Everything Old Is New Again: Using Revolutionary Zoning To Create Old-Fashioned Business Districts

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

"Dirty old street all slushed up in the rain and snow
Little boy and his ma shivering outside a rundown music store window
That night on top of a Christmas tree shines one beautiful star
And lying underneath a brand-new Japanese guitar"

The Gift, Bruce Springsteen

This quote serves two purposes.  First, it furthers my goal of working song lyrics into every post I write.  Second, and more importantly, it paints a picture of Main Street America that has disappeared in recent years.  Instead of a downtown business district full of mom and pop stores, most of us, particularly in New Jersey, have grown accustomed to shopping at malls full of "big box" retail stores.  However, as a recent story on NPR's Marketplace points out, this may be changing as communities try to recreate the "towns of yesteryear" by encouraging the development of residential and commercial properties in the same areas. 


The story, New Zoning Fad Creates Old Style Business Districts, discusses the modern trend in urban and suburban planning, which provides for "almost a complete segregation of use."  Homes go in one section of town, and strip malls in another.  However, inspired by "visions of nice shops and busy sidewalks, maybe apartments on the upper floors, and homes a short walk away," some cities are looking to change this approach.  For instance, Miami's city planner convinced city officials to try something revolutionary in zoning called "form-based code."  The article described it as follows:

"It's all about the look and feel of a neighborhood. So, the city no longer dictates that residential goes in one spot and shops in another. Instead, form-based code might say a building should be three-stories high and its doors must open to the sidewalk, but it can be used for anything: apartments, shops, or both."

When I read this, my first thought was of my years living in Hoboken.  Although I don't miss fighting for parking spots every night, I do miss being able to walk out of my apartment, drop off dry cleaning, pick up some groceries, and grab a bite to eat without ever having to go near my car.  As the article notes, high gas prices and changing tastes and demographics might mean that more towns in the future will look like Hoboken than the carefully delineated suburbs and exurbs that are so common now.

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