Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A New Unified Development Code Stands to Bring Revenue and Retail

Feico Kempff, Lani Duke, Susan Keith, Cynthia Keith, Kathryn Brandl, Maurice Loridans, and Loren Demerath discussed “smart growth,” the need for new zoning in Shreveport, and how to help make it happen with Dara Sanders, Planner for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, and Head of Master Plan Implementation.

Our discussion started with Lani asking Dara about the city’s policy of annexation, and whether it was growing too fast to support itself.  Dara said that Shreveport is slowly swallowing up the property within the Parish.  Her job is partly to inform the decision makers that the Master Plan is critical of our annexation practice, which causes us to grow beyond what our population can support.  Property owners petition for the city to annex, but then we end up taxing a water and sewage system that isn’t designed to support that residents at that location.  Lani asked if annexees can be asked to support it, noting that sprawl and annexation doesn’t pay for itself.  Dara said it’s true that the cost to the taxpayer is not zero; additional employees need to be hired and officed.  The cost of annexing is zero at this point in time, in terms of buying property, but is not zero in terms of services such as school bus travel, law enforcement travel cost, park costs, water and sewer service, etc.  Impact fees are now being computed in ways that can be defended in court.
A new code would help us get retailers we're missing out on

Maurice pointed out that it’s hard for politicians to turn away from the potential increase in the tax base.  He said they may know they shouldn’t annex, but it’s so hard to resist the temptation “to grab the cheese that’s sitting on the table right there in front of them.”  More expensive houses that would be appraised and taxed at a higher value mean more revenue for the city.  But the fact is that, in the long run, the revenue isn’t enough to pay for the services.

Dara hopes that creating an annexation policy will help to curb that annexation practice.  With more education over time, we’ll get there, where we’re not so tempted annex property.  The policy can discipline the decision-makers.  Once criteria are established and a policy is approved, the public can thereafter hold the city accountable to annexation and sprawl.  Right now there’s no such policy, and Dara hasn’t seen a decision yet NOT to annex.

As a result, we’re the largest city in the state square mile wise.  Our population growth has been stalled for 40 years, but in that time we’ve doubled in area.  It’s also why we have so many empty properties in the interior of the city.  Developers are allowed to move out.  “While the planners are away the developers will play,” Maurice noted.  

Dara said Shreveport has been just zoning enforcement, not planning.  Those codes came from the 50’s, and back then our current notion of optimal mixed-use zoning that creates density was an anathema to 50’s modernist planning. Loren (apologizing to the group for being a nerdy urban sociology professor who couldn’t help but take advantage of this conversation with a smart young planner) asked if those old codes weren’t based on Le Corbusier’s urban utopia of that compartmentalized city functions with the emphasis on city-wide efficiency.  Dara said, yes, that it was the “Euclidian” approach to zoning: the separation of uses.  She noted it had understandable origins: before zoning we saw factories go up next to houses and schools and that was offensive, so we had a knee jerk reaction to it by separating uses.  But the cars allowed us to sprawl and “let out the belt,” (in more ways than one, it was noted).  

Lani asked if the traditional town form and revillaging hasn’t been around for a long time.  Dara said it has, but not all cities and states have been equally progressive   Houston had an open annexation policy, for example.  Feico noted that Spokane went back and forth between the strong mayor and city management formats, and they’ve had a no-growth policy.

Dara noted that our Master Plan is focused on filling in the vacant and neglected areas within our boundaries, but we have no way of enforcing it.  

Dara said a huge step in that direction is the city’s hiring of a lead consultant to research the possibilities of creating a unified development code.  Creating such a code would be a huge step in Master Plan implementation.  Dara has estimated that 67% of the short term goals are dependent on the unified development code.  The consultant’s team will look at the 1950’s zoning and development regulations, see what we can keep and what we need to add.  For example, we may well want to add a tree ordinance, something to reduce the heat island effect of parking lots, to increase the use of bioswales and alternative water treatment techniques, to have bike racks be required for developers to install, to require private improvements to public infrastructure such as streets and sidewalks.  

Another new code benefit: drainage ditches to greenways 
Dara noted that in Fayetteville the bike lanes and paths that have been added there have not all been done by the city, but the city has required developers to assist.  For example, a developer might be required to widen the street where possible, or to make off-site improvements.  Fayetteville created a future alternative transportation plan that included bike lanes as well as trails, and based on that plan, which was adopted by the city council, then required private developers to adhere to that plan.  If the plan has been adopted through a public process, you can require developers to make those improvements.  Then you can require private investment to build the trail or bike lane.  

The cost of the unified development code will be about $450,000.  When asked about doing it in-house vs. via consultants, Dara noted that there is a value to having an outside, objective, equitable approach, and that their view will be valuable.  We have three bodies that need to approve it, and Dara alone wouldn’t have the power and punch to get it approved.  That said, Dara has done this kind of work in Fayetteville, including a huge overhaul of regulations and many other things the staff was trusted to do and for which it was given administrative approval.  But, it was noted that cities are different; Fayetteville is a university town, etc.

But Shreveport is overdue.  It was noted we’re the largest city in the state that doesn’t have a unified development code.  Such a code specifies uses and regulations; things like outdoor lighting, music, vendors, street and sidewalk improvements, drainage regulations, etc.  Importantly for developers, everything would be in one place.  Feico said, you know who’d like that would be stores like Macy’s.  The review process would be more predictable.  We don’t meet the numbers for Whole Foods, but neither did Detroit, and they got one and we see the effects of that; residences popping up around it, etc.  Strong retail services can work to be an anchor for downtown redevelopment, but they want predictable approval, not an unorganized, haphazard, arbitrary review process.

A new code would help new grocers, help downtown
Lani talked about how while she was in Vermont, IHOP tried to locate there but didn’t because of regulations.  Loren mentioned that there are low profile versions of other retailers there in Vermont, with small signs that meet the requirements, etc.  Dara said retailers are willing to stray from the prototype if they know the outcome.  In Fayetteville it’s very restrictive, with no billboards allowed to reduce the impact on the “view shed”.  It’s like a case where the planning commission is asked if they like the colors of the building and it gets turned down because one of the commissioners decides they don’t like that color; it has to be predictable.  The unified development code would make it predictable by creating the boxes for developers to check, and incorporating predictability into the process so developers and retailers know what’s expected of them.  Dara has met developers who’ve said they don’t care about stricter regulations, as long as they know they’ll be approved if they do X Y and Z.  

At the beginning of the meeting Dara and Loren had chatted about how contemporary urban planning is much more responsive to the character and desires of individual communities than the old top-down model.  Where previously an architect would deliver a plan that he’s constructed from his own vision, currently a planner develops a plan that reflects the character of the community she has met with and researched.  As a result, Dara noted that this new uinified code would respond directly to the neighborhoods that currently exist.  The planner looks at what’s there and assesses what’s different or appealing about each neighborhood.  The the planner works to preserve that character and allow for compatibility and consistency in the neighborhood.  For example, the planner can allow for things like accessory dwellings, like an over-the-garage apartment, or non-residential uses such as the corner grocery store in a neighborhood.  Right now we limit the number of accessory structures; only one now and only a certain square footage.  That’s unusual.  A lot of cities will limit the percentage of space, but not the raw number.  Sometimes our current codes are over-regulating and are limiting people more than they need to, and that’s one of the things that will be researched by the consultant team.

Dara gave some other examples of where our codes need revising, such as the fact that we allow for asbestos manufacturing in one area.  “Are you frigging kidding me?!” ...said one.

Susan Keith asked, “What’s the best way to get this done and approved?”  Dara said that for the past eight months she’s been meeting with neighborhood groups and government officials trying to educate people about what a unified code is, and why we need one.  The city will be paying for 75% of it, and the Parish for 25%.  Dara has been going through the applications for lead consultant and said we’ve received four that are very impressive.  The MPC staff will then help the consultant build the rest of their team from local professionals.  They’ll need engineers who know how to build with materials that are sensitive to the environment, arborists who understand our trees, landscape architects, etc.  One of the questions Dara often gets is why we can’t just adopt Lafayette’s or Baton Rouge’s unified development code, but because we’re different in our region, industries, etc., doing that wouldn’t be effective; each city needs a code that fits it.  

The code will need political support to be approved.  So far it’s got the mayor’s support.  Dara’s education campaign also helps.  And it will help the more people get involved in the code’s development, just like folks did during the Master Plan’s development.  Recently, Dara presented at a meeting just ahead of the head of the Shreveport Caddo Economic Development Authority (SCEDA) presenting.  That person said he was glad to hear Dara’s presentation because it will make economic development easier for SCEDA.

Loren asked about how Detroit got a Whole Foods, and Dara said it was through an incentive package.  She said, look at the car manufacturer we got, the steel industry we’ve gotten; they received  competitive packages to lure them here.  But, we have to get control over our sprawl and our vacant properties first.  If we can get a handle on our disinvenstment and sprawl, than we can have appeal.  

Feico mentioned that Centenary (where we are meeting) like many other Shreveport organizations, would be interested in creating a unified code of development.  As things stand now, it can’t change any of the land structures around it.  This is the motivation for smaller scale codes, where larger scale codes fail: if Centenary’s area were controlled like a village, there could be regulations crafted just for it.

The main action Item for ABS will be to publicize the need for this.  We’ll be inviting Dara to come on the radio show and talk about the new code, and about the need for Shreveport vote for it.  

So, BE READY TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PUBLIC PROCESS!  There will be lots of meetings, and anyone can participate in an as many of them as they like, not just in the ones in their neighborhood.  As with the Master Plan, this is a chance to lobby for the city we want!  Might as well, right?!

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