Planning, Not Upzoning

The proposed amendment to the UDO (zoning ordinance) and the new zoning map will allow multiplex housing to be a permitted use in all of Bloomington’s residential zones by blanket upzoning. It is an incorrect and simplistic response to a complex planning issue. Advocates tout the plex idea as consistent with a national trend in housing choice. And it does intersect with an emergent progressive housing dogma – about suburbs and large, sprawling cities. But this debate needs local qualification.

Google the terms “housing choice,” “affordable housing” and “increasing density.” You’ll find the plex solution cited repeatedly in the context of “Missing Middle Housing (MMH).” While MMH goals are generally affirmative, Bloomington has specific rental housing problems that overshadow these broader concepts.

Bloomington real estate is almost 70% rental. Renting is not a general, entry level housing opportunity here, especially in Bloomington’s historic core neighborhoods. High rents for luxury student housing create barriers for the local working community, which has the additional obstacle of historically low wages here. Off-campus student housing sets the conditions that rule Bloomington’s rental market. In this respect, we differ fundamentally from Minneapolis, Portland or Seattle – cities that have been in the national spotlight concerning zoning policy.

“MMH” typically refers to a variety of naturally occurring housing options, including single family houses, plexes, small apartment buildings, row houses and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). These types create a diverse and compact neighborhood. That is a planning principle that naturally occurred in older neighborhoods. In Bloomington, it predates zoning (which first went into effect, locally, in the 1970s).

If you actually read the relevant literature, you’ll find that the consensus among MMH proponents is that this concept cannot be implemented by blanket upzoning. In fact, they clearly acknowledge that this planning model is based on the older, historic neighborhoods.  A common misconception is that blanket upzoning solutions will somehow replicate the historic neighborhood planning model.

A fundamental planning principle that predates zoning was to include a variety of housing types and choices. These choices are compatible with one another and create a density that supports public transit and the construction of building types for small-scaled shops and business uses. These principles have been widely shared and described as the “Polycentric City.” This is a well‐respected planning principle based on replicating the best neighborhoods and ideas – the idea that a city is an assembled group of villages or complete neighborhoods. We have the local examples and could consider implementing this in Bloomington.

Our historic core neighborhoods typically are misdiagnosed and have been zoned for single family housing. But “missing middle” housing forms are grandfathered into those neighborhoods – those forms aren’t actually missing. Thoughtful policies catalog these other uses and zoning conditions and lists control measures. They do not, however, try to qualify them. Plexes are perfectly fine housing forms that co-exist well with single family detached houses; it is not a criticism of plexes as forms to say that already-dense core neighborhoods have enough of them now without inviting developers to add more of them.

We are currently debating the mistakes of zoning by trying to do more zoning. Does that make any sense? Instead, we should be learning the underlying planning lessons from these neighborhoods, while sorting out what harm or good previous zoning attempts caused or created.

This debate should be focused on newer subdivisions that were built based on single family zoning – not the historic core neighborhoods. When single use zoning was applied, along with exclusionary covenants and restrictions, those tactics cemented the problem. From the city’s perspective, these subdivisions are expensive to maintain and to provision with public services. They are artificially low in density, unsustainable and exclusionary. There is no grandfathered mix of uses; no cafes or coffee shops, grocery stores, row houses or plexes that could make them more livable. They do not support public transportation and are not walkable to urban amenities.

So how did the historic core neighborhoods become entangled with the recent, single use zoning mistakes? Instead, creating diversity, density, and affordability should be our mandate. Promoting local wealth-building through home ownership, and building the mix of uses to support healthy, sustainable growth should be our goal. We should be studying, defining and improving on the historic core neighborhoods and then replicating them, not trying to further harm them using the latest version of blanket zoning.

How do we retain the core neighborhood qualities of diversity, affordability, density, walkability, etc., and add to them, without harming those neighborhoods or the opportunity for wealth-building through home ownership? Not via blanket zoning policy. The place to start is to demand a specific, neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning process based on learned lessons about Bloomington – not Portland. The best practices and qualities are definable; they can be planned for, replicated, enabled and built here.

Marc Cornett, neighborhood urbanist

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