One of the issues with broad, sweeping, simple policy changes is that as soon as the “broad” change is implemented, people immediately start trying to carve out exceptions.
I tend to advocate for Houston-style no zoning, but removing zoning in a metropolitan area that has traditionally had it requires consideration of how development would unfold in practice.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that ABAG counties. What would be the result? We can reasonably surmise that almost every slice of postwar single-family residential would be immediately declared “historic” and off limits. For example, here’s a screenshot from the recently released NCHRP 723: A Model for Identifying and Evaluating the Historic Significance of Post-World War II Housing:
“A Planned Neighborhood of Affordable Housing.” In other words, almost every subdivision ever developed. By contrast, there’s a lot of developable land in the hills around San Jose. A lot of is in private ownership, and it’s hard to argue it’s a “historic district” when there’s nothing there. There are also substantially fewer people to mount a campaign to prevent development in these areas. For sure, there’d be letters and petitions, “Save the Santa Cruz Mountains” and so forth, but ultimately NIMBYism is more effective when the proposed development is literally in people’s backyards.
Without taking any kind of stance on whether a ten-lane Highway 17 would be a negative or positive development, I think it’s reasonable to assume that dezoning coupled with deed restrictions and historic districts would increase sprawl in the Bay Area.
How, then, to mitigate this? One alternative comes to us from Portland.
EXd in the Portland zoning heirarchy stands for Central Employment with Design Review. What is Central Employment? “The zone allows mixed-uses and is intended for areas in the center of the City that have predominantly industrial type development. The intent of the zone is to allow industrial and commercial uses which need a central location. Residential uses are allowed, but are not intended to predominate or set development standards for other uses in the area.”
This… is a lie. Any part of Portland where residential doesn’t “predominate” is going to be zoned IG1 or some other traditional Euclidean classification. EXd is for dense, mixed-use neighborhoods like the Pearl District or the South Waterfront. But the code needs to say that as a retort to newly-arrived residents who might otherwise complain that a longstanding industrial neighbor is an “incompatible use.” It’s a useful legal fiction.
What can EXd do for you? Well, one of the big benefits of Houston’s non-zoning is that there’s a lot of reasonably dense redevelopment everywhere. In closer-in areas you get the walkable mid-rise that so many other cities spend decades planning for, and in more outlying areas you get a heterogeneous mix of townhomes and teardowns and rehabbed garden units and pedestrian-friendly strip centers. Since almost every American city has a planning and zoning regime that preferences low-density, sprawling development, what you want to do is start off by allowing a substantial amount of redevelopment in existing areas and then allow more outward expansion as formerly single-family neighborhoods closer in bulk out. An EXd type zone is perfect for exactly this.
As you can see, EX allows essentially everything except quick lubes, u-stor-its, recycling centers, and public parking garages.
Are there problems? Certainly. For one, Portland confines EXd to a few “headline” urban districts, and the exclusions reflect that. In a broader EX type zone there isn’t any good reason to ban gas stations or oil change places. And the conditional use requirement for public parking facilities seems to reflect a particularly Portland skittishness about parking. If you’re going to eliminate minimum parking requirements, you also need to allow for standalone public garages to fill latent demand for spots.
Portland’s EXd also contains a 65′ height limit. Portland tends to avoid tall buildings in general, perhaps out of fear that they will block someone’s view of Mount Hood. But good lighting and air circulation are better achieved with slender towers than blocky mid-rises. Where a block of 4:1 FAR might translate into a six-story mid-rise with a central courtyard, that same 4:1 FAR could be a single story of retail with a slender 20-story tower rising out of one corner of the lot. The latter casts far less of the adjacent streets in shadows as the sun moves through the sky.
But regardless of the specific issues with EXd as applied by Portland, the basic concept of creating one broadly inclusive zone for redevelopment is useful for almost every American city besides Houston. In a city with intricate, parcel-by-parcel zoning like SF, a big chunk of EXd would be a breath of fresh air.