Streetscapes under traditional zoning regulation end up looking like this — hostile to human life and not "people-centric," as Mayor Andy Berke describes it.
photo by Form-Based Code Institute
A street that has been revived under form-based zoning rules is interactive and alive.
photo by Form-Based Code Institute
Traditional zoning cares mostly for the use of a structure, not its appearance or form.
photo by Form-Based Code Institute
A step toward the form-based coding proposed for Chattanooga goes halfway, still not making structures interactive and relational to people. A superficial skin-deep reform in style.
photo by Form-Based Code Institute
Form-based coding would direct a rebuilt city block to look something like this.
photo by Form-Based Code Institute
This photo illustration from Peoria's form-based code book shows the dramatic revitalization envisioned in the ideas of form-based zoning regulation.
It’s taken decades for city government’s outdated zoning scheme to be thrown out, but the day has come. Planners and zoning rule overseers seek to pour a fresh current of design energy into city districts, an energy that will force new structures into a brighter sort of design, a more human-scale and relational concept that is intended to make the city more walkable, more personal, more human-connection minded. Think Frazier Avenue writ large and you are closing in on form-based planning.
In charge of taking up form-based planning are John Bridger and Karen Hundt of the Regional Planning Agency and its design studio. He is the executive director of the agency and she directs the community design group.
In an interview they explore the marvels of the fresh conception that focuses on the form of a building rather than its use. But admissions by bureaucrats are important, too. Whenever the marketplace is superintended by superior people with credentials, there comes the risk of blandness, of homogeneity. Zoning is a droning sort of assault on the free market and on the genius of the people who make up a city, imposing its conceptions upon them and their architects rather than allowing control people en masse through particular projects, cultural consensus and marketplace elevation of “best use” claims. Zoning assumes market failure and fancies that regulation brings harmony. Regulation thwarts the prospect of letting conflicts among neighbors be settled equitably in court, where real torts are righted but fanciful aesthetic “sins” detected by the effete elite are ignored.
This interview airs on Hot News Talk Radio 910 1190 1240 AM in South Pittsburg, Dunlap and Chattanooga.
Zoning-caused gridlock awaits remedy
David Tulis: We’ll ask John Bridger, the executive director of [the planning agency] to the mike, and we’ll ask him what this means, what the goal is. And the problem is in the concept of zoning. We have an old view of zoning that brought over time many problems and failed to solve the problems that its proponents were hoping to solve. But we have a new concept. Karen Hundt, welcome to Nooganomics.com. *** Tell us what is going on. What’s in the works? What’s been in the news this week.
Karen Hundt: We have just kicked off an initiative to replace much of our downtown zoning with what we call a new form-based code. If you’re familiar at all with zoning, it’s a tool used to regulate buildings, how buildings are built throughout the city. And we’re focusing just on the downtown area. Zoning is a tool that was originally created back in the 1920s and our downtown zoning here in Chattanooga was probably created back in the 1960s. So it’s an old tool. It’s a little broken. It doesn’t work very well for us and we want to replace it with something that works a lot better.
David: So zoning came to Chattanooga after “urban renewal,” which hit just after World War II?
Karen Hundt: Right. Right. A lot of our zoning was crafted and written in the nineteen-forties, fifties and sixties when suburban development was really the hot thing and really it’s more geared to suburban development and really doesn’t work very well in downtown locations.
David: Talk a little more about the problems it’s addressing. Describe the problem for my listener so we can visualize what’s wrong.
Karen Hundt: Oftentimes, the community has just said they would love to see some new multi-story mixed-use development in the downtown, maybe a thing that has restaurants and shops on the ground floor and residential up above, that sits up close to the sidewalk. And that’s the type of thing that everyone says they’d like to see in the downtown. It makes sense in the downtown environment.
Unfortunately our zoning does not always make that type of zoning easy. So a lot of times a developer will come to this community, say “That’s exactly the sort of thing I’d like to build. I’d love to build a four-story mixed-use building. I want to put a restaurant on the ground floor, and some apartments or some offices on the top three floors.” And — we all want that sort of development, and developers are willing to do that. But oftentimes our zoning makes it very difficult for him to build that type of development.
Mortmain in zoning — the dead hand of the past
David: What do the zoning rules now prohibit him [from doing]? Where is the sticking point?
Karen Hundt: Well, depending on what zone you’re located in, some zones cap the building height, let’s say 35 feet — which makes it very difficult to do a four-story building. A lot of zoning in the downtown in particular, some of it is still zoned for heavy manufacturing which doesn’t allow for residential uses.
David: It forbids residential uses?
Karen Hundt: It forbids residential, some of it, yeah. It’s left over from yesteryear when we had a lot of industries downtown. And so these are some of the issues they encounter. The first thing the developer would have to do is apply for a rezoning of the property. And that’s a three- to four-month process. You have to go through the planning commission; city council has to vote on it. And even then, when they sometimes get the zoning they need — because, again, our zoning isn’t perfect for the downtown — sometimes they still have to go get a variance for a very specific issue. Maybe it’s the setback or the amount of parking, or something that doesn’t make sense for the development they are trying to put in.
David: So these are encumbrances to the process of building and developing —
Karen Hundt: It is. It is time consuming and expensive for a developer.
David: How does form-based planning, Karen, deal with the problems of proportionality which some of the illustrations and photographs I’ve looked at regarding this system — proportionality and scale are problems that you have when you have these giant monolithic structures that are industrial or giant retail. How does the proposed scheme address the ugliness of those?
Karen Hundt: It’s called form-based code because it deals with the form of the building, the size and the scale —
David: — As opposed to what?
Karen Hundt: As opposed to the use inside the building. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deal at all with use, but it’s more focused on the form. Zoning we have now tends to be just the opposite.
David: So in your plan you can have a small factory, very light industry, on one floor of a building. You could have a retail store on another and levels of apartments above. And a cafe on the corner.
Karen Hundt: Possibly, yes. Right. Right. Form-based coding makes it more easy to have that mix of uses. We’ll also be looking at buildings already in the area — how tall are the buildings, how big are they in a particular area, and if we want to continue that pattern of scale and size of buildings. The form-based code will be written in a way that does that.
If, on the other hand, we have some buildings that aren’t appropriate for downtown anymore, that don’t fit with our economics these days and we want to do something different in a particular area. So you write the code to enable that development.
Local economy streets
David: The thing that’s really important in your and John Bridger’s plans and [those of] the others on the staff of the regional planning agency is that buildings be approachable, that they be somehow integrative on the human level, that they be places where you can eat and stop and shop and have conversations and have what I would call local economy, what Jane Jacobs describes in her book [The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961], you have a relational street. That idea is not possible when you have the old system — is that right?
Karen Hundt: It makes it difficult, yes.
David: What are some of Jane Jacobs’ ideas that you are trying to recreate in Chattanooga?
Karen Hundt: Jane Jacobs talked a lot about the walkability of a community, people being able to get out and walk on the streets and go to outdoor cafes and shops. She focused a lot on a mix of things going on in a neighborhood so you could live in a neighborhood where you shop and work, the same neighborhood where you go to school — have restaurants nearby — if you need that. That certainly doesn’t mean that’s the lifestyle everyone chooses, but for those who do — again we’re talking about a downtown area where that sort of lifestyle is common *** — we want to make that environment pleasing.
David: You my listener are not going to come downtown if all you find are blank buildings that have no penetrability, if you will; they don’t have any kind of facade, they don’t have any kind of rich front, because no one is going to be there. And no one wants to go where there is an absence of human life — unless you are a hermit.
Karen Hundt: If you think of walking down a sidewalk, if all you see is blank walls of a building with no windows, no shopfronts, no nothing, it’s not very comfortable, like you said. There is nothing to see.
David: What’s going on in these two photographs?
Karen Hundt: This is a downtown area in another city. You have a gentleman walking down the sidewalk, past a building. They do have a shopfront, and windows. But the blinds are drawn, there’s not much else going on in the street. You see a lot of overhead power lines. The buildings on the other side of the street look as though they might be vacant. There’s just not a lot of life and activity going on. It doesn’t look like a place you’d really want to walk all the time.
David: You bustle through a sidewalk like this. You are not tempted to linger.
Karen Hundt: You see more things going on. You see probably most obviously lots of trees along the sidewalk. There are lights there so it’s shaded in the summer. You have light in the evening when you’re walking. You may not notice, but the overhead power lines are gone. That would be a nice thing.
David: Why is that important?
Karen Hundt: Just visually — it kind of cleans up the visual image. That’s an expensive thing to do so I don’t know that we’ll actually get there. But that’s what this particular image is showing.
David: Why is this so attractive. Why does my listener need to care about this being an eventual scene in Chattanooga rather than what’s previous?
Karen Hundt: If you want people to continue to want to come downtown to support the businesses, the stores, the restaurants, the offices, the services that are downtown, it needs to be a place where they feel comfortable, where they feel safe. Obviously, you’re not going to have a sea of parking in front of your building downtown. You’re probably going to park at a garage or maybe walk a couple of blocks, and you want that to be a pleasant experience. Otherwise people will stop coming and those businesses will die and go away.
David: Say something more about proportionality. On our show at Nooganomics.com, we often talk about how government has disproportional solutions that are not — in the end, they are not human. They don’t reach, don’t reach down to the pregnant mother who needs food. The system that the government creates to help her is disproportional and in the end it’s not human and has many disincentives built into the “help.” How does the idea of proportionality fit here, within the design of buildings which you in the planning agency are going to impose on the marketplace?
Karen Hundt: [Laughing]. Let me say we are starting with people. We’re asking people what they want to see in the downtown, people who own property downtown or who are going to be involved in the process, people that work downtown, live downtown. We’re asking them, and we have been asking them over the years what it is they want. Once we get a good handle on what it is they want, we’re going to write the code to help us get there. We’re going to be looking block by block what there is downtown.
[John Bridger is the executive director of the regional planning agency]
David: John, talk a little about proportionality. What is the plan your agency is working on, and how are you going to bring that to Chattanooga and my listener?
John Bridger: With zoning we have R-1 or C-3, that would be the same no matter where it is. The difference with this approach is that we’re literally taking a look at a block-by-block level, what makes sense for that block. It relates to the people who live there, what their vision is for their street. That creates predictability in the sense that the property owner knows, “I already know what I can do to get a permit for.” The residents know what’s going to happen there with more certainty, which creates a greater environment to live in.
David: Now movement happens in the direction of this plan only when people sell, is that right? You’re not proposing doing anything with existing property holders and their property? You’re not saying, “We’re going to impose this new system on people who are there now”?
John Bridger: What zoning does is for future development. So, if I’m going to build a new building or if I’m going to do an expansion, these rules would apply. They would not apply if you have already an existing house and you were just going to live where you are, or an existing shop-front building. These rules only apply if you are proposing a new structure or are doing an addition or major change. That’s how zoning works. Really, that has worked well for Chattanooga.
David: So zoning is prospective in its nature, exerting power on the marketplace. It doesn’t look at current holders.
John Bridger: We are not trying to force people to sell their property or to, um — if they’ve already got an existing building they can continue to do what they’re doing. It’s something called grandfathering in planerese. So, essentially, yes, they can continue to run their businesses as they do.
David: Describe what you see in the picture and describe how your scheme would change that over time.
John Bridger: What you’re showing is basically what we call commercial zoning. Commercial zoning can either be, based on the existing regs, particularly like C-2, which is what you’re showing a picture of. Basically you can build a super box with parking in front. Which, you know, could work out in a suburban strip mall situation if folks want that lifestyle. But clearly, that would not be appropriate in the downtown. The problem is our current zoning regs don’t differentiate between the two. And so we want to be real clear If we want to create an urban, walkable place.
David: Now I’m holding up a second picture. Describe What we’re seeing here, John.
John Bridger: Here’s a totally different picture. You have buildings up to the street. Multistory. You don’t see a field of parking. What you see is parking on the street. People walking. To do that, you need a set of rules that promote that type of placement of buildings. So form-based code says let us put our buildings closer to the street. That creates an edge. That creates a nice, enjoyable walking experience. On that other picture you showed — no one wants to walk through a long parking lot. So, if you’re trying to create an urban walkable street, you’ve got guidelines, or code standards that promote that, and that’s what we’re doing with form-based code.
David: Well, my listener is asking, what about cars in this nice, somewhat bucolic, almost quasi-country scene — very small-townish. Where are the cars in this picture? Are we having to walk a mile to get to this beautiful scene?
John Bridger: I’m sure we can all think about a Charleston, a Savannah or other urban location. There are satellite parking lots. There’s also parking garages. There’s also shuttles. We have a downtown shuttle. So there’s a variety — We have bike-share stations. There are a variety of ways to get around. The big difference [between the two scenes] is you don’t have this huge surface parking lot in front of every building because you can’t have a walkable street with that situation so we’re just more careful about how we treat parking. Instead of parking being the driver, it’s the street, the walkable street, the thriving we want to do. So, if you think about that great street — I’m sure everybody’s been to Frazier Avenue, walked along that street? You notice you don’t see great fields of parking, and the reason is your buildings are in the front.
David: Why is Frazier Avenue a type of picture of what you’d like to have develop in Chattanooga for the next 100 years?
John Bridger: Well, I think it’s indicative of what you see in a great deal of urban centers and places. You’ve got the nice scale. The buildings are not too tall. You’ve got shop fronts along the fronts. It’s not just the building; it’s what’s inside the building. You can look through the window glass to see things. It’s an interesting walk. There are a couple surface parking lots, but not a lot. So, it’s a nice walkable experience, and that’s, I would say, is one of the drivers. Of course, Coolidge Park helps, as well. I would say, the way that street is laid out invites you to walk on it. And so we’d like to see that throughout all of our urban core of Chattanooga. And to do that we need a code system that’s going to promote that.
David: I’m holding here two contrasting pages. One has pictures on it. The other is just a lot of gray type. Karen Hundt, how is the proposal for a revised zoning scheme for Chattanooga and Hamilton County different from what we have now?
Karen Hundt: Well, the one that has all the text on it is a page full of words and text — it’s legal text. It’s rather difficult to comprehend. The average person would have to read it several times to figure out what it’s saying. Sometimes I have to read it several times to find out what it’s saying. And we deal with it every day. [laughter]
The form-based code that we’re going to, on the other hand — this shows two pages that might be in our form-based code — we would have something similar to this. You see diagrams on it, sometimes they will have photographs on a page. They show you what we’re hoping to get to. And the text is limited. You do have some text. It’s very succinct. It’s short bullets. It’s very clear and concise. And so a developer or a resident can pick that up, turn to that page, and he can know almost exactly what it is they can build, or perhaps what’s going to be built next to them.
David: The code book that comes for Chattanooga may pass a couple hundred pages, I would like to suggest— because Peoria, Ill., has one that’s 250 pages. Now, it may have a lot of pictures, Karen Hundt, but is it just guidelines because it has pictures, or is it thought that form-based planning is really A LAW?
Karen Hundt: It is a law. The form-based coding we are proposing will actually replace current zoning in the downtown. It will become part of the city code.
David: So how many pages would be replaced by how many pages?
Karen Hundt: Well, it’s hard to say since we haven’t written it yet. I don’t know for sure. Hopefully it will be fewer pages. Of course, with pictures in it they take up a lot of room. ***
David: There you go! There you go! [laughter]
Karen Hundt: I think the key there is they are more understandable.
David: Form-based planning with a “regulating plan” — these are not guidelines. They are regulations. They have the force of law. My understanding is several cities have passed rules like this — Cincinnati, El Paso, Miami. Nashville has form-based planning in what one website said are 30 districts.
Karen Hundt: Right
David: How far afield from downtown Chattanooga could this scheme go potentially? You talk about five districts and how much further beyond this plan might go?
Karen Hundt: The five districts we’re looking at include the North Shore area; it includes the riverfront, the city center, the M.L. King neighborhood and the Southside. That’s the area we’re focusing on right now. It’s going to take a year to get through this whole process, get it adopted. In the future, once we get this in place and live with it awhile, if everyone decides they like this better, other areas could ask to have it. They don’t have to. We’re not proposing that we replace all the zoning throughout the whole city with this. We’re starting with the downtown and make sure that works.
David: Your agency has authority in the county as well as the city?
Karen Hundt: Yes
David: But this plan is best for Chattanooga proper?
Karen Hundt: That’s correct, and just the downtown.
David: When other cities have had land use planning and smart growth planning, one problem that has arisen, as I have read, is that prices rise. What happens to the price of property and the poor and to commoners like my listener and me — what about us? Are we going to be priced out of the market 50 years from now by all these zoning controls and improvements?
Skeptical of property owners
Karen Hundt: Typically not. I don’t have a crystal ball to predict what will happen. But zoning and form-based codes really don’t control the market. They don’t necessarily make land prices go up or down. It’s really about the popularity of an area, how much do people want to be there. And if you get big demand for an area, prices can go up.
David: John, why is it that the zoning world doesn’t trust developers to bring about the best in the way blocks are designed and blocks of property may interact with other blocks of property across the street?
John Bridger: The public asked for zoning back in the 1920s, when you had large industrial development and right next door you would have residential, and major public health issues resulting because you had industry right next to residential. And so, really, zoning is a tool to create predictability and protect the general health, safety and welfare. So what it does is create some predictability, create some basic rules, so we don’t, one, affect somebody’s health, or, two, diminish property values. Developers want zoning rules because they want to know if I am developing a product that it’s going to hold value over time. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next door to me or across the street, my investment’s at risk. And so what zoning does is create predictability, an even playing field where everyone knows kind of this is what you can and cannot do.
David: It’s a use of the police power against the marketplace. But again, your argument is that the marketplace brings all kinds of torts among the players, damages among the players in real estate.
John Bridger: Yeah. Again, I would say the marketplace desires a certain amount — just like you would have regulations in the stock markets and the financial systems because you need some basic set of rules so you know what to expect. But I do think it’s important that we are careful when we are thinking about making rules that we don’t do things that diminish creativity and investment. I think that’s an important balance.
David: Contrast what’s being proposed by your staff right now and what we have.
John Bridger: The biggest issue we have is we have a zoning code that was created for the downtown area back in the ’70s. Downtown has changed a lot. That zoning code is essentially based on a set of rules that applies the same set of rules downtown as it does in East Brainerd. Clearly, East Brainerd is different, has lots of differences from downtown. It has different lifestyle aspirations. Our zoning code treats both those places the same. And so what we’re doing with our downtown is promote an urban, walkable place, which means buildings closer to the street, parking in the back, walkable streets. That’s a different type of set of rules than if I’m out in the suburbs and I want to be able to drive to my grocery store and do some shopping. It’s a different environment, and so we need a set of tools that understands the difference between those two. And the form-based code is essentially a tool to create urban walkable places.
Origin of form-based idea
David: What problem, or what crisis — what individual — brought this change of view into the planning profession?
John Bridger: Actually it’s been percolating for some time. Again, a lot of communities have already adopted this code. We’ve mentioned Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville. A whole lot of cities across the Southeast and U.S. have done it. Even in our own city, we’ve heard a lot from builders as well as residents that have some kind of interest in creating more predictability in development downtown. There’s been a lot of investment downtown and I think they want to see that grow — and grow in the right way. And to be sure that everybody plays by the same rules and creates that same investment in a walkable environment. Form-based code is a tool to promote that. C-7 for Northshore was a similar tool. It was crafted at the request of business owners of the Northshore area because they saw the potential for growth in that area and wanted to be consistent with the urban character of that district.
David: In much of what we have in the scenes of city that we have, we have a kind of monolithic, impenetrable, alienating series of structures and pathways, sidewalks and roads. I’m holding in my hand an image where you have this kind of anonymity. Describe the psychological effect of this sort of design and then the alternative.
John Bridger: This shows the important role the public sector plays because here you can have a building close to the street but if we don’t treat the street right and create amenities on the street, it’s still not very walkable. So here you have a building next to the street that pedestrians walk but it’s still not as interesting and engaging as it could be. The second picture, what we’ve done is not only put the building on the street but we’ve added elements like street lighting, street trees, a little bit wider sidewalk, putting on-street parking. Now you’ve got a much more attractive, walkable space. If you’ve been down Frazier Avenue, that’s the type of environment we’re trying to create. So it’s a building close to the street; you’ve got nice streetscaping, street trees, benches. That creates the environment that creates more investment.
David: And some of the people you see on the sidewalk actually live right there.
John Bridger: That’s correct. You can literally live above the shop front. It gives you more flexibility as a property owner to do more things with your property than your conventional zoning would allow.
David: Is there likely to be any kind of resistance politically, John Bridger?
John Bridger: I think clearly, when we do this kind of change, we want to work with all the folks who could be affected. That’s residents, that’s property owners, that’s developers, that’s builders. Staff, staff is the other important part. Because if you create a great tool and you don’t train the staff to implement it well, you could still have challenges. So we’re working with staff. We’re talking with builders and developers. because we want this to be a tool that works for the Chattanooga market. And that’s why there are different types of form-based code, in Nashville, Asheville, Chattanooga. We want something that’s going to work for our city.
The argument for rough-’n’-tumble
David: My listener likes the city because of its vulgarity, its controversy among scenes, the high and the low, the great and the small, the ugly, the well-planned, the fact that there is diversity in THAT way is part of the joy of being in a city where there are counterpoints to your own opinions, your own way of doing things, your own view of what is beautiful. Are you going to bring about another danger, that of a certain homogeneity?
John Bridger: I think you bring up a very good point. And I just want to give my philosophy on it. I think some variety is good. And so I think we need to be careful whenever we are creating a set of standards that we don’t create blandness.
David: A la Soviet Union apartment complexes.
John Bridger: To me it’s about getting the basics right, which is the building up to the street. But allow some variation of materials. Do we really need to get into specifying specific materials or how a sign is articulated? I think you want to allow creativity. So I think it’s a basic set of rules so we all know what kind of environment, and then allow some creativity in that. If I want to do a different type of sign or a different material, allow that to happen. You see, that’s what creates the interest of the street. Variation.
David: Karen Hundt is involved in developing these plans that create *** what would be a very attractive local economy scene, where there is an emphasis on human interaction, where people go to a series of blocks or an area of Chattanooga, and they’re there because other people are there, and the people there are not driving through it and rushing away. They have come there because of a tranquil arrangement of buildings, and awnings and maybe little cafes and little retail shops and barber signs, things that are part of a slower pace. How does controlling design of buildings bring that about, Karen?
Friendliness, walkability theme
Karen Hundt: In order to get that walkability in a place where people want to come and stop and shop and walk around the streets, first of all they have to have something they’re interested in going to see. You’ve got to have businesses, stores and restaurants and things. But then you want to bring them up close to the street where people are walking. You want to have a lot of variety. You want to have a mix of things going on. Not all offices. Not all shops. You want some restaurants mixed in there, some hotels. You want places where people live, maybe some cool loft apartments. You want all kinds of things going on that really create that vibe and energy in the downtown.
David: The contrast I’m getting from the work you’ve done and what I understand of it thus far is: Without your plan you have These kinds of alienating, anonymous, monolithic structures. You have streets where one just hurries down to get somewhere. When one sees a person, he’s on the other side of a parking lot and can barely hear you raise your voice to try to call his name. It’s a place where you go just briefly. In your idea and the idea of form-based planning for Chattanooga, there’s much more a desire to create a context for human interaction.
Karen Hundt: Absolutely, we don’t want downtown or any commercial area to be just a place you just drive through. We don’t want it to just be a conduit for cars where you zip through as fast as you can to get home. We want people to be able to get out of their cars, park, or even take the bus or ride the shuttle, or ride their bike or walk to get to where they’re going. Spend time. Spend some money.
David: Is it fair to say form-based planning is anti-vehicular traffic?
Karen Hundt: It’s not anti-vehicle. I would say it tries to balance cars with pedestrians and shuttles and bicycles and other types of transportation. It’s not car-centric. I think that’s the difference. It’s not a total focus on the car.
Cultural power of autos
David: We are car-centric because of the scope of the country. Tennessee is a state of six, six-and-a-half million people, but it covers tens of thousands of square miles. We have to have cars to get around. Yet cars devastate relationships among people, say in a neighborhood. I live in Soddy-Daisy on top of a hill. It’s very difficult to get to know the neighbors. And because I’m driving, I’m tired at the end of the day — I don’t greet them, I don’t stop, even if they’re out. I might wave to that man, but it’s very difficult in a car to have connections with people. American neighborhoods are often terribly anonymous, and we have to thank the vehicle for that.
Karen Hundt: Like you say, you’re tired at the end of the day, you pull into your garage and you don’t see anyone the rest of the day. That’s a lifestyle some people would prefer to have, they prefer to choose. They don’t want to walk to a grocery store, a theater or a restaurant. That’s cool. That’s fine. But the people who are choosing to live in a downtown area do tend to want those things. And so we’re trying to provide that option for them. *** Form-based coding is an actual law. It is a city law. It’s part of the city code. So it is a set of rules that anyone building something new in the downtown would have to follow.
David: My listener is bothered by the idea that there are people whom we could call stakeholders, though you have not used that word — stakeholders in the way a certain part of town looks. These stakeholders go to meetings with you and John Bridger, the executive director of the Regional Planning Agency, and *** you have this visioning process which has taken place in other cities, and then you and the staff draft an ordinance and *** City Council receives this proposal as a recommendation from John Bridger — and we have stakeholders who are deciding how things should look that affect the property rights of future owners of land. Is that not discouraging of the idea of ownership? It seems it does offend my listener’s sense of owning property to be able to do with it as you please so long as you are not imposing a damage or tort on another person. Why are we not free to have that as the standard of injury, and not do things ahead of time by regulation?
Real torts vs. regulatory soft-walled rooms
Karen Hundt: I think you’ve got the key there. You don’t want to damage your neighbor’s property rights nor the value of his property or do physical harm to that person. Let me give an example here. Someone who, say, owns a single-family home in or near the downtown area, say in the M.L. King district, someone comes in and proposes to build a six-story apartment building right next to them on the next piece of property. I think most people would agree that would be damaging. I certainly wouldn’t want it next to me.
David: But it wouldn’t be a tort. It would be perhaps damaging visually. It might damage your sense of space. It might block the sun in the evening. But it’s not a tort, as if to say you have injured me in a way that a jury could determine the dollar value of. It’s just not.
Karen Hunt: Well, but oftentimes I think there at least is a perception, maybe not always real, there is a very strong perception that when you have those extreme contrasts like that where you have, say, a single-story house and someone puts a six-story building beside you — you’re blocking the light, all of those things. It could decrease the property value of your property.
Hurly burly city, or planned one?
David: Shouldn’t someone who lives in that one-story house, shouldn’t that person be willing to accept that that is the wonderful and amazing hazard of living in a city. You don’t know what is going to come next. You don’t know that a factory won’t be built next to you or that a dump where old cars are kept for recycling — these are all things that are part of the reason people come to cities. They come because they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s full of excitement. It’s full of adventure. And it seems that the zoning program of you and John Bridger doesn’t want that to happen. You’re trying to make everybody safe and that there aren’t these necessary and important conflicts and confrontations that make city life so compelling.
Karen Hundt: I think it’s the degree we’re talking about. I mean, sure, you don’t want everything to be monotonous, the same. That gets boring. I wouldn’t want that either. But you don’t want total chaos, the wild-wild west sort of thing where you have no predictability of what is going to be built next to you. When people buy a property and build a home, I think they want some assurance that something really bad is not going to be built next to them. And I think that’s the kind of assurance we want to give. We’re not trying to stifle creativity. We’re not trying to take away diversity and variety. We want to encourage those things, but within reasonable limits.
David: But the person who wants that seems to me he should be living in the countryside where he doesn’t have to bother with people. But, in fact, my listener lives in Chattanooga. He likes turbulence. He likes even things that look vulgar to him, even things he disagrees with — heaven forbid, he has to deal with people he doesn’t like. He has to deal with people he doesn’t agree with. He has to see things not to his aesthetic taste. Yet he is here and he doesn’t count any of those things a tort. None of those things are wrong. My listener is a person big enough not to be offended by those things. So it seems to me that planning should disappear at some point because that [diversity] is something human nature really thrives on. It makes people better. It makes people more articulate, more caring of other people, if they have to have a little bit of a struggle — which you get only in the city.
Karen Hundt: Well, we do want a lot of diversity in the city. It can be a great thing. I think that some of that funkiness that you find in downtowns is great. I love it too. I’ve worked in the downtown all my adult career, and I love that aspect of it. But I think there are limits to everything. I think you do need some basic rules. You need some planning. If you think of anyone starting, say, a new business, they are going to plan ahead for what’s going to happen in the coming years. They are going to have a business plan. If they don’t do that, well, they might make it. They might be financially successful. But their chances aren’t as good.
David: Is it fair to say, Karen Hundt, of the Community Design Agency — you are the director of the Community Design group — is it fair to say that planning and zoning have brought us to the impasse at which we find ourselves now and which you, through the form-based planning proposal, want to bypass and go around? Are we not the victims today of planning which you, now, are trying to solve — by planning?
Karen Hundt: Actually, let me differentiate there. I think we’ve done some good planning. The problem is the regulations that implement those plans is the problem. So, the plans are great. The people we know and have talked to that live and own property downtown have done some great work — this is the kind of vision we have for our community. But the rules that regulate what can be built don’t match that vision the people have, so the planning is OK. The planning is really good in some places. But it’s the rules —
David: — The rules which are the zoning rules.
Karen Hundt: Right
David: So we have plans that are good and zoning rules that are bad. And now we’re trying to solve the problem of bad zoning rules with the good plans and good zoning rules.
Karen Hundt: Absolutely. We want them to match.
David: My listener is seeing the point here I’m trying to make here with my question, is that there’s no fundamental change in the premise of operation. We still have government control of property, government influence over the use of what we like to think is private property — but really isn’t.
Karen Hundt: Yeah, I mean, you always have some rules. If you live in a city you have to pay
taxes, you have to obey the traffic laws. I mean, there are certain rules we all follow. Rules to some extent are good, like John was saying earlier — we don’t want to overdo that and make it burdensome. But we’ve got to have a few things we all agree on.
A form-based Thrive 2055?
David: You and John Bridger are professionals in the planning sector. You’ve been in that field 20 years. You look at things holistically. Is there some connection between what you do and Thrive 2055, which is a plan for 40 years? What is the connection?
Karen Hundt: Thrive 2055 is looking at much larger area than we are with this form-based initiative. They are looking at 15 or 16 counties, and when you get to that scale you’re not talking about the height of buildings and those sorts of issues. You’re looking at really big regional issues. How does our transportation system work. Or do highways go where they need to go in the region. So I guess there are some similarities. You are trying to look at all the things that make up communities. *** But it’s just at a much different scale. What we’re doing is looking at a downtown area and as John mentioned before, even looking at a block-by-block basis.
David: To pursue the question on the holistic view of your profession, can you connect these two programs? You have Thrive 2055 which has the regional view. You’re looking at a block-by-block scale — how do the plans work together?
Karen Hundt: The best way they work together is that form-based coding that we’re developing for the downtown area will help us create a more vibrant, more economically vibrant downtown. And I think regional plans like Thrive 2055 look at a much larger area and they look at a multitude of cities and downtowns and regional or commercial centers throughout that region. We want them all to be successful, we want them to be connected to each other so people can get from one to the other. But as a region we want each of those cities, each of those municipalities and counties to be successful and grow together.
David: The plan we have is for a franchise, the franchise is called form-base planning, and if you are going to be in any of the five sections downtown you are going to have to buy into the franchise for zoning. It is an imposition on the free market. It is a continuing intervention in the free market. Karen Hundt, thank you for joining me and my listener here at Nooganomics.com.
Karen Hundt: Thank you.
— David Tulis hosts Nooganomics.com 1 to 3 p.m. weekdays on Hot News Talk Radio
910 1190 1240 AM, covering local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond.