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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

Zoning Makes the World Go 'Round

By Greg Alvarez


As Thanksgiving is now in the rearview mirror (and hopefully the remnants not now attached to our backsides), we forge ahead towards the next round of holidays to greet us in December. By the end of my last post, I realized I left things a little darker than intended, so now I would like to shift back in happy mode for this edition. In that spirit, let's take a look around us to find the success stories going on in the world of land use, and see how much a little ingenuity can change things for the better. In particular, kudos to certain zoning and other municipal measures that have fostered new programs and neighborhoods that seem to make people's lives a little better. Sure, these news items highlight the ways in which these policies can equally create unhealthy, unintended consequences on the built environment, but let's overlook that grouchy outlook for the moment.

Let's start in Chicago, where none other than Mayor Daley, the tree-hugger himself, has spearheaded the city's Green Alley Initiative, which aims to replace impervious, paved alleys with porous paving material across the metropolis. This ingenious approach cuts down on runoff and allows for more natural absorption into the ground, which in turn allows for natural cleaning of the drained water to someday make its way back into Lake Michigan, the repository of Chicago's water system. The city has also set up an expedited permitting process for builders willing to undertake green building techniques. As one pundit notes, "Recycling programs are all well and good, but the things that really move public policy and the industry are things like taxes and the building code." How right Martin C. Pedersen, the executive editor of Metropolis magazine, is. Unlock the power of municipal regulation, and who knows what could be accomplished.

How about in Denver, Colorado, where recent zoning amendments have fostered the rehabilitation of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, bisected by its main drag, Colfax Avenue. Once an open drug market, other more desirable types of activities and residents have moved into the area, creating an eclectic, electric part of the city. Specifically, the city has encouraged street-level retail, and the retention of residential units on the upper floors of buildings. In a plan that would no doubt warm the heart of the Jane Jacobs fans out there, the neighborhood enjoys a lively, active streetscape. In addition, crime has seen a significant decrease - down 40 percent since 2005. Give a little, and let, as one denizen noted, "Colfax be Colfax."

And what about Toronto, Canada, where zoning changes have allowed for the sprouting of Peace Village, a subdivision in suburban Vaughan, north of the main city. Like the Hasidic Jewish communities of Rockland County, New York, and Ave Maria, a community centered around a Roman Catholic Church near Naples, Florida, Peace Village is faith-based -- centered around the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith. The mosque had been built in 1992, but the area surrounding it was zoned agricultural. In 1994, the zoning was changed to residential, and the place took off with the construction of homes on an adjacent plot. The developer worked with the mosque to cater the homes towards members of the Muslim sect, which attempts to unite religious doctrine with modern reality. Word of mouth was sufficient to sell out the initial stock of homes. Although seen by some in Toronto as an attempt to distance the community from mainstream society, the man who foresaw the potential of Peace Village notes that it simply allows for members of his faith to pray with their iman more regularly. Besides, many of the residents commute elsewhere for work. Either way, the benefits to the people who have chosen to live in Peace Village are clear. All, or at least, a portion of the tide was turned with the aid of a rezoning.

The power of zoning and other municipal regulations -- their ability to give and take away -- is omnipresent. They can stimulate many good things, with just a little forethought. There was a reason the Progressives of the early 20th century took up the cause of zoning. Sure, much of their philosophy was misguided elitism. But as the concept has evolved over the course of a century, the true benefits can be seen. The only question is whether this will become the rule, or remain the exception.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on November 29, 2007 (boomark / email).

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