this every 20 years, and the gains by allowing new development without having to go to city council to redevelop a corner in a burgeoning neighborhood seems like a win. But I can see the arguments for a minimum zoning, or even a more pragmatic one in the middle. As it stands, though, I don't agree with the proposed rezoning at this intersection. I think leaving 70 Greeley, an existing 2-family, out of MDR is an odd choice. I also think leaving the vacant parcel at 421 Parsells in MDR instead of BMU to be a serious oversight. At the end of the day, like so many parts of the proposed code, it feels as though none of this received the attention that it should have.