“Right” Zoning

October 16, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments Off on “Right” Zoning 1152

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago spoke to my Preservation Planning class today and introduced them to an excellent phrase: “Right” zoning. This is more accurate than “downzoning” which is a phrase commonly used to describe what happens when a local alderman or city decides to reduce the allowable density in a district.

The recent book on the history of Chicago zoning describes the “downzoning” of the lakefront communities of Gold Coast and Lincoln Park in the 1970s and 1980s, which often followed landmarking of the area. Real estate expert Jared Shlaes opposed the downzoning in a 1980 report, and the book now judges that Shlaes was probably on the wrong side of history.

Terminology is always loaded, and while “downzoning” accurately notes that the rezoning reduces the allowable density, the MORE ACCURATE term “right” zoning reflects the fact that the so-called downzoning actually reflects the REAL DENSITY found in the district.

People forget that almost every city was “UP-zoned” in the late 1950s and 1960s. Chicago doubled its density in 1957, in an effort to impel development in an age of suburban highway development. It didn’t work exactly, but there are lots of whingers who still dream of selling their rowhouse for a skyscraper nonetheless, and that 1957 zoning is still sitting there (despite a 2004 rewrite) encouraging them.

Jonathan also pointed out that historic districts are LESS onerous than downzoning because people can still add space (and value) to the rear of the their property, whereas with downzoning they might not be able to add on at all. I hadn’t thought of that. But he is right, and he has also proposed a new “renovation zoning” category that would downzone an area but allow existing owners to upzone ONLY if they rehab their own house. What fun – a law that protects community owners while sealing out the carpetbagging developers!

I have been looking at the creation of historic districts – usually precipitated by threat of new development and often by really bad new architecture – and I have to agree with Fine when he says “There would be no preservation movement if we were building great buildings.” The dreck – often really expensive dreck – populating parts of Lincoln Park is responsible for getting people agitated about preserving what they have. Because what they have – even if it was common a century ago – is priceless and irreproducible now. Historic districts are a manifestation of people’s disgust new buildings and their desire to control their own environment – it’s appearance yes, but mostly its value – social, economic and architectural.