USP514: Re-thinking Zoning Codes

Hello Urban Design team! I want you to think about what sorts of regulations we want to recommend for this new North Bayshore community.

Mountain View’s General Plan 2030 and North Bayshore Precise Plan are great models of clear thinking and writing. But these are general policy documents. They stand in sharp contrast to the decades-old Zoning Code of Mountain View. MV’s Zoning Code is a version of “Euclidean” Zoning, which begins with the assumption that land-uses should be segregated. This makes sense only when we recognize that Standard “Euclidean” Zoning was enacted in a era of racial segregation: America in the 1920s. The Standard Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) of 1922 was upheld by the Supreme Court in a case involving Ambler Realty and the Village of Euclid, Ohio; this is why it is nicknamed “Euclidean” zoning. The reasoning used in the Euclid case is similar to the reasoning used in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which established the infamous principle of “separate but equal” racial segregation. In a pre-1950 era when Americans assumed that space was abundant, the Supreme Court justices supported the idea of moving people and activities apart until conflict was prevented. Threat of race-war? Solve it by moving people apart (1896). Problems with conflicting land uses? Solve it by moving them apart (1926).

The consequences, almost a century after the Euclid verdict of 1926, is a legacy of massive urban sprawl. Worse still, by pushing things and people apart, “Euclidean” zoning actually contributes to racial segregation in the United States. Not only should we worry about this as human beings and as citizens of a shared republic, but there is actually a tangible form of harm to poor households caused by sprawl. As we can see in the South Bay, poorer (and generally browner) Californian households cannot afford to live within a 30-mile radius of the excellent schools and job-opportunities of Silicon Valley.

Fortunately, it looks like Mountain View is not very happy with their creaky old set of Zoning Codes. If I read both the General Plan and the NBPP correctly, Mountain View would like to adopt much simpler, more intuitive Form-Based Codes. I propose that the Urban Design team take the lead in proposing a much leaner set of regulations–only regulating the things that need to be regulated.

There is a great deal of documentation about form-based codes online. I invite you to investigate, and decide the sorts of things you would like to see governed. However, there are a few things I would like to propose as guidelines:

1. Do NOT begin with land-use regulation. Rather than waste time and money trying to control things that don’t need to be controlled, I recommend only carefully selecting the few things you do want to regulate. That means that by right–by default–people in North Bayshore can do whatever they want in their spaces, so long as it is legal and not a nuisance to their neighbors. The “Nuisance Principle” (part of statutory case-law since the fifteenth century) will protect neighbors from noxious uses such as pre-dawn Zoomba classes; you don’t need to have redundant zoning regulations for that.

2. Design the regulations to be as simple as possible, so that they are easy to understand and easy to enforce. Rather than a battery of density-limits, F.A.R. limits, coverage limits, setbacks, shadow-planes, and height limits, maybe JUST height-limits.

3. The “Euclidean” approach assumes a minimum number of off-street parking spaces: usually at least two per dwelling unit, plus visitor parking. It may make sense to reverse this, and set a maximum number of allowable off-street parking spaces as San Francisco does in the downtown. Or, since we want developers to justify the costs of ground-floor concrete construction, maybe allow them to build concrete ground-floor garages, but require that all parking spaces be designed in a way that they can be converted to other uses. I’m not sure. Please give it some thought.

4. The NBPP requires developers to build structures close to the property-line. It is called a build-to regulation, and it is the inverse of the “Euclidean” idea of the minimum front setback. Take a look at the photos of New Orleans in the previous (streetscapes) blog post, and look closely at the NBPP description of build-to zones. Do you want to push this further or amend it in some way?