Sunday, May 10, 2020
Of all powers given to local governments, the power to zone is one of the most significant. Zoning dictates everything that gets built in a locality — and thus effectively dictates all of the key activities that take place within it. Nationwide, most zoning codes were adopted in the first half of the twentieth century. Many, including the zoning codes of New York City and Chicago, were significantly revised in the 1960s. While these codes have been revised piecemeal, just a few American cities have undergone a comprehensive revision: replacing the old code with a completely new one.
A comprehensive rezoning can allow a city to remake itself by casting off outdated requirements and codifying community priorities such as equity, sustainability, and vibrancy. Comprehensive revisions have the most promise in cities where growth is stagnant or where the economy is depressed. In those places, a zoning overhaul can signal a fresh start to attract new development and provide opportunities for creative place-making.
Given the struggling state of many American cities, it is surprising that so few have thrown off the shackles of their outdated zoning codes. And given the promise of comprehensive rezonings, it is surprising that not a single law review article deals squarely with the topic. This Article provides the first law review treatment of this critically important issue.
Delving deeply into recent zoning reforms of Hartford, Connecticut, this Article seeks to illustrate the power of zoning as a critical legal tool for urban revitalization. Part II provides the context for comprehensive rezonings, identifying why they may be desirable, which communities have adopted them, and what procedural and substantive issues may arise. Part III then covers four central goals that many cities share: economic growth, environmental sustainability, access and mobility, and food security. Part III also describes how Hartford used its zoning code to directly advance these goals. (In the process of rezoning, Hartford has been recognized with awards and national attention for several key decisions — including virtually eliminating parking minimums citywide.) Finally, Part IV describes some lessons learned during the rezoning process. This Article aims to encourage academics to delve further into this area of law — and to encourage policymakers to usher in new rules that promote equity, sustainability, and vibrancy.