The Zoning Thread


Not a Brahmin
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Jan 22, 2012
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The discussion in the Oxford Office Bldg. | 125 Lincoln St | Leather District thread got me thinking about zoning as a public policy tool and the balance between zoning and as-of-right development.

When is zoning a reasonable tool for controlling development in a community (both broadly and specifically)? When (if ever) is it appropriate for planners to nix a project because it doesn't match the long-term vision for a particular parcel?

In Boston, zoning is highly restrictive but the Zoning Board of Appeals is used as a gatekeeper to override the rules in specific circumstances through variances. Is that good policy? Should variance protocols be used as rubber stamps, or should they be used as master planning tools? The Boston system seems designed to lead to corrupt outcomes.

There is a divide among urbanists and land-use policy junkies on these questions. Those who have more neoliberal views see zoning as bad policy and one of the main sources of our housing cost crisis in big cities. If those rules were relaxes or eliminated, they contend that a lot of the systemic inequities within cities and between cities and suburbs would self-correct. This thinking doesn't trust the government to make the correct policy choices, rather stifling development and causing the problems they say they're trying to fix. Libertarians mostly agree with that and go further, viewing zoning not just as bad policy, but as an immoral rights violation under the 5th Amendment. They'd argue that zoning itself as a property taking that requires compensation from the government. Maybe with a much more conservative tilt in the federal judiciary, these arguments will get more caché. Regardless of how correct these arguments are, the push to relax/eliminate zoning rules would preclude most types of directed urban planning on any land that's not directly owned by the govt, making urban development look quite different.

Other urbanists see zoning as a useful tool in the toolbox for extracting desired outcomes from developers. They have a more statist outlook, supporting a heavy government hand in master-planning the urban environment; or at the very least, a strong government 'check' on development. The contention that a parcel of land "deserves" a better project than what the private developers propose because it's a "wasted opportunity" to improve the urban environment. This more statist mindset doesn't trust the private sector to produce desired outcomes regarding urbanism and aesthetics.

For decades zoning has been a consensus public policy across political divides, with only a small cohort of policy wonks pushing back against it. The argument against them has been growing in strength during the past decade, but still face formidable opposition from the NIMBY cohort: protectionism-minded residents of urban neighborhoods and suburban communities. The old White Flight suburban communities align with the majority-minority anti-gentrification urban communities on maintaining zoning as protectionist tool.

Anyway, that's a lot of word volume... I like these sorts of policy questions. So how should the balance between zoning and as-of-right development be struck? Should zoning be relaxed/changed from the existing paradigm? Should zoning be eliminated outright? Is zoning an important tool to maintain neighborhood character? Have at it.