Thursday, October 27, 2011

Making development predictable through rezoning: the Bloomberg Model

According to our mayor’s budget speech the development industry in Ottawa isn’t working. City staffers aren’t happy. Community members aren’t happy. Developers aren’t happy. What we’ve heard before is the industry is unpredictable which isn’t good for anybody.

I believe a potential solution can be found in New York City.

Under Mayor Bloomberg City Hall embarked on the most ambitious rezoning exercise in the city's history; eighteen percent of the city's lots were rezoned between 2003 and 2007 according to a report by New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

The same report said three quarters of the lots rezoned for denser development were within a half-mile walk of rail transit stations making transit-oriented development a major priority for the City.

A New York Times article also provides some insight on the positive and negative effects of the rezoning on transit-oriented development.

“Whether or not that is true, the Furman Center report starts to paint a picture of significant change, finding that city planners were, in many cases, successful in their goal of creating housing within half a mile of existing transportation hubs. In other places, though, zoning regulations that restricted new building have taken ‘capacity away from communities well served by transit,’ the report says.”

The same article summarized the overall effectiveness of the plan saying:

"In an era of unprecedented rezoning across New Yor City a new report found that the vast majority of the changes preserved neighgourhoods the way they were, protecting them from denser or out-of-date development."

An example of this preservation was in Brooklyn. The Times went on to say:

“Five years ago, community groups in South Park Slope, Brooklyn, demanded protection from the new apartment buildings that seemed to be sprouting everywhere, pushing above the neighborhood’s low-rise canopy.

Among other things, the city’s rezoning plan for the neighborhood chopped several stories off a proposed 11-story apartment building across the street from Augie Tjahaya’s 2-story home. ‘It was going to be a monster,’ said Mr. Tjahaya, a photographer, praising the city’s intervention.”

Sounds a lot like Ottawa.

In 76 rezonings 86% were to lower the current density and 14% were to increase density. Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, says for decades New York had been zoned for too many people and the Bloomberg Administration was making a well-needed adjustment. I don’t think Ottawa has the same problem.
Some experts have found their approach of downzoning more than upzoning has not increased New York’s residential capacity in light of the city's goal of attracting one million new residents by 2030 (perhaps another example of a city’s plans not lining up with zoning). Nevertheless this approach has a better chance of keeping the peace which is what Mayor Watson seems to want to do.

One of the largest rezoning efforts was in Astoria, Queens which covered 240 blocks. The plan allowed for increased residential and commercial density in key areas. The mayor said the zoning was outdated and didn’t allow for enough development. The mayor went on to say, “The rezoning of Astoria… [provides] opportunities for mixed-income housing and new job growth.”

The Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development, whose objective is to provide "ideas that shape the city's planning, housing, and development", also chimed in on New York's development problems.

“Government was making two big mistakes: it was freezing out development in areas where growth made sense, and sending it to places that didn't have the infrastructure to handle it.”

Perhaps this is the mistake Ottawa is making today.

In New York historical neighbourhoods in Brooklyn needed preservation and Astoria, Queens needed development and density. What’s good for one may not be good for the other. Likewise in our city, one neighbourhood may need preservation and another may need high density. I think this kind of perspective helps to remedy the extremes of “all intensification is bad” and “all preservation is stupid”
or “all intensification is good” and “all preservation is good” (I'm guilty of some of these attitudes on the pro-intensification side).

Jonathan Bowles, Director of the Center for an Urban Future summarized the outcome of the plan saying, "The simple act of rezoning these areas has already or will spur significant change in the landscape, the skyline, and the character of these neighborhoods."

This is good news whether you want more density or more preservation.

As Ottawa heads into a major revamp of the development industry and anticipates LRT service in the seven years, based on the New York model, here are my thoughts on the matter.

Cities are not monuments or statutes to be etched in stone; they are living and breathing like the people that live in them and should be free to change and evolve because people change and evolve.

People who are anti-development often say that zoning shouldn’t change and our mayor has said the city needs to enforce the current zoning (we'll see how long that lasts with LRT on the way). Although we don’t have the exact same problems as New York, they used rezoning to preserve the character of older neighbourhoods, lower density in some areas and direct development and density to other areas where it made sense. The problem with Ottawa is that many people don’t want density anywhere even where it makes sense.

I believe rezoning has its place. Zoning should reflect the values and priorities of the day. People weren’t talking about smart growth, sustainability, and intensification back in the 1970s and 1980s so why should we make zoning from that time into a Sacred Cow never to be touched?

Ottawa and New York have a common priority; to preserve historical neighbourhoods. But they differ in that New York’s problem is that some neighbourhoods were zoned for too much density and Ottawa is not zoned for enough in key neighbourhoods.

As the City of Ottawa wades into the murky waters of the development industry as New York City did a few years ago perhaps an ambitious Bloomberg-like rezoning effort based on the current values and priorities of the city could bring the predictability and balance of preservation and density that all parties involved need.

Kevin Bourne

No comments:

Post a Comment