November 19, 2015 Eric Bethany

Big Picture Zoning Thoughts

The City of Atlanta has engaged consultants to tackle a re-writing of our zoning ordinance.  This is a highly political process for any city.  Most current zoning ordinances are a combination of good intentions producing bad outcomes for most places, and Atlanta’s ordinance is no exception.  It is important to think about positive examples of places that we love, and work backwards to allow those places to be legally built without special hurdles.  It is also important to be aware that there are a range of these seemingly innocent under the hood items that result in bad outcomes for our neighborhoods.  In an effort of transparency and sharing information, we’ve put together this blog post to outline our current thinking on a range of issues.  This will be somewhat policy heavy, so you’ve been warned.

Walk/Bike Friendly Zones

I would recommend the concept of a Walk/Bike Friendly Zone (WBFZ?).   If we are going to succeed as a city, we have to truly embrace transport options beyond cars.  To embrace another option means to invest in the infrastructure to promote its use.  These areas would include anything in the Beltline Overlay District, and anything within some reasonable distance of a MARTA station, say 1500’ or 2000’.  I have some specific comments for the Beltline Overlay below.  I would recommend a new WBFZ overlay that provides reasonable loosening of restrictions across zoning categories when within a certain distance of MARTA rail stations.  One idea recently passed in Miami was an elimination of parking requirements for existing buildings within this zone under a certain square footage cap – maybe 5,000 SF or 10,000 SF as a size cap.  Heck, even a 3,000 SF and under cap would be something.  This would highly incentivize incremental infill, much more likely by small and local owners, and it wouldn’t be worth the headache for big developers.

Beltline Overlay

The MRC zoning category has the same general goals and intent as the Beltline Overlay.  The fact that the Beltline Overlay does not have the same parking requirements as MRC is directly due to the politics that surround parking requirements, and the timidity of Planning in the past in pursuing more ambitious aspirations for making our city a more walkable and inclusive city.  We need to greatly reduce parking requirements within the overlay.   Short of other politically courageous options, matching the requirements of MRC would be a huge step forward.

Change of Use

New Orleans allows existing buildings to maintain their grandfathered parking even if their use changes.  If a retail building was supposed to have 20 spaces, but has none, and wants to become a restaurant, they only need to find or lease the difference.  So if they needed 25 spaces to be a restaurant, they only have to account for the 5 spaces difference, not the whole 25 like City of Atlanta requires.  In this regard we should be more like New Orleans.  Adjusting how we require parking for buildings matters tremendously for those places where we still feel it is important to have the government dictate how many privately funded and provided parking spaces a private owner should be required to provide.

A Missing Middle Zoning Category

We need to have a new zoning category that allows for small infill units as of right.   We need more multifamily options besides single family homes and 200 unit apartment complexes.  The brain damage to entitle and build this infill missing middle housing types has to be reduced.  Scrap the FAR on this, and go form based to limit height and mass to be compatible with surrounding zoning, i.e. a standard height limit of 35’ =, .  Significantly reduce or eliminate off street parking requirements for this.  Allowing for 4-6-8 plexes as of right, without parking requirements, in WBFZ is an important land use change to promote market driven, more affordable housing options within walking distance of transit.

Code Specifics:

R-4 and R-5 Setbacks

These are generally bad and incompatible with historic development patterns.  Reduce sideyards to 5’ to better align with the International Residential Code, and reduce front yard setbacks to 15’.  The administrative front yard setback reduction is as burdensome and expensive a process as going through a full variance for a lot of people.  Just reduce the front yard setback, at least in neighborhoods generally developed before 1950.

R-4B Single Family Zoning

This subcategory has a smaller lot requirement, and provides more options to provide smaller lots in the city.  There should be an easier process to split a lot into two conforming R-4B lots in a wider range of areas.

The statement of intent says that the goal of this category is:

  • To provide opportunities for low- and moderate-income single-family dwellings that are centrally located and accessible to public transportation, jobs and social services.

There should be the ability to use this zoning category with more flexibility (administrative approval, not full rezoning process) if you are within a WBFZ.

R-5 Two Family Zoning

The duplex versus two-family definitional differences, along with zero lot line subdivision requirements are counter-productive at best.  There needs to be a way to have two buildings on a lot that do not necessarily have to be physically connected.  This will allow for the same density, but allow for detached units, which in turn will allow for much more compatible infill that can better respect existing development patterns.  Ideally, this would also open the possibility for the inclusion of accessory dwelling units in addition to the two family permitted density if within a WFZ.

An amazingly novel thought would be to permit limited commercial uses similar to what is included in MR, but dialed back, at R-5 or R-4B lots that are at street intersections, again, within a WFZ.  No parking requirements, but perhaps a maximum cap on commercial usage of something like 1,000 SF.  This would allow for incremental, neighborhood-focused uses to integrate into walkable communities.

R-LC Residential Limited Commercial Zoning

Another well intentioned, but disfunctional zoning category.  Update R-LC to be allowed to happen in a single family land use category.  This would allow for rezoning to R-LC without the additional burden of a land use change.  Reducing the side yard setback when adjacent to single family from 20’ to 7’ or 5’ would be a huge start.

R-G Residential General

A really antiquated and bad zoning category that needs to be replaced with MR.  The setback calculations are particularly old school, and not in a good way.

The infamous Land Use Intensity Chart (LUI)

There has got to be a better way than this.  At least scrap the Total Open Space Requirement.  Requiring Usable Open space that results in balconies is a pretty good outcome.  Allowing balconies to count as some percent more than just their area would be a good way to encourage more of them in residential buildings.  This chart can also be particularly difficult and inappropriate when you are trying to incorporate a small amount of residential usage into a mixed-use project.

O-I Office-Institutional

As a firm that does a lot of office projects, we’ve never actually worked on a project in this zoning category, which makes me wonder if it even serves a purpose.

C-1 Community Residential Business District

This is a relatively light zoning category with some reasonable flexibility, except that it has baked in really awful parking requirements.  It also lacks streetscape requirements, but these tend to get covered by various overlays.

C-2 thru 5

MRC is a much better category, and much better to transition to than these antiquated categories.

I-1 and I-2

Not really good or bad, but burdened with awful parking requirements as well as no streetscape requirements.  We continue to find interesting, non-industrial uses that benefit from the use flexibility, but parking is always the killer.  We respect the desire for the city to want to preserve industrial uses and the associated jobs within the city limits.  The big shortfall we see with this is that the majority of the building zoned industrial inside the city limits are now obsolete in terms of the actual usage for such purposes.  Clear ceiling height requirements for stacking palettes and highway access are contributing factors in this situation.  These obsolete existing buildings are generally pretty easy to repurpose for other uses if you can solve for the parking.

SPIs

No comments.  These have been thought through by neighborhoods and I will leave it at that.

PD- Planned Development Districts

This is a good, flexible zoning category that may be a bit overused as a reaction to the general crappiness of a lot of other zoning categories.

Historic Districts

Not much in the way of specific comments, except to say that if you are a historic district that still has parking requirements, then you aren’t doing enough to facilitate the saving and reuse of buildings in your district.

Chapter 28, General and Supplemental Regulations

Uses- Much is written about the determination of uses and acceptability.  While there is some reasonably acceptability to this when determining if a use should be allowed in a district, it is often relates to parking requirements for different uses.  If parking requirements are rethought, then the need for a bunch of burdensome use definitions and determinations goes away.  This would greatly speed up permitting reviews and flexibility in reusing existing buildings.

Lots

The historic lot of record limitations should be re-examined.  If you have a deed that shows your lot was historically split in the past, it seems reasonable to be able to subdivide back to that state, even if it was consolidated, etc. at some point since then.  The ability to administratively rezone to R-4B when in a WBFZ would alleviate a lot of issues related to this.

Yards

There needs to be a better way of dealing with side and rear yards in unusual shaped properties.  Maybe state that they can be owner’s choice or something.  Too many times it requires coming to Zoning for them to scratch their heads to come up with a determination that may not be remembered by the next reviewer.  This is not a good approach.

Zero Lot Line Subdivisions

Duplex language needs to be fixed here to allow R-5 lots to be split for two units in a way that doesn’t require zero lot line.

Off Street Parking Requirements

It would be amazing if there could be accommodation of gravel as a surface material for parking lots in some form or fashion.  Say for lots of 6 spaces or less.

Compact Space Requirements

COA currently only allows compact spaces to be 16’x8′.  Several other jurisdictions allow 15’x8′.  Further, COA only allows 20% of required spaces to be compact.  Brookhaven allows up to 40%.  Why can’t Atlanta do that?  Why not 100% of spaces?

Bicycle Parking Requirements

Dallas allows for one parking space reduction for every three bike parking spaces provided.  This is worth considering, particularly if they are spaces provided above the minimum Atlanta requirements.

On Street Parking

On street parking directly adjacent to a property should be allowed to count for a reduction in parking spaces required.  As these spaces turn over and are used much more frequently than offsite spaces, double counting them towards offsite requirements would be appropriate.  If you have 2 on street space adjacent, then you should be able to reduce your requirements by 4 spaces.

Off Street Loading Requirements

Really?.  We have so much off-street parking required, that there is plenty of room for trucks to park in the lot to do their loading, and /or coordinate delivery schedules with building usage.  Do we really need to regulate this?  Uses that need this can design it into their site in the most appropriate manner.

Carwash requirement

These requirements make it ridiculously hard to build a car wash in the city of Atlanta.  I’m not a huge fan of car washes, but the stack distance requirement is extremely non-productive.  These barriers to entry are why the former Cactus Carwash was one of the highest grossing car washes in the country.

Definitions

Put them in alphabetical order maybe?  Please.  Really.

The two family dwelling versus duplex is obviously one of my pet peeves.

Guest house/accessory dwelling unit- why can’t it contain a stove in order to have a kitchen?

Servant’s quarters- why is this still in the ordinance?

Home Occupation

This needs to be expanded to meet the 21st century.

Alleys

The city needs to step up and provide better ways to sort these things out to provide better usage of these by folks that want to access the rear of their property and limit curb cuts on public streets.

MRC

MRC has some decent parking requirements.  MRC also needs a significant relook at its residential FAR/density caps.  There is no logic to MRC-1 and MRC-2 having the same residential limitations, particularly when MRC-2 allows significant more non-residential uses.  Consider that the ground floor of a lot of these buildings are commercial and the upper stories are residential.  The limitations are basically backwards.

MR

MR is a decent zoning category.  Side yard buffers should be reduced, and still allow them to be used for 10’ alleys for vehicle access.  Require a 5’ heavily landscaped zone and privacy fence.  The density limitations of MR-1 and MR-2 are pretty silly and unusable.  R-5 allows for significantly more density on small lots than either of these categories, and at a lower land use category for typical existing zoning conditions.  The jump from MR-3 to MR-4 is huge, leaving out a reasonable transition category.

 

We applaud and appreciate readers who made it all the way through this long post.  We hope these thoughts encourage readers to participate in the public process of the zoning rewrite.  Having people engage from a position of thoughtfulness instead of fear is a critical component to crafting better guidelines for our cities and communities.

About the Author

Eric Bethany

A graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Eric Bethany joined KWA in 2015. In addition to contributing to the architectural activities of the firm, Eric works with principal Eric Kronberg to compile and publish research on KWA’s Urban Space blog and helps manage KWA’s marketing efforts.

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