The long-awaited revision to Baltimore’s zoning code, which took effect this June, includes a highly anticipated new zoning category—“industrial mixed-use”—which both city officials and local developers hope will spur economic development while preserving neighborhood character throughout the city.
The new code has motivated planners ready to remove barriers to development in Baltimore and fuel growth in underserved areas of the city. This is the first zoning update in Baltimore since 1971. Five years and countless revisions and debate later, the Baltimore City Council has approved the update and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in December of 2016.
The new code arrives at a critical moment for the city, which is losing population while the majority of east coast cities have either stabilized or seen a rise in the population.
The creation of the industrial mixed-use category allows for residential development in areas that were traditionally industrial, but now attractive to tenants and developers. These developers want to mix light-industrial space with office and residential uses. A new “office industrial campus” category also aims to encourage development that mixes light-industrial and office space.
A neighborhood commercial conditional use category allows for new, creative uses of commercial buildings or spaces that are in primarily residential neighborhoods. Property owners of closed corner stores or churches can now convert them into offices, retail space or establishments for service-providers. This is a big change from prior law. Before city council had to approve every request if a property owner wanted to change the use of a commercial building in a neighborhood that was primarily residential.
This change allows the private sector to save time and money when transitioning projects. Before, development was often hindered by this process. Projects were stopped by money constraints or an inability to wait out the approval. Or developers were wary to make changes because of the known constraints.
In addition, several generic use categories were introduced into the new code to keep it flexible and up to date. The previous code had separate categories for highly specific uses; now generic categories encompass uses that have similar impacts on parking, loading, and servicing. This minimizes the need to change the code when a use becomes obsolete—such as video stores that popped up on street fronts in the 1980s.
A major issue that has yet to be resolved is how to handle parking lots. New housing or businesses would be a much better use for developable land, and an initial proposal was set to eliminate the ability to build new parking lots downtown. Hindering the parking lot development wasn’t a step the city council was willing to take.
Several projects are underway aimed at neighborhood revitalization, including several technical assistance panels on key corridors. One of these is Pennsylvania Avenue, a once-vibrant area that has been in decline for several decades.
This new code is not only necessary and long overdue, the new code is also easy to understand and clear for developers seeking infill development. In the process to create appropriate zoning, the city looked at each and every address in order to determine the proper zoning for that address.
Baltimore is known for its authentic and quirky neighborhoods. It was recently labeled “the coolest city on the East Coast” in a Travel + Leisure magazine article. The goal of the new code is to preserve neighborhood character while also providing new opportunities for redevelopment. The new code aims to smooth out some of the transitions between neighborhoods while also preserving the unique identities of those neighborhoods.
The motivation behind the effort was to get rid of an antiquated code, make it flexible and user-friendly, and look toward the future while embracing Baltimore’s history.
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