News: Getting Cincinnati into the Zone

City planners need public input for zoning update

Zoning. The word alone almost induces sleep, like something a hypnotist would use. It doesn't seem important, much less interesting — but it's as much a part of a city's infrastructure as roads and sewers.

Just as adequate sewers carry waste and solid roads handle traffic, zoning that is fair and easy-to-understand guides development and redevelopment in a city. And all three usually aren't noticed until they break down.

Cincinnati's zoning regulations include a less-than-self-explanatory collection of dozens of potential property uses — from residential to industrial to commercial. They're a road map for the city's future, specifying what can or can't be built next to your home or business.

"It's the implementation tool for land use and development," said Liz Blume, director of Cincinnati's planning department.

"And the vast majority of Cincinnati doesn't know what zoning is, or that it exists," said Steve Kurtz, an administrator in the planning department.

The city's zoning has been updated and revised from time to time, adding new layers of rules, kind of like the way layers of sediment add up on the Earth's surface.

The problem is, there are too many layers that don't work together, which confuses developers and citizens who aren't sure which rules take precedent.

"It's hard to develop," Kurtz said. "People don't know what to expect."

For example, Cincinnati has 13 neighborhood business districts, each with design regulations intended to preserve the neighborhood's character. But the rules aren't clear, so developers usually have to negotiate with community councils, who in part uphold the rules. On the other hand, community members say they want more information about developers' plans, Kurtz said.

Also, zoning additions and revisions in the 1960s and 1970s focused on new development, not redevelopment of previously used sites. Since there are few pieces of empty land in Cincinnati, economic development here is more likely to come from redevelopment.

"There isn't a lot of space, so how you use that space is critical," said Councilman Jim Tarbell, the council-appointed member of the Cincinnati Planning Commission.

The planning commission identified rewriting the city's zoning as its highest priority project during a retreat two years ago. JFK was president the last time the city did a major rewrite, in 1963. That's a long time in the world of planning.

"The world is terribly different now," Blume said.

It didn't take long for planning commission members to realize they would need outside help on the project, Kurtz said. So the planning department allocated $150,000 to hire a consultant to help with the complete update, which was increased to $271,000 in June to match the best available bid.

The entire process is expected to take about two years. So far the zoning consultant, Dyett and Bhatia of San Francisco, has finished comparing Cincinnati's zoning to other cities. And a preliminary meeting was held in September with more than 50 people — both developers and community council officials — about the code's major flaws.

Now Blume needs the general public to help answer some questions, including:

· How can the city simplify and/or improve its commercial districts? Some of the districts, such as Glenway Avenue, aren't doing very well. Many are too small to accommodate the big stores that want to be in them. Should they be changed to handle them, or should their redevelopment take some other form?

· Where should the city encourage mixed-use development, such as buildings with first-floor commercial space and upstairs housing?

· How should the city's zoning handle assisted-living facilities or office and business parks, uses that aren't currently being addressed?

Right now developers and property owners have to spend a lot of time having their plans reviewed by the planning department. For example, the department ends up granting variances on downtown signs because the regulations on them are so strict — possibly too strict.

"It's a pretty labor-intensive process for both sides," Blume said.

Arn Bortz, a partner in Towne Properties, a local development firm, can vouch for that. Bortz, who worked with the city on the Shillito Lofts project, said he couldn't put a sign on the building's outside because it was more than 42 inches tall. That regulation makes some sense for signs in the city's neighborhoods, but not for a block-long building in downtown, he said.

"Too often, the city plays 'gotcha,' " Bortz said.

A better rule would be tying the size of signs to the size of the building, Bortz said.

Blume has further plans to make the code more visual and therefore easier to interpret. It's easier to show people how to design their signs than to explain it in words, she said.

The trick to good zoning is making it easy for anyone from major developers to the homeowner adding a room to understand what they can and can't build and why. And it's equally important to give the community control over what's built in their neighborhoods so they can preserve their character.

"We don't want to take anything away from the communities," Kurtz said.

Before Blume was hired in September, the zoning update was assumed to be a staff-driven project, Kurtz said. But Blume pushed for public input, resulting in the three public meetings scheduled in March. Anyone is welcome at any of the meetings; all will have similar agendas.

The momentum to revise the zoning dates back to 1993, when former Councilwoman Bobbie Sterne brought it up. At the time, there was no groundswell of support to do anything about it, although a few changes were made, Kurtz said.

"You might say we did a minor reformatting," Kurtz said.

This comprehensive zoning revision is a warm up for a comprehensive plan update — a master plan dealing with the city as a whole, including transportation, housing, business and so on. Cincinnati's last comprehensive plan was finished when Harry S. Truman was president, in 1948.

Blume hopes to have a draft of the new zoning by the end of the year, with a final version ready for city council approval in the summer of 2001. Maybe. Then, in 2002 and 2003, the department will tackle the comprehensive plan. Again, maybe.

"We're not throwing our code out," Kurtz said. "It's a reformatting. It's a simplification of our procedures."

Zoning alone won't change Cincinnati. High property values have kept the city from going through a complete cycle of decline and renewal, according to Blume, leaving the city with limited redevelopment options. This is further complicated by the people and businesses living next to the sites prime for redevelopment; they have their own ideas about what should be built or rebuilt.

It's no wonder, then, that many developers prefer to work from a clean slate of farmland outside of the suburbs.

"That's when we get into sprawl," Blume said.

The challenge is to balance all these desires, allowing for a variety of activities in one place, Blume said. In other words, to build a successful city. ©

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