Wielding the Double-Edged Zoning Sword
The Gateway Cities Journal
The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance released a new study linking the state’s housing crisis to zoning at a well-attended State House event last week. Amy Dain, lead author of the report, pointed to four ways zoning inhibits the housing market: height and density limits, ad hoc approval processes, mixed-use commercial requirements, and “edge city” land use policies. If zoning regulations like these keep preventing the market from functioning, many believe the state won’t be able to house the 600,000 to 800,000 new residents projected for 2030.
But maybe that’s not necessarily the case.
The worst zoning practices are indisputably in the suburbs. In this sense, zoning actually acts as a de facto urban growth boundary, placing pressure on the market to build upward and back into existing urban areas, as opposed to outward on to greenfield sites. To be sure, urban core communities like Brookline and Newton haven’t been willing to allow tall buildings that the market could easily support, but in some ways, these communities are actually sharing the love. Their choices force the market to go elsewhere. Communities like Brockton, Revere, and Lynn are finally seeing much-needed residential investment.
Many raise valid concerns that this growth isn’t in “high opportunity” communities. However, new development in these locations creates taxable value in cities that need additional fiscal resources the most. Rather than sequestering growth in the few locales that developers feel are safe bets, zoning is moving growth from those communities that have had enough to those that are most in need of more.
MassINC estimates suggest the 13 Gateway Cities with current or planned commuter rail stations could accommodate 140,000 residents just in the areas within a short walk of their train stations. And this conservative estimate is at existing densities. For the most part, these downtowns are zoned to allow significantly higher buildings as of right. Adjacent neighborhoods connected to the stations by bike lanes and feeder bus service could house tens of thousands more. And these figures don’t include infill capacity in the region’s inner Gateway Cities (Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Revere, and Quincy), which also have ample capacity for infill development.
Building on these urban sites is expensive and complex. If Gateway Cities want to take advantage of the strength of the market to unlock development, they can’t afford regulatory mistakes. While pro-growth, these communities are not immune to two of the four concerns Dain identifies. Elements of an ad hoc approval process are not unheard of in Gateway Cities, especially with officials under increasing pressure to extract concessions from developers. Often cities lose more than they gain from this cumbersome give and take.
Dain’s argument about mixed-use projects is also worth pondering. Our estimates suggest most Gateway City downtowns are in far more need of residents than additional commercial space.
More residents will increase the value of the commercial stock. In general, cities would do well to hold off for a period before asking developers to shoulder the cost of ground floor retail that may underperform in the near term.
We all need to acknowledge zoning’s pernicious legacy as a tool for housing discrimination. Without question, there are some who continue to wield the sword in this loathsome manner today and we need to root them out. At the same time, we must think creatively about how we wield the sword to rebalance growth in the region. Undoing zoning now will not fix the past. We must think carefully about how we nurture the market so that our historic urban centers have the fiscal resources needed to serve their residents and provide opportunity for all.
Housing and Economic Development
For more perspective on this week’s lede, take a look at Bill Frey’s latest work. He predicts a suburban comeback.
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