'Comprehensive rezoning' can revitalize rust belt cities, UConn law prof says as UHLC's final 'Distinguished Speaker'   

Professor Sara C. Bronin of the University of Connecticut School of Law takes a question about how comprehensive rezoning can resurrect post-industrial cities.

April 12, 2018 — Hartford, Connecticut, is a prime example of how a complete overhaul of a city's outdated zoning codes can breathe new life into America's post-industrial cities, according to a property law professor, architect and chairman of Hartford's planning and zoning commission.

Sara C. Bronin, the Thomas F. Gallivan Chair of Real Property Law and director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, presented her work-in-progress, "Comprehensive Rezonings," Monday at the University of Houston Law Center.

The final speaker of the Law Center's 2018 Distinguished Speaker Series, Bronin, a native of Houston, the nation's largest city without zoning, smiled as she began her remarks: "Some of you might be asking, 'How can someone from Houston be interested in zoning?'"

The answer, she said, is two-fold: though other law scholars have looked at piecemeal rezoning, no one had explored what it takes — legally, socially, aesthetically — for the makeover of an entire city; and to show how a successful recodification can serve as a model for the revitalization of other rust belt cities.

"Only a handful of cities have done this," she said, to a large extent because additional staff is expensive, the process is time consuming, disruptive, and requires a great deal of input and cooperation from all sectors of the community.

"There were no goals," under the old, outdated zoning codes, she said. For example, though people said they wanted to preserve historical buildings, restoration was inconsistent, many were abandoned, and dilapidated structures had long-since given way to parking lots.

The planning and zoning commission addressed six broad areas in its plan: energy, food, green space, transportation, waste and water.

Bronin illustrated each element with a slideshow, explaining how new regulations affected specific areas ranging from solar paneling, urban gardens, and bike lanes to park land, building setbacks and pervious land standards for storm water drainage. Convenience stores are even required to set aside 20 percent of their floor space for "real," healthy foods.

Largely because of the input and support gained through community meetings and by reaching out to civic organizations, Bronin said, the final rezoning plan passed unanimously in one night. Because the commission is a legislative body, it functions independently of the city council and the mayor, Bronin's husband, Luke, who took office 12 days before the zoning code - three years in the making - was adopted.

In response to questions from the audience, Bronin said the redevelopment effort is intended to ensure that the city remains hospitable to low-income families.  She pointed out the fact that nearly 40 percent of existing housing is deed-restricted to be affordable housing, but that the zoning code nonetheless provides density bonuses for affordable housing built downtown and allows for "micro-units" as small as 300 square feet. The code is not just for the wealthy, she added, everyone benefits from cleaner air and a more beautiful, livable and vibrant city. 

"The development has definitely changed people's perception of the city," she said.

As to zoning ever coming to Houston, while there is precedent for cities to adopt codes well after they have been established, she said, "I don't think zoning will ever happen here. But, what we will see, especially after Hurricane Harvey, is better land use planning, which could have saved a lot of property owners a lot of heartache."

And, finally, she was asked if there were any unexpected benefits to the comprehensive rezoning plan?  "More beer," she said. "We have three new breweries!"

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