Late-night music, mixed-use zoning

Q&a

February 19, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

On Tuesday, Baltimore's Planning Commission will hold the first of nine scheduled community hearings on the city's proposed new comprehensive master plan.

If approved, the document will serve as a blueprint for how the city spends $2.4 billion on capital projects over the next six years and will form the framework for the first revision of the city's zoning code in a third of a century.

At 187 pages, including an introduction and appendices, the document contains myriad graphs, charts and statistics and more than 100 recommendations for housing, employment, recreation and education.

As Baltimore's population levels off after 5 1/2 decades of decline, the plan details the city's potential for growth.

The day before the release of the draft this month, Planning Director Otis Rolley III sat down in his office to talk about the plan and its significance.

Let me start with the most basic question. What is a master plan and why is it important?

It provides the guiding principles of how you are going to make capital investments over a set course of time and what steps you're going to take as it relates to zoning and zoning policies that affect the entire city.

We have a fiduciary responsibility to ... the citizens of Baltimore, and I think they would be that much more comfortable knowing there is a rhyme and reason and strategy for how we spend those public dollars.

What are the guiding principles in this plan?

The goals all focus around quality-of-life issues for the citizens of Baltimore and for the new citizens that would come into Baltimore.

It's been, what, more than 30 years since the city had a master plan?

1971.

How have things changed - how have the ideas of planning for a city changed in a third of a century?

Wow. The planning field has changed and the city has changed dramatically since 1971. ... We understand better now, I think, than ever before how important it is ... that mixed-use communities where there is an opportunity for you to live, work and shop always provide for a better, healthier neighborhood. I think we have also gotten smarter in terms of recognizing the need to be very strategic in where we invest the city dollars and that it can't be a solely politically oriented or patronage distribution of resources. It has to be building on the strengths of different parts of the city and where can we get the best return on investment.

So, what is new in this plan? I noticed on a map of proposed future land uses there are things like mixed-use nodes, transit-oriented development, bio-university districts. Why are they in there?

A lot of the things we propose in the future land uses are not in our current zoning code because they weren't even thought of. Just the concept of mixed uses - and [that] those uses not be conflicting with each other but actually building off of each other - is a new approach to planning.

Transit-oriented development, of really trying to concentrate your density in terms of residential density and retail density and commercial density around transit nodes, is relatively new, and those are recommendations that we make as well within the plan. Clearly, we want people to be close to public transportation sites so that the car is not king.

In terms of the university districts, these are another example of a mixed-use zoning category that would meet the needs of the 14 colleges and universities within the city in a way that is complementary to the communities that they're located in. ... Mixed-use commercial and industrial use, creating opportunities for flex space and business parks, etc.

Talk about mixed-use nodes, transit-oriented development. What does the master plan do to promote those areas?

The idea is that, in areas in close proximity to a transit stop, that we would deal with you in a favorable way as it relates to height issues, in terms of your floor-to-area ratio, to try to provide more opportunities for you to have greater density in those areas. And so there would be a comfortable mix of retail, commercial and residential space in those areas in ways that you wouldn't typically do in areas that are now our typical [residential] areas. You may have a transit stop right now in [a residential] area that could be reconfigured as a mixed-use zone where you would be allowed to be denser there. And so it's building within the code our ability to be a lot more flexible in terms of providing opportunities for greater density.

So this would address some of the controversies that have been ongoing regarding things like height limits in Mount Vernon?

Correct.

How?

In Mount Vernon, given its proximity to the light rail, the subway, the Amtrak station, it would allow for greater flexibility in terms of the mixes of uses. Currently ... you're allowed to build as high as you can given your lot size. But you don't necessarily have the freedom you would have of mixing the uses that you would in a mixed-use zone.

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