In mid-October I joined a panel on zoning reform as part of the Hampton Roads Zoning Atlas Forum hosted by HousingForward Virginia. The event was organized to celebrate the release of the Virginia Zoning Atlas, which kicked off with the unveiling of the Hampton Roads Region.
The Virginia Zoning Atlas is part of the National Zoning Atlas project, which aims to provide a standard database of zoning information for localities across the country. HousingForward staff kicked off the event with a brief history of zoning and intro to the Zoning Atlas. We also heard about the impact of restrictive zoning on housing supply — and thus affordability. I had the role of illustrating some of the ways that our current, outdated zoning laws impede the development of places that support the way we currently live and wish to live.
The way that we live has changed considerably since our zoning laws were enacted in the middle of the 20th century (and even more rapidly in the years since COVID-19). Back then, zoning was enacted to protect single family neighborhoods from other uses or neighbors that were deemed undesirable*.—but there aren’t enough available homes in desirable places. Our household demographics have also changed considerably in recent decades: Households are smaller, older, and more multigenerational than they were in 1950. These factors combined mean that our current housing shortage is caused by not just a lack of available homes, but a lack of the right-sized (and therefore affordable) homes in the right places (close to shops and services).
Viewed in this light, it’s not just restrictive residential zoning laws that are the problem, but also zoning that impedes the development of places that people want to live close to. For example, in my previous professional work with small businesses in Richmond, VA, we repeatedly encountered minimum parking requirements that entangled us in an arduous permitting process. Small, neighborhood-serving shops and restaurants moving into existing neighborhood main streets were rarely able to provide the required parking, but they are the exact types of businesses that people want in their neighborhoods. As such, they were always granted a parking waiver, but only after months of process and hundreds of dollars in extra fees. In July 2023, Richmond repealed parking minimums, yielding tangible examples of now-open businesses that had been tied up in parking-related permitting struggles.
Another way that restrictive zoning impedes the development of more livable places is by limiting the development of ground floor residential in commercial areas. In 2021, Streetsense did an analysis of the existing retail landscape in downtown Norfolk, VA, and projected future demand. We determined a projected demand of under 400,000 sq. ft., however current zoning requirements require over a million sq. ft. (likely closer to two million) of required ground floor “active use” space—which means, among other things, no office or residential. Furthermore, specific restricted uses include light manufacturing, breweries, and tattoo parlors, all of which could provide the area with needed foot traffic. The seismic shift in retail trends in the wake of online shopping and COVID means that it’s time to revisit the zoning of our commercial districts and rewrite them for modern living.
The Virginia Zoning Atlas is an ongoing multi-year project led by HousingForward to map and analyze zoning districts across every locality in the Commonwealth. Hampton Roads is the first region with complete data to show the impact of land use regulations throughout its entirety.
*For more on this, see The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
The Streetsense place consulting team leverages our strategic and creative advisory services to solve complex real estate issues that enhance the value of places—whether they are new mixed-use developments, assets facing challenges, vibrant districts, or captivating destinations.
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