Zoning Reform in Urban Residential Neighborhoods


  • Options for revisiting outdated zoning in urban areas
  • How to evaluate the trade-offs between comprehensive rezoning efforts and zone-specific changes
  • Time-effective ways to conduct public outreach on the relationship between zoning and land use
Urban zoning is often "two sizes too small" and prevents continuation of the built form that made urban neighborhoods great. Between setback requirements, density and height limits, and parking minimums, it can be challenging to allow the existing pattern of these neighborhoods to grow and thrive. This situation has often arisen in response to out-of-context large buildings that created a backlash in these neighborhoods, and zoning that prevented any development at all. The result? A lot of nonconforming buildings that can't be modified to fit the needs of growing families and a housing shortage. This session will look at two ways to fix this problem — one tactical and one comprehensive.

Portland, Maine, set a policy goal of amending portions of its zoning ordinance to allow for greater housing opportunities. In the spring of 2014, its Planning and Urban Development Department began crafting amendments to the primary downtown residential zone (R-6). The dimensional requirements of the R-6 did not align with any of the varied neighborhoods it regulated, rendering Portland’s historic neighborhoods non-conforming. The initiative to recraft the R-6 therefore focused not only on how it could be amended to allow for greater housing production, but also on how to enact standards that make it possible for new construction, small lot infill development, and alterations of existing structures to be consistent with the historic pattern of development prevalent in these neighborhoods. The process included robust public engagement prior to a full proposal being brought forward for formal review.

Somerville, Massachusetts, embarked on a more ambitious effort to overhaul its entire land-use code. This densely populated city near Boston had last rewritten its zoning code in 1990, at a time when the policy was to discourage additional housing by imposing artificially high minimum lot sizes and setbacks. The result was that — like in Portland's R-6 zones — almost every residential structure was nonconforming and infill development needed rezoning or to take advantage of loopholes in the code. The City of Somerville's rewritten land-use code encourages infill development and streamlines the approval process provided that certain forms are followed.