Historically, zoning codes were written to help guide development with broad strokes of organizational strategy. In dense urban environments this could be to help toggle building height and setbacks to maintain adequate light and air to the street. For suburban areas, zoning has grown to build in aspects of space and privacy by spreading buildings apart. In either case, zoning can have a profound effect on the outcome of the built environment.
When sitting down to map out zoning guidelines, the sky is literally the limit with all manners of stipulation available to codify the amount of space needed for residential units or discourage the adjacency of certain program types–like say residential and manufacturing. However, once zoning resolutions are voted into law they can be very difficult to change, leading to many municipalities that have hardly changed their zoning at all since their inception. Though there are arguments to be made for the existence of zoning codes, it is important that they be thought of as living documents that help facilitate how we live (a reality that is, in itself, constantly in flux). There could be a new breed of zoning code that promotes its own evolution as the landscape fills in with uses driven by the community.
One of the tools applied in zoning codes is helping to organize acceptable uses over given areas. At the broadest level this could be as simple as defining industrial, residential or commercial swaths to direct development, but the finer grained details can craft neighborhoods through the inclusion or restriction of specific use groups or housing types. A commercial district in a walkable neighborhood may allow book stores, but not tire sales outlets while hazardous uses are usually pushed to the periphery of high traffic areas.
Whatever goal a local zoning code tries to support, it is still most often a snapshot of particular thoughts on development at a given time in response to a given built environment. The truth is that both of those things are in constant processes of flux and evolution. The way that we live, work and travel continue change within the boundaries of most zoning codes in the United States while the growth that has occurred in the meantime has changed the face of the landscape that zoning was responding to in the first place. Allowing zoning to remain indefinitely static can result in pressuring new development to respond to an historical image of the city rather than its current one.
Stunting Pedestrian Growth
A trip to Astoria, New York will reveal many areas that are rife with pedestrian activity. With its relatively low urban scale, consistent housing density, mass transit access and amazing cultural diversity, this sub-section of Queens has grown into a great example of a low-rise, walkable, urban environment.
As the Astorian grid has infilled over time, certain sites have become out of touch with their surrounding environs and the freedom allowed by historical versions of the zoning resolution could place their development at odds with the community around them. One such site is located on the corner of 31st Street (sitting below the N/Q subway lines that connect the borough to the Manhattan Core) and 24th Road. Currently, the site is home to a Staples and its use is arguably no longer in sync with those that have occupied the sites around it. A new interpretation of zoning could allow surrounding development to influence subsequent development over time.
One could start with the fact that this site is literally at the bottom of the stairs to an elevated subway stop that if part of the most mature mass transit system in the country. In trying to utilize existing mass transit infrastructure, the sites within walking distance (let’s say at least ¼ of a mile or roughly a 6 minute walk) become especially critical in promoting access to the rest of the city. Additionally, there are at least three bus stops within two blocks that provide access to Manhattan, Astoria and LaGuardia Airport. The tenets of Transit Oriented Development would highlight some uses as beneficial while others as not taking advantage of the site’s asset of access.
A large playground, complete with basketball and handball courts, two playscapes, a water feature for children and a large paved area often used for street hockey, sits right across 31st Street. Especially in an urban environment, access to public space is a critical amenity and maximizing that access to the greatest number of people should be pursued where possible. One could question what a private parking lot and a blank brick wall contribute in their proximity to public areas.
Within two blocks to the north, Public School 85 sits on 31st street. While it makes perfect sense to have public space within a short walk from a school in a place where harvesting acreage for children to play is challenging, the advantages of having a short walk to an office supply store becomes less clear. This is only bolstered by the growing number of small restaurants, bodegas and other local establishments that are working to strengthen pedestrian traffic along 31st Street. All of this can be punctuated by the prevalence of residential program as its direct neighbor to the south and the general area beyond.
Knowing all of this, we can look at the design of the site itself. The single story building occupies half of the lot’s sidewalk presence with a glorious white brick wall. There is no entrance or access to the store for traffic streams of pedestrians or commuters. There is no depth to the face of the building to provide spatial interaction with the public. There is not even a mural, only painted masonry.
The second half of the site is a parking lot wrapped in chain link fencing and a gate that closes when the store does. For the neighborhood around it, the site is a gaping hole of activity to anyone other than the few who need to make a trip for some office supplies. For a site that is gifted with more assets for walkability than most, what we are left with is a stretch of dead sidewalk that discourages walking and depreciates the streetscape.
Taking in all of these factors together, could there not be a zoning code that modifies allowable criteria for development in response to surrounding realities over time? Could the list of acceptable uses for a particular site change when faced with nearby development of so many pedestrian and civic uses? Could requirements for how buildings address the street be classified in thresholds depending on how the streetscape is populated? Could proximity to alternative transit help influence the nature of future development?
Any of these measures could point towards an evolving zoning code that becomes more of a living document based, at least in part, on performance over time. While this would contribute a degree of long term uncertainty that property owners may be resistant to, the result could be a stronger community presence with sites that are just as profitable–merely chosen from a shorter list.
To be fair, Astoria did undergo a zoning change in 2010 where large portions of the area amounting to 238 blocks (including the site in question) were rezoned to address recent development trends. Prior to the rezoning effort, most of the existing zoning had been intact from its original designations in 1961. According to the rezoning proposal, the recommendations were striving to:
- Replace existing zoning with contextual districts to encourage predictable development
- Guide new housing opportunities towards major corridors and mass transit
- Update commercial overlays to reinforce existing patterns of commercial uses and create new business location opportunities
Without a doubt, these are all good goals. In our case, this site was changed from a “R6” Residential district with a Commerical Overlay district into a “C4-3” Commerical district, essentially upzoning the site to allow for more net floor area to be constructed on the site–particularly residential floor area. However, the allowable uses for the site still include larger commercial and retail facilities including their respective minimum parking requirements. This means it is likely possible that if one chose to replicate the site today under the approved rezoning, it could be done.
The counterargument would be that policy initiatives like this wield residential floor area as a tool to encourage certain developments over others due to the ever-rising value of apartment space in New York City (a mentality that has its own cultural risks). An advocate could say that the inclusion of buildable, residential area makes it too attractive to developers who would pay a higher premium for the land, even though a large corporation like Staples could decide that the frontage of the site was worth the premium.
In either case, adding more responsive elements to the could make the policy of zoning more consistently agile rather than waiting for zoning overhauls once every 50 years.