BPDA Releases Analysis of City’s Out of Date Zoning Code

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Michelle Wu

BOSTON–The City of Boston released a report commissioned by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) to assess the Boston Zoning Code.

The report, authored by Cornell University professor and Director of the National Zoning Atlas Sara Bronin, details issues such as extreme length and inconsistencies that make the code inaccessible to most Bostonians.

The City and BPDA also announced a significant restructuring of the Planning Department, creating Zoning Reform and Zoning Compliance teams and replacing the previous neighborhood planning team with a new Comprehensive Planning team. These new teams will support the City’s ability to modernize and enforce the Code, which has not been comprehensively updated since 1964, and will lead the next major planning and zoning initiative: Squares & Streets. Mayor Wu announced the restructuring of the Planning Department during her keynote address at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Forum.

“One of the most impactful responsibilities of city government is to set the rules for how our neighborhoods grow,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “But for decades, our system in Boston has been built on a confusing and inconsistent process of handing out exceptions. Reforming our planning process and zoning code will be a sea change for our city, helping to fulfill a commitment for predictability and equity to meet the needs of our communities.”

“We take seriously the recommendations in the report and will tailor our response to Boston’s needs – including exploring how to build design recommendations into the code that improve equitable access but protect the ability for neighborhoods to maintain their unique character,” said Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison. “We need a solid policy foundation and a modern zoning code to enforce a structure of accountability for growth.”

Having an antiquated Zoning Code limits the City’s ability to address the current housing crisis by creating steps and costs to the creation of new housing. The report released today shows that Boston’s code is abnormally long compared to cities of comparable size by geography and population. At nearly 4,000 pages, Boston’s code is nearly 40 percent longer than that of New York City, which has 13 times Boston’s population and six times its land area. By every form of comparison to comparable size cities, Boston’s code is significantly longer.

The analysis also shows that length does not result in a clearer or more effective code, but rather, a more complex, inconsistent, and inequitable Code. The report indicates that the length of the code and its many contradictions impede residents from making even small changes to their home or business without hiring a lawyer. This creates barriers that prevent Bostonians from being able to participate meaningfully in the planning process.

The BPDA’s newly restructured Planning Department includes three new teams: Comprehensive Planning, Zoning Reform, and Zoning Compliance, in addition to the existing Transportation & Infrastructure Planning division. The Comprehensive Planning team will reform and expand the former neighborhood planning team’s capacity to focus exclusively on long term, Citywide visioning, in partnership with other City departments. The previous neighborhood planning team was also responsible for reviewing development proposals in their assigned neighborhoods, which consumed a significant portion of the planners’ time and limited the team’s capacity to complete proactive, Citywide planning. Zoning Compliance, a new division of the Planning Department, will work with the Development Review Department to support planning-led development. The Zoning Compliance team will root their approach to reviewing projects within a clear planning and zoning context from prefile through approval, ensuring that development projects comply with plans and new zoning recommendations, and facilitating fewer exceptions to the Code.

Finally, the reorganization has doubled the capacity of the Regulatory Planning & Zoning team, renamed Zoning Reform, in order to allow planners to amend the code proactively. Many of the issues in Boston’s Zoning Code have been well-known and documented for decades, but the Planning Department lacked the capacity to take on large scale change. The Zoning Reform team will also provide recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA). With a dedicated focus on providing more clear context to the ZBA, and in concert with future changes to the code, this team will reduce the City’s reliance on the ZBA.

The BPDA’s guiding principles for zoning reform are climate-friendly zoning that legalizes new housing and supports smart growth, a mix of uses, and walkable neighborhoods. The Planning Department will create change by putting policies in place that seek to prevent displacement, reduce nonconformities, end the City’s over-reliance on the ZBA, create more opportunities for as-of-right development, prioritize more approachable language, and produce a Code that is accessible and equitable. The restructured Planning Department has already begun to clean up the code by consolidating definitions into a single section that will apply to the whole code. This will have the impact of creating a common means for interpreting language across the code.

The team has also moved to make Citywide updates such as approving childcare as an allowed primary or accessory use across commercial and residential areas. The Zoning Reform team’s immediate goal is to implement zoning that results from ongoing neighborhood planning initiatives and to work on a strategy for overhauling the code based on the results of the report and Mayor Wu’s vision for a functioning Zoning Code that serves the City and its residents.

The restructured Planning Department’s first major planning and rezoning initiative, Squares & Streets kicks off this fall and will focus on neighborhood centers and main streets. Vibrant squares and streets include businesses and services, public spaces, cultural institutions, and reliable transportation options. As Boston’s population continues to grow, our squares and streets are important places for ensuring every Bostonian has access to affordable, sustainable, and equitable places to live, work, and play. This initiative will implement a framework for strategic growth and deliver new zoning for transit-oriented development in commercial and mixed-use areas. Over the course of the next two years, this process will be implemented through customized small area plans for selected squares and streets and provide a clear vision for growth.

Sara C. Bronin is an architect, attorney, and tenured professor at Cornell University, on the faculties of planning, law, architecture, and real estate. She founded and directs the National Zoning Atlas, which aims to digitize, demystify, and democratize information about zoning in around 30,000 jurisdictions nationally.

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