A Small Zoning Change Could Have Big Implications For Lexington

The defunct Turland Mall in Lexington could get a new lease on life thanks to zoning changes. (Source: Google Maps)

The defunct Turland Mall in Lexington could get a new lease on life thanks to zoning changes. (Source: Google Maps)

In late January, the Lexington, Kentucky City Council voted unanimously to upzone the city’s B-6P zone. Before the change, this zone was known as a “Planned Shopping Center,” and it essentially mandated that large chunks of Lexington’s major suburban corridors take a low-density, retail-only, auto-oriented form. This zone currently covers large chunks along Lexington’s major suburban retail corridors, including Nicholasville Road and Richmond Road. Many of Lexington’s old malls, from the defunct Lexington and Turfland malls to the expanding Fayette Mall, are all subject to this zoning. For those familiar with the city, the results of this zone as it once existed probably speak for themselves. For those are aren’t, suffice it to say that the old B-6P zone mandated the worst of the worst in terms of auto-oriented retail development.

After January’s reform, passed with strong support from Lexington’s planners, the B-6P zone will now scrap its parking requirements, rein in its anti-density restrictions, and allow both retail and multifamily housing by-right. This is a really big deal for at least three reasons: First, as I have explained in recent articles here at Strong Towns, Lexington is growing fast and it needs to allow a lot more housing in existing urban areas. Permitting mixed-use multifamily is one great way to do that. Second, brick-and-mortar retail, particularly of the big box variety that B-6P mandates, is in trouble. If cities don’t follow Lexington’s lead and act fast, their old commercial corridors could gradually transform into undesirable grayfields. Finally, as interest in improved transit in Lexington increases, it’s absolutely crucial to first build up the population density needed to support transit. Permitting multifamily by-right along Lexington’s major corridors is one straightforward way to achieve that density threshold.

What did This Reform Accomplish?

If you’re like me, you’re probably interested in learning more the nitty gritty of the reform. Plus, if you’re a local policymaker or activist, Lexington’s revised B-6P zone is something of a model for reform. Let’s take the revised ordinance section by section. You can read the full text here.

1. Intent: At the outset, the intent section sets the tone for the reform. Where the old section prioritized traffic management and big box design, the new section calls for mixed-uses, engagement with the street and multi-modal access. These sections are mostly perfunctory but they help to set the mood.

2. Principal permitted uses: In addition to the standard B-1 uses (which accommodate a  multitude of neighborhood businesses), the revised B-6P code now allows for multifamily housing as well as well as “cocktail lounges, brew-pubs, nightclubs, and discotheques.” Allowing multifamily residential in this zone is a gamechanger. Allowing for these social spaces is also a thoughtful addition. Wasted parking lots can now transform into mixed-use residential neighborhoods. Let that sink in.

3. Height requirement: This didn’t change, but I’d like to point out that there is no height limit.

4. Required setbacks: Setbacks regulate how far buildings must sit from the property line. In practice, large setbacks usually mean wasted space and disengagement with the street. The revised ordinance dramatically drops down the required setback from 100 feet to a range of 18 to 14 feet, depending on building and street size. It also cuts out some weird additional setback regulations that only serve to complicate the code.

5. Screening: The new ordinance adds a requirement that commercial developments have a six foot tree-lined, fenced buffer from neighboring residential uses. I am generally skeptical of adding new rules and regulations, but this requirement is finely tailored to address the negative externalities of new development and thus ameliorate NIMBY impulses.

6. Lot coverage and floor area ratios: Previously the B-6P zone simply imposed a 35 percent maximum lot coverage rule. Lot coverage refers to how much of the parcel can be covered by buildings. The revised ordinance is much more complicated, but when you dig into it, it’s actually a pretty substantial upzoning. The new ordinance adds a minimum floor area ratio (FAR, or the ratio of building floor area to land area) ranging from 0.3 to 0.5 and a maximum lot coverage ranging from 30 percent to 35 percent, depending on parcel size and the adjacent street.

After first reading this, I was a little disappointed. Only 30 percent lot coverage is a bummer! But the ordinance has a special provision: increases above the minimum FAR allow for either a 2 to 1, or in the case of residential 1 to 1, increase in lot coverage. For example, let’s say that under the new rules, I am developing a mixed-use multifamily residential building and my FAR is double the 0.3 minimum, or 0.6. This would allow me to increase lot coverage 1 to 1, allowing up to 60 percent lot coverage up from the standard 30 percent maximum. The only hard lot coverage floor, as far as I can tell, is the 15 percent open space requirement.  If I am interpreting this correctly, that gives a lot of flexibility to developers to build as much housing as the city needs in a pattern that is dense and walkable.

Take a deep breath. Go to your happy place. Hamburg (above) is now zoned for mixed-use multifamily. (Source: Google Maps)

Take a deep breath. Go to your happy place. Hamburg (above) is now zoned for mixed-use multifamily. (Source: Google Maps)

7. Parking requirements: They’ve done it. They eliminated minimum parking requirements in the B-6P zone and replaced them with parking maximums. The first half of that is an absolute no-brainer and it’s really exciting to see Lexington acting on the plain fact that minimum parking requirements are a huge mistake. Maybe someday, when minimum parking requirements are no longer an issue, I may have the time and energy to quibble with their new maximum parking requirements. But that’s for another day. Eliminating minimum parking requirements is worth celebrating.

8. Lighting: The new ordinance adds lighting restrictions. These ordinances can sometimes be onerous, especially when planning offices mandate light studies. But as with screening, this generally strikes me as a smart way to address a very specific negative externality.

9. Multi-modal accommodation and transit facilities: Beyond these vanilla reforms to use and bulk rules, the new B-6P rules require consideration of multi-modal access and transit facilities. The former seems to require an improvement plan and the latter seems to require transit improvements such as shelters and right-of-way access. These requirements aren’t terribly surprising since the city is clearly trying to build up transit-supportive densities. With the extra residential density, rapid transit lines could soon be viable along Nicholasville Road and Richmond Road, which would help to address the city’s worsening congestion problem.

My big concern going forward, however, will be making sure that these requirements don’t turn into project-killing burdens on developers. Particularly in the case of transit facilities, the code requires compliance with and approval from relevant transit agencies and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, among others. These aren’t an intrinsically bad requirements, and could in fact produce wonderful outcomes, but planners and policymakers should make every effort to keep it easy for great projects to earn these approvals.

What’s Next?

It’s easy to ignore zoning. It isn’t the sexy kind of planning that involves parks and public art. But it overwhelmingly shapes how our cities develop. Lexington’s planners, policymakers, and activists deserve a lot of credit for critically re-evaluating one small, out-of-date piece of the city’s zoning ordinance and turning it into a forward-thinking model for adding infill housing and addressing the decline of big box retail.

But the work of an urbanist is never over and there’s a lot more in Lexington’s code that needs the kind of tender loving care that the B-6P zone is getting. For starters, the city should explore extending these reforms to other commercial districts, including the B-3 and B-1 zones that line most of the city’s major roads. That includes allowing multifamily residential by-right and easing up on space-wasting parking requirements. Beyond that, the city should explore simply eliminating parking requirements altogether. If Lexington is serious about adding new infill housing and encouraging more walking, bicycling, and transit use, eliminating parking requirements is low-cost way to move us closer toward that vision. The quiet changes to the B-6P zone might seem small, but they send a very positive message about Lexington’s future. Towns and cities around the country can learn from this example.

Thanks to Blake Hall for the heads up on this zoning change.