Redesigning Baltimore: Planners envision new development among mass transit stations

Proposed zoning plan first overhaul in 40 years

September 02, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore planners want to invite development around mass-transit stations where individuals and families can live, shop and commute without having to get behind the wheel of a car — part of a proposal to modernize the city.

In the 350-page, comprehensive zoning overhaul — a once-in-a-generation undertaking that officials are calling TransForm Baltimore — they describe plans to remake old industrial buildings into artisan workshops and lofts, preserve the character of the city's neighborhoods and protect the port as an economic engine for the region.

The City Council, which is reviewing the plan, has scheduled 10 hearings beginning later this month to collect community input before voting on it. The code changes have been in the works since 2008, when Baltimore leaders began rethinking ways to focus redevelopment.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the plan would guide Baltimore's future investment, including transit-oriented development along much of the planned 14-mile Red Line light rail, while incorporating lessons on urban revitalization from the around country.

"Any great city is a city that has high-quality, real transit, getting people from where they live to where they work, learn and play," the mayor said. "With more transit-oriented development, I think it will take Baltimore to the next level in terms of being more vibrant and more of a 24/7 city."

Better public transportation will help Baltimore compete with cities like Washington, Boston and Seattle, Rawlings-Blake said.

The revisions won't bring development, but the mayor says her goal is to make the approval process easier, with simpler, more predictable rules that eliminate some bureaucratic red tape.

"If doesn't make the process more simple, if it doesn't make it more predictable, then it's not done," Rawlings-Blake said. "We will reach that goal."

As developed by the city's Department of Planning, the plan would also complement the city's stormwater management efforts with green space requirements in parking lots, and make it easier for colleges and medical centers to expand.

In all, the plan would make hundreds of changes to the existing code, which was adopted in 1971. The rules would affect every one of Baltimore's quarter-million properties.

The plan has drawn mostly high marks from its already extensive public vetting, but critics want the council to do away with provisions that would force out some corner liquor stores.

Another controversial element of the proposal — a ban on Formstone, Baltimore's faux-stone facade treatment, dubbed "the polyester of brick" by film director John Waters — was dropped from the draft before it was presented to the council this spring.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he hasn't taken a position on any of the recommendations. He says his main objective is to protect property rights. As the city tries to streamline the zoning process, Young said, he doesn't want council to relinquish control to city bureaucrats who might not be as responsive to residents' concerns as elected officials would be.

"We're going to have to really deliberately slow this thing down so we can get it right, because the next time it will be done will probably be 40 years from now," Young said. "We're going to work very hard to make sure that this is something that benefits the entire city."

Young said homeowners and people interested in buying property or opening businesses should pay attention to the proposals, because the rules being drafted now will affect how a particular building can be used or whether a certain business is prohibited from opening on a particular block.

"Some people are going to be happy, and some are not going to be happy," he said. "When you do something as complex as this comprehensive rezoning, you can't please everybody."

The hearings are to focus on individual topics and held at locations throughout the city through late November.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who is to oversee the hearings, said the council is not expected to vote on the code until next year. Once a plan is approved, the zoning changes would go to Rawlings-Blake for her signature and became effective six months later.

"It's a work in progress," Reisinger said. "Our objective is to do it right."

A key feature of the plan is its focus on transit-oriented development. The new zoning category encourages a combination of landscaping, offices, shops, restaurants with outdoor seating, apartments, rowhouses and banks along mass-transit stops, as seen in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The zoning calls for biking and walking paths and commercial spaces with large glass storefronts and parking lots in the rear. It would allow entertainment venues and public plazas.

Density requirements would vary by neighborhood with the new zoning category also recommended for portions of the north-to-south light rail tracks and the Metro.

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