We’ve all had someone at the workplace that knew the rule book frontwards and backwards. And in my experience, it wasn’t the person who was cheerful, helpful, and a great team player. Usually, it was the Eeyore of the workplace, always seeing things negatively. When rules get complex, like they do in City planning, Eeyores run amuck.
Consider zoning. Originally designed to separate incompatible land uses (keep the cement plant away from the primary school sort of thing) it got adopted by the bureaucracy. Which accreted additional rules, terms, categories, and subcategories until it was an impenetrable code, a language interpretable only to the select few: the planning priesthood, intoning mumbo jumbo. Public keep out. (And community associations are very complicit in the game; they love adding new clauses and restrictions — see the new infill guidelines…).
Like the tax code, it grew so cumbersome it became mutually contradictory, less likely to prevent abuses than to foster gaming by the cognoscenti. And in cities like Ottawa, the complex zoning categories seem unique to every lot and site. Instead of planning, the City’s planners spend their time processing applications and pushing paperwork minutiae. Real planning then gets outsourced to the hired guns. Or the over-arching statements of Provincial Planning Directives, and urban Official Plan policy.
Thus the utility of specific lot zoning has been compromised to the point where it is more of a hazard than a good. I have argued here before that we need to simply our zoning code down to a bare few categories, like Residential low rise (1-4 stories), residential high rise, main street urban mixed use, etc. Zero lot lines too. Instead, the City is stuck with a huge zoning code everyone is defensive about and is proving impossible to keep updated.
So if zoning is dead, what replaces it? Cities seem to turning to a sort of super-zoning that over-rides the lower level zoning, without going through the bother of cleaning up the burdensome texts. Some cities are introducing a macro-zoning that applies to all Mainstreets. It can then simply list the covered streets, and one set of new rules applies. Or it can cheerily leave conflicts in place: the zoning will say 4 stories, the official plan will permit much higher (see, for example, the new Centretown CDP). Decisions are then booted down the road until a development proposal is put forward.
In Ottawa, something similar is happening around our LRT stations. Rather than rezone every lot, the City draws a big circle around each station, identifies the under-utilized and commercial lands, and applies a similar set of zoning rules.This is sellable under the smart growth and transit-oriented-development rubrics.
It is careful to leave out of the pie circle those wedges that contain existing neighbourhoods thus sidestepping much of the opposition. Those areas will be tidied up later, or left to piecemeal rezoning and official plan amendments for want of a current zoning plan, since it is now fashionable to consider zoning plans to have a de facto expiry date after which they can be safely ignored.
Planning professionals and politicians love the scheme. For any particular development, they get to cut and paste different bits of rules from conflicting documents to establish that a project does (or does not) fit the rules. Infinite flexibility. Rezone low rise houses in Little Italy — meets the Plan ! Rezone expensive low rise houses in Kanata — ooops, lucky you, here a phrase or two extracted from the carpet bag of rules that will keep condo-dwellers out.
The losers, of course are the neighbours who depend on the undependable. And the developers, who are faced with incredible uncertainty as to what is allowed or not. And lets not get to those who want to abolish the OMB (a quasi-judicial court of planning-knowledgeable referees) in favour of the wisdom of local politicians who cannot see beyond their next election campaign (contribution).
Zoning is dead. Long live zoning.