Residential recode – what vision are we pursuing?

Nick Della VolpeOn the Grow

Knoxville City Council will tackle Recode’s residential provisions in a 5:30 p.m. workshop Wednesday, Feb. 20, in the main assembly room of the City County Building. Council must address the fundamental questions raised last summer: What’s our vision? Where do we hope the proposed new zoning ordinance will take us in the next several decades?

Housing Is a Big Deal. Residential parcels account for 85 percent of the 73,000 parcels of land in the city. We previously noted Recode’s underlying bias to add more density and a broader mix of housing types. How else can you explain the permitted addition of ADUs on every parcel in every zone? Or redefining smaller permissible minimum lot sizes? Will those smaller lot footprints indirectly result in tear-downs of older single-family homes (SF) and their replacement with two new houses or duplexes on the original lot? Don’t laugh – some of that seems to be happening in Nashville. An affordable older SF house (e.g. $150k) can quickly become two more expensive houses (say $300k each) with the stroke of a zoning pen. Maybe that’s an improvement in a growing city; however, that would displace affordable working family’s housing with more expensive digs. What is our plan? And does the draft zoning text help accomplish it?

Recode, of course, also has a preference for adding more multi-family units, especially along major corridors, where some bus service and retail shopping may be available. Greater density there makes sense, I suppose. Have we discussed it openly? Is that what the community wants? Have we looked at the indirect or unintended consequences?

What else is at work behind the scenes? How does council evaluate the proposed textual changes Recode would make without having the underlying master plan explained?

Planners Plan, Council Decides. By state law and the City Charter, the 30-year General Plan and the area Sector Plans (looking five and 15 years out), together with the One-Year Plans (identifying near-term zoning changes and proposed development) are supposed to govern. The City Council’s job, as elected legislators, is to evaluate and adopt policy and policy changes into law, after evaluating citizen and planner proposals.

How does Recode fit in? Implementing those previously vetted community plans? Or quietly incorporating the administration’s or its consultant’s desired policy changes? Hmm …

Nuts and Bolts. Enough philosophy. Let’s look at Recode Article 5. Council will have to “get down in the weeds” before they pass this into law.

First, could we get by with fewer residential zones, perhaps boil it down to four or five districts instead of the proposed eight? It gets a bit confusing to keep them all straight. We could have established neighborhoods (EN), plus traditional 1- and 2-family low-density subdivisions (RN1, RN-2), and then combine the proposed general residential categories (RN-3, -4, -5) into one grouping that allows low-density multi-family housing and pocket neighborhoods, and finally join the broader multi-family housing zones (RN-6 and -7) into one zone.

There seem to be too many labels for an old noodle to keep track of. Perhaps “Special Use” applications could address variations within a numbered scheme.

Second, what happened to all of the planned zones, such as residential, now eliminated from Recode? It provided publicly aired relief and flexibility to developers and neighborhoods to the normal fixed zone requirements. Recode substitutes Planned Development as an administrative process in Article 16. It seems that neighborhoods will not be invited to the table until a formal plan goes before Knox Planning (formerly MPC) for a hearing … a later stage in the process. Will it be too late to help shape the proposed varied uses? Is the goal to facilitate more development-friendly planning? Leave the important work to the pros? Leave out those pesky neighborhoods? Or allow healthy flexibility and variation that does not incidentally damage the fabric of a neighborhood?

Third, why were the earlier Recode Design Standards for the RN numbered zones removed? Shouldn’t modest requirements for quality housing, like garages set back five feet beyond the front of the house, or requiring a certain percentage of window and door on the house’s street face be retained? Minimum housing-design standards give the whole community a happy face. Q. Do we want to look like Charlotte or post-war Levittown 10 years from now? Variations to specific design requirements can be presented for allowance as a special use.

Fourth, shrinking lot sizes – dropping down from 7,500 sq. ft. minimum to 5,000 sq. ft. (see table 4.1) – poses a risk of tear downs of existing SF houses. Is that desirable? What does it do to the fabric of a neighborhood? Also, the Table 4.1 housing chart seems to allow more than about 35 percent-40 percent impervious surface for townhouses and multi-family units on a lot. Shouldn’t we be concerned about water runoff that can pose problems the neighbors will have to endure or the city will have to fix once the developer is gone?

Fifth, what happened to Traditional Neighborhood Development, a zoning district designed to encourage pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, land uses and density? Is that subsumed in another zone or just lying on Camiros’ cutting-room floor in Chicago?

And so on, line by line.

Note: Will Wednesday’s residential workshop, or the promised third workshop, cover infill and historic housing (Article 8), and off-street parking (Article 11)? The published council agenda fails to identify which articles are up for discussion.

Conclusion. Our City Council should continue to ask the big policy questions, like “where are we going?” They also need to wade into the text and parse all of the decisions laced in every page of this document. We are charting the future course for our city, so let’s do it mindfully and carefully. That time will be well spent.

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