Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
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 build.

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 traditional zoning.

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 it.

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 lots.

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 lands.

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!