Zoning, a few aspects

Do you ever wonder why certain building types are here and there, and not in other places? Occasionally we hear of zoning, but what is involved? It’s more than a framework,  for a type of building. Zoning precedes some new building, based upon what is nearby and wanted. Older areas were built first, then zoning was created later. What is zoned? The activity inside? The inside of the walls? Mmm, asbestos.  Zoning has pros and cons. Did zoning kill Detroit? No, that was the unions and the Democratic  policy of anti-business and pro-redistribution. Does zoning  pick the restaurant menu? Did ethnicities choose their settlement areas (ie Chinatown), because of minority zoning? Does wet zoning make for lakes?


San Jose downtown



Originally, over a century ago, in the formation of towns and cities, for building development, there were not set guidelines or rules on what type of structures are allowed. Then, in 1916, zoning was first codified by law, in Manhattan, to separate the construction of various building types. Part of the purpose was class snobbery though, rather than having a valid purpose. A decade later, in the city of Euclid, Ohio (suburban Cleveland), zoning was challenged in court, as a violation of eminent domain, in that it was a partial taking of property rights—the land owner was not allowed to build an industrial building. The City rulers wanted that area for more residential units. Imagine, the owner wanted to build a place for jobs & making products, but was not allowed.

The main purposes of zoning are in two main categories, use and appearance. The building use separation is mostly to prevent functions from interfering. That includes the transportation and flow. The building use can be broken down into residential or business, the business uses can be broken down into commercial and industrial. The commercial business is broken down to retail and office. Business areas are usually more central and on low flat land. Sometimes leaders ignore patterns and needs. The map on right shows plans for new industry (in grey), at the city’s edge, in foothills just past residential. A highly needed, planned residentialdevelopment was even proposed for the area, with offers topay for infrastructure. Politics and snubbing must have been involved. Those super-majority Democrat  Council members sure are talented.


The residential use has various levels of intensity per land area. One unit of measurement for that is DU/acre (dwelling unit per acre). For regular houses, basically the parcel size. When considering townhouses and larger multi-family structures, that number is harder to be meaningful. Some apartment buildings can be 100 DU/acre. That measurement cannot be compared to overall densities of cities, because of non-housing areas, especially streets, which can take 5% to 20% of the land. The denser areas have larger portions of roads; look at blocks and how often there are streets. The amount of roads are considered in allowing for building use, but often ignored, especially for parking.

Older neighborhood. Zoning gives it a 3rd world look.

The underlying purpose, in the division of uses, is “not interfering” with other buildings and their activities not to “bother” residents. That usually includes, not allowing higher density, next to houses. Zoning can protect inhabitants from excessive traffic, noise, and odor. There are often buffer areas to transition to other uses.  There are often mixed uses, usually making more convenience and efficiency.To build more, there often special zoning areas, such as an SNI (strategic neighborhood initiative), done by an RDA (redevelopment agency). See map. It often involves legal kick-backs, not to personnel though, to developers. They are called TIFs (tax increment financing), which skims off growth in tax revenue, taking it from regular city services & going towards subsidizing new building  (housing price inflation). The motivation is to attract development, but the role of the private sector is missed, and incentives are given to developers, which raise property prices via deduction in budget revenue. Council haste makes things worse.  There are so many areas to avoid, once property is cheaper, then it can be bought & built on, but cities cannot wait.

Mandated clothing style nextThe second category on zoning purpose is appearance. Some of that does include safety specifications, but much of it is objective, and even authoritarian, to have people conform to their notion of what things should look like. Sure, certain standards should be kept as buildings age, but styles are opinionated.  It sure does take away from the idea of diversity and acceptance. Blending and matching is a goal, but then homogeneity is unwanted. Seems atypical in that these are lefty liberals who have the most conditions on zoning codes. They have no compunctions that they are unaware of all their inconsistencies, contradictions, no-sequitors and double standards. Accepting other culture? Accept my style of buildings or go elsewhere.

Zoning is blamed for many urban problems, some unwarranted.  Although, zoning does go overboard in restrictions. The separation of uses is claimed to increase the distance that people need to travel. Zoning doesn’t put areas much more than a mile way. There are many repeating clusters of zoning types. It’s not as if the whole city is divided into only 3-4 areas of single use each. There are many other reasons for distribution, such as demographics, specialty, income, style nature, taste, etc. People choose destination for many reasons.

There are some anti-suburb schools of thought that blame zoning for creating low density. That off-kilter thinking is under the impression that zoning has always existed and that it is immutable. Residents make zoning. Residents are there first, usually in unincorporated areas,  then a city is incorporated. People move away from density, to have more space, among other reasons. Many suburbs have apartment buildings. People choose nature, yards. Is open space, just a collective want, for public consumption, rather than an individual want? That’s what those enviro-greeny-dippies think.

There are many negative consequences that can result from city policy that can be referred to as zoning, but that’s not accurate. It’s other policy regarding property: the permitting process, building codes, impact fees, inclusionary affordability (rent-control) and lack of zoning (ie farm only), that increase housing cost. Actually, that price-push, then drop, is the initial-final (both) cause of the recession, but few know that factor, just thinking of the loose lending standards (promoted by HUD & the GSEs). The recession cause is clearly another topic.

Homeownership is claimed to be lessened by strict zoning, not allowing many uses. About 64% of homes are owned (mortgaged). Of those homes, about 80% are houses, mostly in lower density areas, with yards, which are a very singular type of use. The core [dense] cities, with many uses, have low ownership rates, often below 40%. People forget to consider that there are many variables for whatever is being examined, some irrelevant, some occurring after, or resulting from. Freedom is often seen as the culprit.

Naysayers can blame the government for doing too much or not enough, on what their desired result is, but the case can better be understood by looking at  the  marketplace, which include personal decisions on living and purchasing. Then, include with that, how government policy influenced decisions—against or with. Social behavior modifiers, want government to better their choice, for others, but it’s not coercion. In fact, this choice restriction is viewed as “more choice”, particularly by the “smart growth” crowd. Yep, like in George Orwell’s 1984, it is 2 + 2 = 5. That formula was a real saying in the USSR, leading up to its dissolution.


About Randall
A contrarian, not for conflict, but because many decisions are made, without considering the full impact & consequences.

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