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Much has changed in St. Louis over last 60 years, just not our zoning

December 6, 2009 Planning & Design, Zoning 5 Comments

In 1947 St. Louis’ long-time planner (1916-1950) Harland Bartholomew thought the city’s population would exceed one million by 1970.  Instead, between 1950-70, we lost 234,560 people to have 622,236.  We had 38% fewer people than he thought we would!

Bartholomew also thought we should have 35 airports in the region because, “developments in air transportation during the next few decades will parallel that of automobile transportation.” (source)  Born in 1889, Bartholomew hated our 19th Century “horse and buggy” street network.  His 1947 plan for the city has worked very hard to destroy the walkable city and to create the “modern” automobile city.  In his long career he advocated generous roads, parking and total separation of uses — housing, offices, etc should not be mixed in his view. He stood for the opposite of what cities are trying to accomplish today.

Bartholomew has been dead for 20 years now but St. Louis and so many cities follow his anti-urban thoughts simply because we have zoning he either authored or supported.  Local Aldermen will tell you that we change our zoning all the time.  True, on a case by case basis they’ll often change a zoning classification  — often to allow a better project than what the existing zoning allowed.  But rather than tossing out the 6 decade old vision for the city they cling to the power they have to support or oppose a request to change zoning.  So the ability for developers to do good urban projects comes down to their ability to grease the system to get the change they need or just accept the current zoning as a given and do a mediocre auto-centric project.

So what do we do? We begin the 4-5 year process to entirely replace our existing code.  Denver is nearing the end of this process now:

Denver, which currently has a zoning code dating to 1956, is the first large city in the country to undertake a complete rewrite of its zoning code and associated zoning map under a “form-based” and “context-based” approach. Because it will affect so many stakeholders, the AIA Denver Board of Directors and two AIA Denver committees have been following its development closely.

Of the intense four-year process of writing the code, putting it out for review, and revising, Brad Buchanan, FAIA, who sits on the Denver Zoning Code Task Force says: “We must be sure that the new code does not adversely affect the economic development potential in our city. In fact, this zoning code has the potential to increase economic viability while protecting the character both downtown and in our neighborhoods, which are the original economic engines for our city.”

From the city’s perspective, the new code is intended to support a growing economy, a sustainable environment, a diverse mix of housing, strong neighborhoods, and a high quality of life. (Source)

A new zoning code to guide future development is among the most important policy decision our Aldermen can make.  Of course, doing nothing is a decision.  From the Denver Post:

The 53-year-old regulations that guide land use and development in Denver are inconsistent, outdated and stifling growth, city planners say.

Now, after more than four years of work, Denver officials are on the verge of unveiling what they characterize as a cleaner, more user-friendly zoning code.

The post-World War II era, when the current code was adopted, was a time when planners were enthralled with the automobile. That era expected that much of the city’s existing historic architecture would get razed to make way for large-scale construction with extra space for parking.

But city planners now see value in old bungalows, Victorians and Four Squares that were written off in the 1950s. The current code has become an unwieldy mishmash of inconsistent, confusing rules and regulations that have the potential to actually harm neighborhoods, Park said. For instance, the existing code specifies that a new single-family home should be built on a lot of at least 6,000 square feet.

While that might work in “suburban-type” neighborhoods, it doesn’t conform to historic areas such as the Baker neighborhood, with smaller lots built on streets laid out in a grid pattern.

A more sensitive code

The new code will become more sensitive to the different characteristics that exist in the city and encourage development that blends in, Park said.

It will guide building forms and context for at least seven types of neighborhoods: suburban, urban edge, urban, general urban, urban center, downtown and special context. The regulations for those areas will differ depending on the existing characteristics of the neighborhoods.  (source)

Denver’s code can be viewed at newcodedenver.org.  The poll this week asks your thought — should we go this route and do a complete zoning rewrite or should we stick with what we’ve got?

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. megamike says:

    come down to Florida if you want to see a zoning mess…Florida is still “untamed' when it comes to any coherent set of zoning laws…developers and builders have long been in control of Florida..thus the mess

  2. JZ71 says:

    While Denver's and St. Louis's zoning ordinances both date from the 1950's, with all the baggage that entails, there are several big differences between the two cities. One, Denver is growing, St. Louis is shrinking. Denver is seeing significant reinvestment, gentrification and change. Parts of St. Louis are stable and parts are declining, but there are few areas that are seeing substantial new investment, especially the type that generates significant opposition by neighborhood residents or their aldermen.

    Secondly, because of the relative stability here, there simply is not the same constituency or impetus to change things. Most St. Louisians simply don't see much that needs fixing – “If it ain't broke, don't fix it”. And for better or worse, St. Louis invests significant planning power in their adldermen, so most smaller-scale “challenges” end up being resolved at the ward level. In Denver, in contrast, the goal has been to have any zoning language apply citywide, to invest the Zoning Administrator with significant power (and limited flexibility) to enforce the zoning ordinance as written, and through a series of judicial decisions, to require City Council to act in a “quasi-judicial manner”* when acting on requests zoning changes that require their formal action.

    As I understand “quasi-judicial”, city council members are allowed only limited contact with both applicants and opponents prior to any hearing and that they most base their decions on the evidence presented during the public hearing, They can't hash out “backroom deals” with developers, especially ones that exclude public input. They also don't have nearly the same level of “aldermanic courtesy” as we see here. While there is a normal tendency to defer, to a certain degree, to local knowledge, most, if not all, Denver City Council members are not afraid to weigh in on issues they see as important, as setting a precedent or where there is more than token public concern or opposition.

    Finally, I'm not aware of any significant group here that's pushing to change the current zoning ordinance. Denver, in contrast, through a formal registration process for neighbohood organizations, an umbrella organization that speaks for the RNO's (InterNeighborhood Cooperation), and significant respect on the part of city council members for the opinions of active RNO's, is much-better positioned to make the changes they're making.

    Sure, there are more than a few people in St. Louis, especially on this blog, that see the problems and can define potential solutions. What's lacking are real champions, specifically any alderman, along with neighboorhood activists and business interests, to move the issue off dead center. Denver is where it is now because more than a few people, including some city council members who've come up through the ranks of neighborhood activists, have been pushing and working for 20+ years to change things. Can we do the same thing here? Sure, anything is possible. But it's going to tke more than just blogging . . .

    • The differences you point out are all true and in my view partly why Denver is growing and St. Louis is just at the point of stopping population loss. A new vision for an urban/walkable/bikeable St. Louis would help stimulate growth.

  3. john says:

    How walkable-urban is the New 64? What does it do besides supporting more auto dependencies and more sprawl?

  4. STLTransit says:

    Seems to me that zoning codes should never be seen as permanent fixtures for a city. Cities change – patterns of transportation, cultural values, land use. We have no idea what our zoning needs could be in 50 years. But I imagine the foresight to realize when you need to adapt to changes would be an important step towards sustainable growth.


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