Going up?

November 27, 2006

Throughout Baltimore, property owners are looking to go up. Requests to add a third-floor to traditional, two-story rowhouses in some neighborhoods are appearing before the city's zoning board in greater numbers than in the past. They reflect a desire for more living space by residents who want to stay in the city.

But Baltimore's outdated zoning code unnecessarily discourages what should be encouraged - a homeowner's impulse to remain in town in a roomier version of a classic Baltimore rowhouse.

Neither city planners nor developers dispute the imperative to revamp the code. The City Council's recent approval of a master plan for Baltimore puts into law the framework for development in the city over the coming decade and the impetus to revise the city zoning code.

The master plan, developed over eight years with input from 2,000 city residents, emphasizes affordable housing, ample parks and recreation, and transit-oriented development. It serves as a prelude to a zoning code revision that should reflect the shifts in the city's demographics and economic development. Over the next two years, the city will undertake a massive but essential task: reviewing plots and properties across the city to assess their level of zoning.

Of the city's 230,000 parcels, about a third are less than 16 feet wide. Any attempt to increase the size of a rowhouse on such a plot requires a variance to the code and a public hearing. Requests for variances have more than doubled since 2003, an indication of the renovation under way in the city and the need to streamline this process. Appeals to the zoning board also have doubled in the past four years, which also suggests dismay with board rulings.

The review of the zoning code should take a fresh approach to building height and density, issues that can unite or divide communities. Consider the citizen dust-up in South Baltimore over a proposed conversion of a pair of three-story rowhouses into a five-story, 12-unit condominium complex. Height and density can be good things if structures are designed properly, and that should be the standard.

As the rezoning discussion gets under way, the focus should be on fixes that will encourage residential investment and reinvestment, not just by developers but also by the people who live and work in the city and those who want to call Baltimore home.

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