Networked Urbanism

design thinking initiatives for a better urban life

Design critics: Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, principals of Ecosistema Urbano

What tools does a city have to create public spaces? One option is to develop the spaces themselves, another is to entice outside developers to build via zoning and incentives. Each approach has pros and cons, the struggle is finding the best solution given the specific needs of a community.

Some of the positive aspects of cities taking ownership of the development of public spaces are: The community has more control over the qualities of the final product, the public maintains ownership of the property, and it can be a possible revenue generator for the city. The negative aspects being: The project will be publicly funded and maintained, therefore subject to voter approval in many cases, it can take a very long time to work through the bureaucratic processes, and finding tenants or scheduling events is the responsibility of the city.

Some positive aspects of private development are: It is privately funded, therefore requires minimal investment by the city, finding tenants or scheduling events falls to the owner of the property, actual development often happens at a much quicker pace than involving government. Negatives are: Aside from typical zoning requirements, the city has no influence over the quality of the final product. The free market being what it is, the property can potentially sit a very long time before serious interested parties take notice. A large negative from the standpoint of the community is that quality pubic space often is not a priority in the development of private projects.

How then, can this system work better? The current zoning system in many places limits the code to generalities on just a very small number of categories. The primary focus is on providing maximum of potential options for developers of any given location. This may serve broad development plans, but it does not provide enough guidance for locations for which the city has specific development goals. The current system relies on developers wanting to step beyond what is allowed in the code, thereby trading certain allowances in exchange for features such as public spaces.

If no developer comes forward with plans that are close to what is desired by the city, or a plan requiring special approval that would trigger an incentive/allowance exchange, the location simply remains undeveloped. There is currently nothing outside of formal master plans or the general code to guide developers in the forming of proposals that would satisfy the city’s development vision.

The implementation of Site Specific Zoning would increase the ability of the city government, and the community it represents, to have a say in the designing and development of public spaces without having to develop it as a public project. Site Specific Zoning would expand upon the existing code when possible, and add new code categories or options when necessary for the development of the specific site. The intent is not to become so specific that no developers are interested, simply narrowing the options available for them to pursue, and thereby bringing to light the qualities the city always intended but never before explicitly stated.

This narrowing of options would reflect the intended type and program of public spaces that are desired/needed in the community. The Site Specific Zoning would provide a better “map” to developers who are pursuing proposals on the location by specifying aspects of the design that were not originally covered under the general code.

What can be specified in the Site Specific Code? Much of what can be regulated already is in one degree or another, such as public space minimums or active street requirements, but site specific zoning gives opportunities to pinpoint the site’s and community’s needs. For instance, in the case study proposal, the suggested development is immediately located across a two lane street from a transit Park & Ride. Having identified that a night dining/entertainment venue is desired to activate the public space in the proposed development, the city can take the edge off of that requirement by allowing a partnership with the transit organization in use of their parking lot.

Ordinarily, after the end of day transit rush, the lot would sit vacant until the next morning commute. By developing this partnership, perhaps for a rental fee, the developer can push all of the parking required for this establishment onto the transit property. There are many benefits to this arrangement. The developers can take the parking out of their own design and development responsibilities, and the transit organization gains revenue from renting out their lot during non-peak hours. In the case of the Beaverton site, the establishment of an evening dining/entertainment location could boost ridership of the rail line also located adjacent to the development property.

The city taking these types of relationships into account when developing their Site Specific Zoning gives them a great deal of leverage when searching for potential developers of city owned property. It does require a certain level of up front leg work by the city, but when considering the revenue lost while the site sits dormant, a lot of it can be offset. There is also the time and money wasted on both sides when proposal after proposal is denied because they did not fit the vision the city never properly communicated, and the potential gain from a community standpoint in the development of a public space that fits their actual needs as opposed to what is thrown in by the developer to fit whatever minimum requirement currently exists for public space.

Site Specific Zoning Book by networkedurbanism

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