CitiStates Report: Your City Too Bland? Crack the Codes
BY NEAL PEIRCE
Web-posted: 3:43 p.m. Dec. 2, 2000
If you don't like the sprawling, bland look of many communities today, don't just
blame the developers. Instead, take on the building and zoning codes.
But count on a dangerous game.
We found a case right on point. Miami architects Jaime Correa and Eric Valle have
been trying hard to create designs that reflect the culture and history of an area.
But Correa Valle Valle (as their firm is known) hit a big stumbling block after
the city of Coral Gables planning department commissioned them to evaluate codes
and zoning for the North Gables area.
Correa and Valle carefully went through Coral Gables' historic streets, measuring
and evaluating to determine what kind of early municipal building rules made possible
one of South Florida's most envied and admired communities.
When they'd finished, they had created a 16-page code book, true to that history.
But it was also dramatically at odds with the 300-plus page code book that Coral
Gables had evolved over the years, adding on revision after another to satisfy various
local constituencies rather than planning efficiency.
Correa and Valle were recommending that Coral Gables' current minimum distances
of 15 feet from house side to lot lines be reduced to the historic 3 to 5 feet.
And instead of today's codes pushing buildings back 35 feet from the street (shortened
to 20 feet if you're putting a garage in front), Correa and Valle suggested the
garage should be relegated to the back yard and that a house with a front porch
actually permitted back within 10 feet of the street.
Under the revisions, buildings would have begun to reflect the intimacy of yesteryear
-- neighborhoods laid out to encourage residents meeting, chatting, watching out
for each others' kids.
The Correa-Valle idea didn't get accepted. Instead, the planning director who hired
them got fired. And their proposal for radical simplification of the code book --
to about 5 percent of its original size -- was rejected.
As a result, Coral Gables continues to forbid, by its zoning codes, the very house
and neighborhood layouts that founder George Merrick used to make it famous.
Time for a rewrite
Modern-day liability laws can't be ignored, of course. But still, isn't it time
for South Florida to rethink and rewrite its codes, in every city and town, for
every construction activity imaginable?
If you think all rules atrophy in time, the answer would be yes, even at the peril
of offending some of the "professionals," engineers, planners, fire marshals,
public work directors, accustomed to telling the rest of us what's allowable to
Fighting the code wars could be a secret to a friendlier, less sprawling, and less
bureaucratic, South Florida.
Society does of course get some basic safeguards out of the code-makers' volumes.
But too often there is no will to reassess public purpose of the rules.
Small wonder we so often get bland, generic, even offensive buildings and settings
instead of the intimate, pleasant communities we want.
Parking requirements for instance, often force acres of rarely filled stalls, forcing
up prices, creating voids of empty space, even in neighborhoods where many people
walk or use transit.
Codes seem more anchored in our fears than our hopes. Across America, suggests our
Seattle planning friend Mark Hinshaw, it's high time to make them "more relevant,
more manageable, less exclusionary, less anal-retentive."
A lot of South Floridian planners and thinkers agree.
Director Michael Busha of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council says Florida's
governments have to articulate a clear vision of what they would like their communities
to look like -- the scale, relationship, the general layouts of buildings, roads
and parking, in town and city centers, in neighborhoods, in the open countryside.
As a tool to encourage the building of more compact communities, places with a scale
typical of pre-World War II years, a number of areas have approved a so-called TND
(traditional neighborhood development) zoning ordinance as an optional overlay to
They have not often succeeded. Indeed Miami-Dade's optional ordinance allowed planning
for the big Salamanca development in far western Miami-Dade County on the edge of
the Everglades. But local opposition encouraged the county commission to reject
Does that mean New Urbanism is not what the public wants? Some claimed that in the
wake of the Salamanca rejection. But there's another interpretation -- that local
opponents were correct in saying it would generate traffic congestion in a rural
area, and that the close, intimate streets of New Urbanist plans are ill fits for
recently developed suburbs anyway.
We were fascinated to meet Tim Hernandez, who worked 16 years for Pulte Homes, the
last trying to get Salamanca approved. In the wake of that defeat, Hernandez and
partner Kevin Rickard set up New Urban Communities, a development firm in Delray
Beach, in a closely-packed part of coastal Palm Beach County.
Delray Beach, with its stunning commercial success along once-blighted Atlantic
Avenue, is an example of the rehabilitation potentials along the Eastward Ho! corridor.
Hernandez reports it also has enlightened codes, appropriate to its quite small
We need incentives
Codes are clearly such a severe problem in some places that some constructive state
incentives could help.
Recent examples come from two states. Wisconsin, in 1999, passed a "smart growth"
statute requiring cities and towns with more than 12,500 people to adopt a model
traditional neighborhood ordinance -- leaving communities free to keep it optional
or make it mandatory for new development.
Maryland's gone the same route with special incentives -- state subsidies for roadways
or sewers, for example -- to encourage developers to focus on infill projects or
create compact, mixed use "smart neighborhoods." It has also written new,
simplified codes to let older buildings be rehabilitated.
The net result: a leveling of the playing field that now favors development in open
South Florida needs a dose of the same, making it easier to develop in built places,
recapturing some of the magic of cities, suggests Ben Starrett of the Collins Center
for Public Policy. That means, he suggests, "taking a hard look at how government
spends money for infrastructure like roads and sewers. Examining our zoning laws.
Checking out private practices -- why banks, for example, choose to invest in some
projects and not in others." And then, where government has the authority,
switching the rules, "turning the sprawl paradigm on its head."
Florida state government, in time, may also have to intervene with special incentives
to lift the heavy weight of post-World War II codes. Today they cast an ominous
shadow over every effort to construct attractive, sustainable communities. Repeal
or rewrite codes in a sensible way and there's also a potential to save billions
of dollars and, by reducing demand for westward growth, help protect the Everglades.
Not a bad public policy bargain for the new century!