7 Things a Town can do to Encourage Incremental Development

A demonstration project showing how great a buffered bike lane can be. Photo by Mike Lydon
A demonstration project showing how great a buffered bike lane can be.                   Photo by Mike Lydon

If you present information on the nuts and bolts of what it take to develop smaller-scale, incremental projects and the audience includes elected officials, municipal staffers, and local activists, they will ask you “What can our town do to encourage building differently?”  It is not so much what a municipality can do, but what the individual leaders in a town are willing to do.  Here is my list for those leaders.

1. Stop trying to guess how much parking is needed. Eliminate off-street parking minimums from your regulations.

2. Manage the supply of public parking with rational pricing. Convenient on-street parking should cost more than a space on the top floor of a parking deck two blocks away.

3. Get serious about streets as public spaces. Narrow lanes to 10 feet. Convert dumb Stroads to boulevards. Put on-street parking everywhere. Install better bike infrastructure like buffered bike lanes. Replace unwarranted traffic signals with stop signs.  Don’t wait for your Public Works Director to lead this effort.  (Believe me, he’s had plenty of time).

4. Stop letting your fire marshal design the town. Direct the Fire Department to figure out how to provide good emergency services on a network of connected low speed streets.

5. Overhaul your zoning. Get rid of minimum lot area and minimum lot width. Dump the silly maximum lot coverage percentage. The best incentives for incremental development support a clear vision and a reasonable process.  Your Comprehensive Plan may contain something resembling a clear vision, but do your zoning reg’s and development standards screw up your chances for getting it delivered?

6. Think Small and Think Local. Encourage the small operators you have in your town and don’t worry about convincing large developers to come from out of the area to fix your town.  They are probably not coming.  If they do, agree to come and build in your town, the results are rarely what you had in mind.

7. Dig deep. Cowboy up. Find some allies.  Making any of these thing a reality in your town will stir up some shit.  Ask yourself if how much political risk or career risk you are willing to take to make a difference.  Figure out what your Plan B is in case you lose the election, get demoted, or get fired.  Once you have your downside covered, find some serious people to work with and make some changes.

Asking Nicely for Something that should be Really Obvious —(Again with the Parking Thing)

Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.
Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.

Parallel parking at the curb provides some important and useful things:

  • Slower traffic.
  • A formidable barrier between passing cars and people walking on the sidewalk, so walking feels safer.
  • Parking spaces located close to where people are actually going.
  • Parking spaces without any additional circulation lanes (and additional impervious surface).
  • Greater flexibility for building on private parcels.

So if you want to build in a place that does not allow parallel parking on a public street and requires way too many off-street parking spaces on the private parcel, it is usually worth the hassle to ask for a variance or exception to the rules that are on the books.  Sometimes this decision is made by a municipal staffer like a Zoning Examiner or Planning Director.  Sometimes special permission for something really obvious, (like a better parking arrangement) will require the approval of the Planning Commission or even the City Council.

If you are asking for on-street parking or a reduction in off-street parking It is important to make that ask in the context of a thoughtful project .  When you show the amount of on-street parking being provided, the reduction in the number of off-street spaces seems like housekeeping item and not a big deal exception or some completely exotic one-off variance.

Just to be clear , (since it is often all about how you ask), don’t just ask for a reduction in something that is on the books as a black and white requirement that everyone is supposed to follow. Show the reviewer, commission, or council the whole project and ask for the reduction as part of that larger conversation. When you demonstrate that you are doing more, doing better than a lot of what they are reviewing, relief from a number in the zoning code seems like a minor accommodation needed to get to a good outcome.