Zone It Right

In case you missed it, Albany is redoing its zoning code. Given that portions of it date back to 1968, conflict with each other or are too vague to consistently interpret, and are scattered through about a dozen different chapters of the city code, this is a good thing. Just by making something consistent and accessible, the city will vastly increase its friendliness to people who want to open businesses, rehab houses, and otherwise participate actively in the ever-evolving landscape that is a city.

(Please note that I intentionally did not, as many do, emphasize making the city attractive to outside investors. I’m in the middle of reading Michael Shuman’s latest book, The Local Economy Solution, which starts with a clarion call that every local official should read for economic development work to focus on helping locally owned businesses start, stabilize, and expand—because they are more likely to stay, more likely to actually add jobs, and less likely to extort the government for “incentives” to do what they already wanted to do. But I digress.)

If you are not an urban planning nerd, redoing a zoning code might seem like a snooze fest to you—and much of it is not the most scintillating stuff, even if it’s really great that it’s happening.

However, in some ways, this is where the rubber hits the road in terms of planning vision for the city. Unlike aspirational plans, a zoning code is actual rules, with observable actual effects that don’t require someone else to come along with funding to realize them. Of course it can’t force anyone to build things, but zoning rules reflect and realize value judgments in many, many ways.

You can lower parking requirements in some areas and for some uses to encourage affordability and a better walkable urban environment. You can protect jobs by protecting existing industrial uses even while residential uses are moving in. You can address questions of housing affordability and economic integration as you look at the rules for residential areas.

So it’s well worth paying attention to what’s being said. (See to get involved.) Last Monday the consultants working for the city presented their technical report (essentially “why the current zoning code is a disaster”) and an outline of what they expect to be drafting. They are taking comment now and will also take comment on the drafts of the sections of code they will be releasing over the coming year.

Along the way there will be opportunities to step up and show ourselves to be a community that does the right thing. Here’s one small example:

In a conversation about affordable housing at Monday’s meeting, I brought up allowing accessory dwelling units. ADUs are very small separate rental units—often inside the house, or above the garage—that are allowed on owner-occupied properties in single-family residential zones. Sometimes called mother-in-law apartments, ADUs are often used for aging relatives or adult kids, but they also can provide a small measure of economic integration, allowing some affordable living space in areas that generally don’t have any.

Don Elliot from Clarion Associates, who was leading the meeting, was very positive about ADUs (Clarion’s documents already recommend approving them). He noted that people are often worried about them, but that they have been widely approved and nowhere has ever actually experienced any adverse effects from them. No one really notices they are there.

Ironically, however, he said they are “never” approved in the wealthiest neighborhoods, even though those are usually the areas with the most space to put them, and the most need for some affordable units. He said this in a “What can you do? People are just like that. Too bad,” kind of tone.

But I don’t think we should go in assuming the worst about our neighbors.

Here’s my challenge to Albany: We can be better than that, right? We don’t need to carve out snob zones that officially make it hard to age in place or to have a multi-generation family at home but with some privacy or to add a few modestly-priced housing options to new neighborhoods. We can make accessory dwelling units allowable everywhere, right? We don’t need to let completely unfounded fear win the political day.

We’ve been talking a lot about an equitable, inclusive city, especially since Mayor Sheehan’s election. There are many steps to take toward that, many bigger and more controversial than this one. But being united about something like this would be one small, important step toward putting our regulations where our values are, and being able to tell the world that we walk our talk. Can we do it?

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