Draft Zoning Module 1: A Well-Organized “BADWET” Folly
Since the city’s consultants published the first module of the Draft Zoning Ordinance, we have spent some time reviewing it. In advance of the upcoming public meetings and comment period, we would like to share our thoughts on the draft. To remind you, Module 1 represents the “meat” of the Zoning Ordinance, setting forth the zoning districts and most of the rules on density, building form and massing.
For the busy reader, here’s the punchline. The draft zoning fulfills the promise — or perhaps we should say the threat — of the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Diagnostic. If used to its maximum, the Draft Zoning allows staggering increases in residential density and lot coverage, major decreases in setbacks, and heights and massing that will be entirely out of context with existing residential neighborhoods. The city could be rendered unrecognizable, and infrastructure would surely be overwhelmed. And worst of all, the transformation would likely produce very little affordable housing, as certain aspects of the Draft work at cross-purposes with the Inclusionary Zoning component. How much of this increase in by-right building entitlement would actually get used is a different question, but the door is open. You can find details below.
For the reader with more time, we take a moment to give some credit to the people who wrote the Draft. We believe that the form of this Module represents a dramatic improvement over the form of the current ordinance. The current ordinance is confusing, written in overly technical language, full of references from one part to another — it is not something a layperson can easily follow. It also has an extremely large number of zoning district categories, many with only small differences between them. The use matrices include far too many and too specific uses. The new draft is written in plain and comprehensible language. The number of districts has been reduced to a more manageable number. The variables that define the permissible development on any given lot are by and large the right variables. The language describing the precise definition and measurement of those variables is clear and direct.
But the improved form means very little when set against the borderline-insane content. The problem relates to the values set forth for these variables. In most districts the permissible density, coverage areas, frontages and heights represent departures, sometimes radical, from the existing built environment. The pattern of development arising from the maximum exploitation of those values would vastly outstrip the City’s infrastructure and capacity and lead to a total collapse long before the maximum level of development could be reached. In that respect, the draft effectively removes practical control on the intensity of development — it is sclerosis and collapse that would impose the practical limit, rather than zoning.
Allow us an analogy. The Module is like a nutrition program that lays out all the right metrics that one would consider in trying to eat right, without including any extraneous ones. It is clearly and simply written. But then when you look at the recommendations from each metric, the recommended amounts are crazy — No more than 2lbs of sugar a day, no more that 2lbs of fat, etc. The numbers are so large that nobody could actually succeed in eating that much. Therefore, the program isn’t really a program at all.
With that high-level reaction out of the way, we will proceed to look at the Module in more detail. We wish to point out that the review covers only the draft of Module 1. Our extensive analysis of the shortcomings of the Cville Plans Together process, the flaws in the underlying account of the Cville housing market, and the inaccuracy of the upzoning prescription stills stands. Those interested in learning more can find resources at our research site.
As we mentioned, the Module substantially reduces the number of zoning districts in the city. We think such simplification is a good thing. There are three main residential districts. R-A (the lowest intensity — what was called General Residential in the Comp Plan), R-B, R-C (the CP’s Medium Intensity Residential). There are then two tiers of Residential Mixed Use (RX-3, RX-5), a few tiers of Corridors, Nodes, Industrial zones, a Downtown zone, and a Civic category. You can see the city’s version of the zoning map here. Our focus will be on the Residential Districts.
One positive outcome relative to the Comp Plan is that the old Medium Intensity Residential did indeed come out as two different zones. This was mentioned in the CP, but without much detail. Much more of the CP’s Medium Intensity areas landed in the lower-intensity R-B vs the higher-intensity R-C — 75% R-B vs 25% R-C, roughly. Our earlier research showed how much of Medium Intensity Residential did not differ meaningfully from General Residential. This complaint remains valid with respect to the difference between R-A and R-B under the current draft. The median Floor Area Ratio and Coverage Ratio for existing structures is actually higher for R-A parcels than for R-B parcels. The Walkscores (a metric of foot accessibility of amenities) are identical. R-C, however, does seem to encompass areas that already have more intense development and massing as well as slightly higher Walkscores. Despite the claims of the consultant that road capacity represents an important criterion determining assignment to R-A vs R-B, we find no statistically significant difference in road widths adjacent to R-A parcels vs R-B or R-C parcels.
For those readers who find themselves in an R-A district, we urge you to consider that the features of R-B and R-C districts may still affect you in very direct ways. Below, you can see a map of formerly R-1/R-2 parcels that will be R-A but also directly adjacent to R-B or R-C or on a block where at least 30% of parcels will go into R-B or R-C.
Allowed Dwelling Units per Lot
The maximum allowed dwelling units per lot without affordability bonus came in slightly lower than the outer envelope mentioned in the Comp Plan for R-B and R-C, and identical in R-A. R-A allows for 3 units in a newbuild or teardown situation, 4 if the original structure is preserved. R-B allows for 6 units; R-C allows for 8. Recall that the CP talked about a maximum of 12 units. This still represents a dramatic multiplication of allowable density throughout the city. It gets even more dramatic when we consider the changes to subdivision/minimum lots sizes as well as affordability bonuses. In our opinion, it is still far too much. We think a good experimental start would be to have all the R-A and R-B areas at 2 units base entitlment and the R-C areas more like 4-6.
People have tended to focus on base dwelling unit entitlements and therefore have missed the dramatic effects that could arise from changes in the minimum lot size and subdivision rules. The ultimate outcome in the draft was not quite as dramatic as the most extreme views advanced by members of the Planning Commision during the latest work session on the topic, but are still disturbing. For the R-A district, subdivision is permitted as long as the resulting lots have at least 40 feet of street frontage and 6000 square feet of area. Today, most of the R-A areas require 50 feet and 8125 square feet. For R-B and R-C, the minimum lot size is reduced to a postage-stamp level of 2500 square feet. R-B and R-C maintain the 40 foot primary street frontage requirement, though there are some unclear exceptions relating to lots with side or rear access.
When we combine the increased dwelling unit entitlements with the loosened subdivision rules, we get a truly staggering increase in the maximum residential density in R-A/B/C areas (to say nothing of the RX zones, which we do not have the time or space to get into in detail). Considering only base entitlements (no bonuses), we find that the maximum exploitation of the rules under Module 1 could support the creation of 45,000 new dwelling units. Currently, only 13,000 dwelling units sit on these parcels. Under the current zoning, there would be room for about 8,500 more. So we are talking a truly dramatic increase, one that would far outstrip any realistic capacity for the city’s current or even realistically augmented infrastructure to handle.
You can see a map of potential increases below. You can click on a parcel to see how many incremental units might be allowed. Blue shows lower incremental unit amounts, moving upward to the largest numbers for plots in red.
As an aside, we note that at least one member of the Planning Commission wanted to go much further on subdivision rights. He argued against any frontage minimums, preferring to leave it to a determination by the fire department that access was good enough to get an engine in to within a 150 foot (grosso modo) hose run of the structure. And if that involved running over a neighbor’s fence in the bargain, so be it. That’s the sort of advice Council is hearing — people beyond YIMBYism, what we call BADWETs. Build Anything Developers Want Every Time.
The draft’s affordable housing component strikes us as a case of too much and too little at the same time. The bonus amounts are very large — involving a doubling of the unit entitlements and some increased height limits in certain cases, if the affordability requirements are met. For these large bonuses, all the units need to be affordable (though the AMI limits are not specified in the document as far as we can see). This is the “too much.” Too large a bonus asking for too much affordability. Too much “all or nothing”. The result we predict is that developers will have an enormous incentive to finagle the bonuses while attempting to skirt or cheat on the affordability requirements. The city’s demonstrated ability to hold developers to commitments is laughably weak. We still haven’t seen a census of Supported Affordable Units! It also allows for very much incompatible density for these projects if they do occur.
The “too little” relates the mandatory inclusionary zoning (which is not laid out in more detail in this document, but which is laid out in the Zoning Diagnostic), and how it connects with the liberalized subdivision rules. Recall the Diagnostic called for an inclusionary zoning requirement of 10% affordable units (at 60% AMI) for any parcel that would contain more than 10 units. First off, 10% represents a very low requirement relative to other cities with IZ requirements. New York and San Francisco have requirements of over 20% and at lower percentages of AMI. The consultants’ reasoning is that developments don’t work economically in Cville with a higher requirement. This seems like pretty good evidence that zoning here is nota binding restriction, since the value of exceeding current zoning limits is so small that we can’t ask developers for more than a trifling contribution without busting their economics. Now, what happens to an IZ requirement that only kicks in at 10 units under a zoning framework that has very few limits on subdivision? Obviously, a developer will prefer to slice up a parcel to the maximum extent possible and keep the dwelling units per parcel to under 10, rather than to do a 10+ unit development on the existing parcel configuration. It seems to us a recipe for creating noaffordable housing.
The Comp Plan pays lip service to making sure development is “compatible” with existing neighborhood character. It also talked about “house-sized” developments. Unfortunately, the lot coverage ratio limits in the Module very much suggest otherwise. R-A allows up to 60% lot coverage and R-B/C up to 65% without bonuses. Coverage can go up to 75% in bonus situations. Is this compatible? We checked. Only 4.8% of current parcels in R-A have a 60% or higher coverage area. Only 4.8% exceed 65% in R-B. Even in R-C, the number only reaches 7.2%
Other Form Characteristics
Other form characteristics also represent a meaningful departure from the existing norm in residential districts. For instance, the maximum height for R-A parcels is 25′ and for R-B parcels is 32 feet, 44 feet with a bonus. While 32 feet (2.5 stories) is not extreme in absolute terms, it does come in above the 95th percentile in each of these districts. 44 feet is basically without precedent. The R-C limits come in at 44 feet and 52 feet respectively. While R-C areas do have greater height on average than R-A and R-B at present, 44 feet is well above the 95th percentile.
With respect to setbacks, the Module treats R-A very differently from R-B and R-C. R-A and R-B both have minimum primary-street setbacks of 10 feet. For R-A, the draft calls for (appropriately in our view) the setback to be the greater of this 10 foot minimum and the existing lot in the range that has the smallest set-back. In practice, this should ensure some consistency with the existing neighborhood. For R-B, there is no such proviso. A 10 foot setback is atypical for R-B areas, coming in at the 93rd percentile of closeness to the street. R-C calls for a mere 5 foot minimum setback, which comes in at the 92nd percentile for those areas.
Compare these values to what prevails in each area today. They are extreme. In addition, we can see very little distinction between R-A and R-B today.
A Concrete Example
The consultant’s have not, in our opinion, given sufficiently clear examples and visualizatios of what the zoning might allow in practice for a typical Cville street. So let’s consider such a typical street. The street is 25-30 feet wide, not quite wide enough to accomodate 2-way traffic and parking. Fronting the street are lots with single-family houses. The vast majority of lots are between 7000 and 9000 square feet, have 70-100 feet of primary street frontage, 20-40 feet of front setback, and have 15-30 feet of setback from neighboring lots. The structures themselves are all 1-2 stories (generally no more than 22-23 feet high) and cover 10% of the lot area. Now, what can go in here? A developer buys an unexceptional lot of 80 feet of frontage and 8000 square feet. She tears down the existing 1 story 2000 sf house and subdivides into two lots. She builds two buildings, each with a 2600 sf footprint and 2.5 stories (or 32 feet) high, running to within 4 feet of laterally adjoining lots, 10 feet back from the street. Now imagine this happens to two or three lots on the block. Think about how the street will function. Think about the impact on immediate neighbors. Think about whether the new development “respects neighborhood context”. Now consider that in an R-C zone, a developer could go even bigger and higher. Will the consultants dare to create a visual simulation of this outcome? If not, why not?
We encourage readers to skim through the Module themselves. It can be found here. The bottom line is that this draft zoning, if carried into effect, would permit a city so dense in population, with buildings high enough, broad enough and close enough to the street as to render Charlottesville unrecognizable. To use an anatomical analogy, our city is like a person with a circulatory system evolved to handle a 150lb body, and the Module is like a diet that will take that body to 500lbs. The body will likely collapse long before that point. And, sadly, our own experience as well as a recent survey on mobility in the city both suggest the Cville “body” already suffers from poor vascular health.
Whether the prevailing economics would bring such a situation to bear is a separate question (which we have addressed elsewhere). We happen to doubt it, with the exception of areas that would be attractive for luxury student housing, but we don’t see what good will come of leaving the door open for such an outcome. All of this potential disruption, however, will offer no guarantees of meaningful affordable housing production, something that the consultants themselves have admitted in the Zoning Diagnostic.