COVID CONTEMPORIZES LAND USE PLANNING
COVID has been challenging for humanity on many levels, not the least of which is the significant impact on our economy. All levels of government have been struggling to meet the new economic reality. Businesses, large and small, have struggled to say afloat and to keep employees working. Unfortunately, some businesses will be lost forever, and others will need more than just a loan or bailout. Survival may be dependent on the willingness of local government to be flexible, nimble, and willing to adjust zoning regulations for unique situations. Take for example, the mall that needs to backfill empty space. Perhaps an office landlord with vacancies created by the expanding work-from-home economy. There may be commercial space that must shift to residential use, and other space may require significant physical alterations to accommodate new technology.
There are experts arguing that an economic crisis demands greater government regulation and significantly more social spending funded by increases in business taxes. Undoubtedly, some or all of those steps may be necessary to reset the economy on an upward trajectory. Long term solutions will require a great deal more innovation. One logical but overlooked place to begin is with local zoning.
Regulations must allow for flexibility in design and use. However, many codes are best described as Neolithic and moribund. Overly strict zoning reduces access to safe and affordable housing. Obsolete codes prevent adaptive reuse of empty commercial buildings for new or mixed uses. Communities often equate the status quo with economic stability. However, the absence of innovation, linked with lengthy and complex procedural hurdles, shrink economic growth, and leave communities without a reliable commercial tax base.
Our burgeoning technology sector requires modern and efficient buildings to house its operations, with e-commerce businesses requiring nearby distribution centers and warehouses. Malls and retail centers need the flexibility to revitalize as mixed-use developments, with retail, office, and residential space under one roof. But in many communities, a shift to mixed-use or denser development requires zoning changes or variances that delay projects or stop them altogether. Historical preservation is a laudable goal where appropriate, but at times will unfairly prevent the old from giving way to the new.
Post-COVID, “adapt or die” may become the new reality. Local governments must be willing to embrace change or else face a grim economic future.
I anticipate that 2021 government and developers will collaborate to create innovative ordinances to permit affordable workforce housing, mixed-use commercial buildings, and easily accessible distribution centers. Dimensional regulations must be revised to encourage and incentivize sensible development and growth, with a streamlined permit and approval process. These changes can be implemented without sacrificing a community’s quality of life, clean water and air, and parks and recreation. My sense is that greater flexibility in land use regulations will encourage developers to allocate resources toward community-improvement projects that would otherwise require funding with shrinking taxpayer dollars.
As Albert Einstein said, “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”