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Readers: St. Louis’ zoning needs to be changed

December 15, 2009 Zoning 14 Comments

Ninety-five percent of the readers that voted in the poll last week agree that the City of St. Louis needs new zoning.  95%!

Q: Kansas City, Denver and other cities are replacing their old zoning codes to reflect current views/vision. Should St. Louis replace its 1947 zoning code?

  • Yes, we need zoning to set an urban vision rather than piecemeal sprawl: 102 (95%)
  • Unsure: 4 (4%)
  • No, leave zoning matters on a case by case basis: 1 (1%)

Zoning classifications used in a municipality were never intended to be used unchanged for more than a half century.  Even St. Louis long time planner (1916-1950) Harland Bartholomew would have advocated a regular review and revision.  To city hall changing a parcel(s) from one classification to another is changing zoning.  To me, and I think to many of you, changing zoning means tossing out the old classifications and starting entirely from scratch – built around how we envision our city in the coming decades. Cities from coast to coast are realizing how use-based zoning has failed them and are embarking on the long process to revamp how their cities are developed.

Zoning sets the ground rules for development.  It regulates the building size, placement on the site and parking. Most cities have Euclidean Zoning which obsesses about the use of the property but could care less if the buildings on the street make for a quality environment.  Ensuring single family homes are separated from multi-family which is separate from retail which is separate from office is the most important goal in use based zoning.  Or the most important goal is ensuring that each use has parking because with all the separation a car is required to go from home to the office to dinner and to the store.

In short, use-based zoning creates auto-centric sprawl.  We usually think of sprawl as that mess on the edge.  While that certainly is sprawl I think the use-based zoning type of sprawl that eats away at the core is far more dangerous.    The core of regions offers something different than new edge development but if use-based zoning remains eventually the core will be completely undone – that was the intention when the use-based zoning was put into place.

Starting the ball rolling on on new zoning should be a top priority of city government for 2010.  The fact development is slow right now is a good thing.  This gives us the freedom to determine the vision for our neighborhoods and commercial corridors without debating specific projects.  Largely residential sections of the city wouldn’t see much change.  Major corridors like Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, and Jefferson would be where changes would occur.  The emphasis, in my mind, would be on form rather than use.  Shared parking rather than each business having their own lot.

In 2010 I will continue posting on this important issue.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. anon says:

    People in power read this blog. I wonder what they think of doing an overhaul of the city's zoning code? Without their support, this effort goes nowhere. Does this turn into one of those “leading from behind” situations? You know, where once enough people say they want change *then* elected officials and others will do something. Or will the leaders step up and initiate the change? Alderman like the system the way it is because property owners must come to them in order to rezone property – or do anything else involving city assistance. So why would aldermen agree to a change? And without aldermen on board, this idea will never happen. We can talk about what *should be*, what is a *best practice*, or what *other cities are doing*. None of that really matters. What does matter is what can we do in St. Louis? We all have an opinion of what's best. What will work in our system? The real question is: who will lead the effort?

    • Like charter reform, new zoning will come from the people not the Board of Aldermen. They will fight change as long as they can.

      • anon says:

        The people will not advance this effort without support from their aldermen. St. Louis is a courtesy-based, fiercely loyal, old fashioned city. Citizens don't go against aldermen. Some say wait until more progressive aldermen are in office, then try something. That could be a looong wait.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hm. Maybe I will!

  3. JZ71 says:

    “In short, use-based zoning creates auto-centric sprawl.” No, human beings choosing the single-occupant vehicle as their primary, or only, way to move around “creates auto-centric sprawl”. Our present zoning doesn't preclude much higher densities, nor, outside of single-family residential areas, mixed uses. It's consumers, both residents and businesses, choosing to buy into much lower densities that have created the world we live in today. Both form-based and Euclidian zoning define maximums and minimums; there's little any government can do to force the private sector to build to these limits, especially if supply is greater than demand. Whether it's the Walgreens at Kingshighway & Chippewa (replacing a department store) or any one of multiple surface parking lots (replacing multi-story buildings) downtown, along Lindell or around SLU, the “problem” isn't what's allowed, it's what the market will support.

    Yes, form-based zoning will tend to encourage more mixed uses, and yes, it will tend to push buildings closer to the street, but it won't be the magic bullet that forces people to give up their cars, especially around here. And yes, I support looking at what our zoning is trying to do and to update it to match what we want and expect in the new century – it simply can't happen in a vacuum. It takes a comprehensive look at (and viable plans for) transportation alternatives and sustainable economic development. The St. Louis region really isn't seeing much net growth, just a significant reduction in density, resulting in both the sprawl we see on the edges and the “flattening out” we see in the core. As long as the residents of St. Charles County continue to view Metro as the conduit for inner-city thugs to invade their definition of paradise, and our multiple local governments continue to fall for the siren song of the TIF shell game, and businesses in the county refuse to consider relocating to the city out of a fear of crime, schools and higher taxes, we can create whatever kind of paper paradise we want. The real test will be in what's actually being built – my experience is that it takes a really strong economy to give most politicians the backbone to just say “no” to a developer. There's just a real, pervasive, fear that saying no, even for all the “right” reasons, will mean development and reinvestment will simply stop dead (and given recent experiences around here, it's not a totally irrational fear). So yes, fix our zoning, but also “fix” everything else that is driving (pun-intended) our auto-centric lives today!

    • Our zoning does indeed preclude higher densities and mixed uses. It should be requiring minimum densities rather than large minimum lot sizes that create low densities. The zoning is the guide and for decades low-density sprawl has been the standard.

      Cities can be both walkable & have autos. We need not sacrifice one for the other.

      • anon says:

        I do not see any leadership on this issue.

      • JZ71 says:

        The largest minimum lot size St Louis currently requires is 4,000 sq. ft., for single-family residences. That's only 40' x 100' or 32' x 125', either of which is very walkable (and not particularily large). A bigger challenge is our minimum parking requirements, which seem excessive in many applications. Also, the current “Neighborhood Commercial Zoning” district would seem to offer much of what you're looking for in form-based zoning. An easier path to getting to higher density may be simply rezoning more of the city to this zone district.

        • The residential sections are not the issue here it is the commercial ones. A carry-out restaurant (such as a service window) in “F” requires a 20,000sf lot as well as considerable parking.

  4. *topia says:

    Well said. Anyone who is a fan of “doing it right” should be in favor of zoning reform. Zoning is the mechanism by which we shape our environment and redevelopment initiatives cannot succeed without the support of a proper zoning framework. The most important line you wrote, however, was about advocating regular review and revision. Our actions always have unintended consequences, and a policy that is set in stone for generations risks too much. Some flexibility is required for even the grandest, most sweeping plans to succeed in the long-term.

    The recent initiative to rewrite the CWE zoning laws will hopefully be an example to the rest of the city on the power of a proper zoning framework to support redevelopment.

    • anon says:

      One neighborhood is rewriting its own zoning code? What happens the regular zoning code in this neighborhood? If Lyda Krewson (or is it Roddy?) is advocating zoning reform for the CWE, what about her (or him) leading the way for the rest of the city?

      • I support starting small with a single street or neighborhood and then expanding to the entire city. Given the politics in our city this may be the only way.

        • Mac says:

          “Given the politics in our city this may be the only way.”


          Saint Louis IS the definition of small town politics. In our region, they are really only out done by Evansville, IN.

  5. christianthemagician says:

    Although I would vote with the majority in your poll, the way in which the question was framed appears bias. Additionally, how representative is a sample of only 107 people – all of whom have for one reason or another been drawn to your site.
    I suspect the majority of the city's population is unaware of how zoning issues affect our community, but it would be interesting to see a more scientifically sound survey conducted.
    Final point (I promise): it is obviously WAY too easy to get a change to the zoning when a developer can apply for, and get, a zoning change to build a casino in an environmentally sensitive area such as the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. INSANE!


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