Tag Archives: ReZone

ReZone’s Final Draft

Last week City Hall released the final draft of its new zoning ordinance and zoning map. This new draft includes some big changes on parking, transit oriented development, and housing opportunity.

Parking

City Hall should eliminate parking minimums entirely. They’re regressive, expensive, polluting regulations that subsidize car ownership at the expense of the poorest people living in Syracuse.

ReZone’s final draft doesn’t go that far, but it does reduce parking requirements significantly, particularly for residential properties. In the March 2018 draft, almost all types of residential building were required to provide one parking space for each housing unit. The final draft eliminates that requirement for 1-family houses, accessory dwelling units, and boarding houses, and it reduces that requirement to .5 spaces per unit on properties that can house three or more families. (Strangely, the one space per unit rule still applies to 2-family houses, but only if they’re built on a lot of more than 5,000 square feet).

The final draft also does make it easier for all types of properties (residential, commercial, and mixed) to get around these baseline parking requirements. It includes a 30% reduction for properties within 1000 feet of a bus stop (you can read more about earlier versions of this exemption here and here) and a new 15% reduction for properties that provide space to park 1 bike for every 4 cars.  Crucially, it allows individual properties to combine multiple reductions (the March 2018 draft had capped the total cumulative reduction at 75%), and it rounds the required number of parking spaces down to the nearest whole number (so a 3-family house—which would need 1.5 spaces—only has to provide 1 space, not 2).

The only bad change in this draft’s parking regulations is a new requirement that any property making use of these exemptions must apply for a special use permit or site plan. That means that there will be a public hearing where NIMBYs might show up to demand that the City look out for the interests of car-owners instead of everybody else. Here’s hoping the Planning Commission has the spine to tell them ‘no.’

 

Transit Oriented Development

Centro doesn’t currently run any kind of rapid transit, but they’re working on it. The SMTC proposed two BRT lines in 2017, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team proposed a third when he took office. When that new service starts running, as many people as possible need to be able to live and work near those lines.

Proposed BRT lines


This new draft will make that more possible. The Eastside BRT line will probably run in the Erie Boulevard Median—a route that will take it past miles and miles of parking lots. This draft changed many of those lots—at least on the south side of the street—from Commercial to either MX-2 or MX-3. That incentivizes mixed-use infill, it will bring any new development to the property line, and it will limit the amount of off-street car parking on those lots.

 

The northern end of the proposed SU-RTC line has similar problems—there’s a lot of empty space around the RTC and not a lot of housing. The March 2018 draft would have banned anybody from living there, but this new draft allows multi-family housing to be built on all of the empty space north of Park Street and Hiawatha Boulevard.

And finally, this draft changed a bunch of properties around the intersection of South Ave and Valley Drive—a proposed stop on the Eastwood-OCC line—from MX-2 to MX-3. That change allows for taller buildings which means more people will be able to live and work right at a BRT stop.

 

Housing Opportunity

City Hall’s Land Use & Development Plan—the document that was supposed to guide the ReZone project—called for letting more multi-family housing in more neighborhoods. That would have allowed Syracuse to accommodate a greater variety of people, and it would have made the City’s neighborhoods more resilient in the face of demographic and economic change.

So it’s bad that each new draft of the ReZone map has banned multi-family housing from more of the City. That will lead to either depopulation or displacement, and it’s a totally unnecessary response to neighborhood demands to keep commercial development out of residential areas.

This new draft continues that unfortunate trend. It switched dozens of properties along Teall and Euclid Avenues from MX-1—a zoning classification that allows multifamily housing—to R-2—a zoning classification that bans multi-family housing. This change will make these areas less walkable, less affordable, and less able to support quality bus service.

 

On the other hand, this draft restricted commercial development in neighborhoods like University Hill and Westcott without restricting housing opportunity. It did this by changing parts of those neighborhoods from mixed use zoning to R-4 or R-5—purely residential classifications that still allow multi-family housing.

 

 

There are other changes—clarification on rowhouses, tweaks to the height restrictions—but these are the big ones. They will determine who can live where, how people will get around, what neighborhoods become. Those are high stakes—Syracuse has to get this right.

Centro and I81

At the March 22 hearing on public transportation in Syracuse, State officials asked Centro CEO Rick Lee why more people don’t ride the bus. Lee responded that Syracuse is a 20-minute city—overbuilt car-infrastructure and a spread-out population mean that there’s very little traffic, so people who can afford to own a car choose to drive. Magnarelli immediately interjected with “I hope it stays that way.” Rick Lee laughed kind of nervously and muttered ‘no comment.’

This exchange laid bare the absurdity of Centro’s public stance on I81. Centro has refused to take a position on the biggest transportation project that its service area has seen in 50 years, pretending that no matter what happens, Syracuse’s bus service will chug right along. That’s a nice thought, but it’s stupid. The viaduct is an impediment to bus service now, and replacing it with the Grid will make Centro more useful to more people.

Currently, the 30, 58, 62, 68, 76, and Connective Corridor buses all run in the area around the 81/690 interchange. That’s 40 acres of barren land where very few people (often no people at all) get on or off the bus.

 

Running a bus through the I81 dead zone is a lot like running a bus along an unpopulated stretch of rural road—it adds expense without making the bus more useful to anybody. Centro can’t avoid the I81 dead zone—like it could shorten a rural route—since people need to cross it to get between Downtown and the Eastside.

So the dead zone needs to disappear. That means making it into a place where people live and work—where people will get on and off of all those buses that already run on its streets.

The Grid is Syracuse’s best chance to get rid of the I81 dead zone. The Gifford Foundation envisions new housing, businesses, and institutions in that area, and the Allyn Foundation is working with City Hall on a project that could bring all of those things into that space. ReZone will help by allowing more homes and businesses on those blocks, but it needs to go further by eliminating parking requirements there (and, really, across the entire City).

All of that new building will allow more people to live and work in a part of the City that already has pretty good bus service (and could get even better service), so the bus will be a good option for more people in Onondaga County to get around. That’s how Centro can benefit from the I81 project, and that’s why Centro needs the Grid.

Housing Instability and Rent

Since 2015, City Hall’s Innovation Team has worked out new solutions for old municipal problems like aging infrastructure and snow covered sidewalks. Since February of 2018, the I-Team has set its sights on housing instability—both a major cause and effect of poverty in the City.

In a recent series of blog posts, the I-Team described its recommendations (also summarized on this 1-page handout). They include things like more active code enforcement, better provision of social services to renters on the brink of eviction, and organizing renters into a tenants union.

These initiatives are a helpful mix of quick-fixes (like tenant and landlord education) and long-term structural changes (like a tenants union). They include scalable pilots (like anti-eviction case management for SHA tenants) and city-wide initiatives (like the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication). By approaching the problem from so many angles, at so many scales, and on so many different timelines, the I-Team has developed a raft of policies that should improve the lives of people living in Syracuse even if one initiative or another ultimately fails.

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However, this set of policies skirts a central cause of housing instability in Syracuse: the gap between the rents that landlords charge and what tenants can afford to pay. A strong and militant tenants union could eventually push rents down (although the I-Team seems to see such a union focusing instead on fighting evictions and educating renters), but expanded rental registry and more proactive code enforcement will likely push rents up. In a city where 56% of tenants can’t afford their rent, that’s not enough.

It’s within City Hall’s power to address this. First, City Hall can put affordability at the center of its Blueprint 15 plans by ensuring that the project does not reduce the total number of affordable homes in Syracuse. This will mean increasing the size of the project and potentially expanding its footprint to include state-owned land on Downtown’s eastern edge.

Second, City Hall needs to enforce its own 2016 ban on source-of-income discrimination in Syracuse’s rental market. A year and a half after City Hall enacted that ban, landlords still advertise in plain language that they will not rent to tenants who receive public assistance. Without proper enforcement, the ban has no effect and rent-burdened tenants are denied housing choice. (This year’s State budget included a state-wide ban on source-of-income discrimination—maybe it will have more effect).

Third, City Hall can restructure the City’s private housing market to reduce rents in the long term by amending its zoning ordinance. That ordinance puts an artificial limit on the number of homes in the City, it prevents land lords from modifying their properties to better serve a changing population, it makes it hard to build new homes where they’re needed most, and it pushes high-priced development into low-income neighborhoods where the rent-burden is greatest. The ReZone project is an opportunity to remove all of these artificial generators of housing instability, and that’s an opportunity City Hall can’t afford to waste.

So much of what drives up rents and causes housing instability—financial markets, construction costs, HUD policies—is completely beyond local control. These are national problems faced by every city in the country, and some of the most effective solutions will have to come from the national level. But City Hall isn’t powerless to improve the situation for people living in Syracuse now. The I-Team’s proposals will do a lot of good. They’ll do even more when coupled with additional policies that tackle rent head-on.

Accounting For Parking’s Costs

Too much parking is a bad thing. It spreads people and buildings farther apart so that it’s difficult to deliver municipal services, it undermines public transportation by artificially reducing the cost of driving, and it reduces housing opportunity in good neighborhoods by wasting land on car storage. Those costs are spread out over the entire community, though, while the benefits of excessive parking space—always having a place to store your car, attracting tenants or customers who prefer to drive—mostly go to specific people. The problem is that those people who benefit most from parking—property owners—are the ones in a position to build it, and they rarely account for the wider community costs of building too much of it. This is a classic externality problem, and it’s the kind of thing that government should step in to fix.

Unfortunately, Syracuse’s City Hall doesn’t account for the negative effects of excessive parking either. Its zoning ordinance treats parking like a public good that needs to be preserved through regulation. That ordinance requires houses to have such-and-so-many parking spaces per family, and it requires restaurants to have a different number of spaces per square foot. Every potential use has a required minimum number of parking spaces, and that’s what’s most likely to influence property owners’ decisions to build parking on their land. The result is too much parking with too little attention paid to its external costs.

The simplest thing that City Hall can do to fix this is to eliminate parking requirements entirely. Families who don’t own any cars at all are forced to pay for the privilege of being able to store one at their home, and businesses that could hire bus riders end up having to locate where there’s enough space for a huge parking lot, even if that’s nowhere near a bus stop. These homeowners and employers are the kinds of people who might choose to build less parking all on their own, if only they were allowed to do so.

City Hall can also take a more active role to direct the costs of parking to the people who actually want it. Take big apartment buildings. If a developer figures that an apartment with a parking space will be easier to rent than one without, then they might build a new building with just as many parking spaces as apartments. That’s the proposed plan for a building on Genesee Street, despite the fact that those apartments are within easy walking and biking distance of both Downtown and University Hill. Tenants in this building will wind up paying for a parking space through their rent even if they chose it specifically because they don’t own cars and wanted a central location. Their rent will subsidize other tenants’ car-driving habit.

City Hall could fix this problem by forcing landlord to unbundle the cost of parking from the cost of renting. Seattle’s done it, so landlords out there can’t hide the cost of parking in the rent. Tenants only pay for parking if they want it, and that pressures developers to build only as much parking as is actually useful.

The Seattle model sets a price for parking in a single building only after it’s constructed and occupied. At that point, it’s difficult for the property owner to respond to that price by either adding more parking or more apartments.

Syracuse can get developers to account for the cost of parking before they build with a city-wide cap-and-trade system. City Hall could change the current minimum parking requirements that apply to each property based into a maximum parking requirement. Property owners who build less than the maximum number of parking spaces would receive credits for the difference. They could then sell those credits to other property owners who want to exceed the parking maximums on their land. This would allow property owners to build as much parking as they think is necessary, but it would force them to internalize the costs of providing excessive parking. It would also give property owners an incentive to build fewer parking spaces. The result should be concentrations of parking in certain parts of Syracuse where cars are most necessary, and much less parking in the neighborhoods where cars are least necessary.

Parking imposes costs on Syracuse. Too often, those costs don’t enter into any one property owner’s decision about whether or not to build parking on their land. That’s a shame. City Hall can fix that problem by eliminating minimum parking requirements which distort decisions about how much parking is necessary, by passing laws that concentrate the costs of parking on the people who choose to use it by unbundling rent and parking fees, and by creating a cap-and-trade scheme to match the amount of parking to its demand across properties and neighborhoods. All of these policy interventions will balance the City’s transportation networks, and they will all give people in Syracuse more freedom to create the kind of City they want to live in.

Bus Rapid Transit for the Eastside

ReZone—City Hall’s complete rewrite of its zoning ordinance—assumes that Centro will run some kind of Bus Rapid Transit service in the future. The current draft ordinance includes special zoning around public “transportation terminals,” and the project’s guiding document refers to a “TOD overlay” within .25 miles of BRT stations. SMTC and Centro have planned two potential BRT lines already—and ReZone needs to account for those plans—but Centro needs to get a move on and finish planning the rest of its BRT network before City Hall adopts ReZone as law. Otherwise, Syracuse runs the risk that its new high quality bus service serves neighborhoods where restrictive zoning will limit its success.

The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified four other potential BRT corridors, and Mayor Walsh’s transition team identified half of one of those (Downtown to Dewitt) as a priority for his administration.

transition team

BRT service running on Erie Boulevard out to Shoppingtown Mall would pass within walking distance of all the new housing along Genesee Street on the Near Eastside, it would run through other older Eastside neighborhoods, and it would connect those residential areas to major employment centers Downtown and along Erie Boulevard.

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This map shows the potential BRT route in red, and it shows Jobs and Persons Per Square Mile—a measure that indicates how many people might use public transportation in an area—in shades of blue. Areas that are not shaded do not have enough people and jobs to support BRT service.

Lots of people already ride the existing 168 bus along Erie Boulevard, so that’s a good route to upgrade with shorter headways and faster runtimes. The Mayor’s transition team probably also chose to single out that route because a new BRT service could run in fully separated bus lanes in Erie Boulevard’s wide median.

But there are problems running BRT service on Erie Boulevard. There is no housing on any of the enormous parcels that line the street from Beech Street all the way out to DeWitt. All that land is zoned for commercial use only—no housing is allowed. Erie Boulevard runs down the middle of a deep valley, so anybody living in the housing that is nearby has to walk up a steep hill just to get home from the bus stop. Shoppingtown Mall—the line’s eastern anchor—is dying, and there are no concrete plans to turn it around. It might not even be possible to put bus lanes in the Erie Boulevard Median because of the State’s plans to use that space for the Canalway Trail.

Given all that, the City’s Eastside might be better off if that BRT service ran on Fayette Street instead. That would bring better bus service to neighborhoods where a lot of people don’t own cars. It would also connect LeMoyne College to the rest of Centro’s BRT network. Ending the line at LeMoyne instead of at Shoppingtown would also shorten the route by 35%, allowing Centro to run more buses more frequently for less money.

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Centro could also split the difference between these two options by running the line along Fayette to LeMoyne and then continuing it out to DeWitt along Erie Boulevard, say, or by turning onto Erie at Seeley or Columbus Avenue (like the existing 168 bus does). Those are decisions for actual transportation planners to make in consultation with Centro, the City, and the public, but let’s get them made.

Choose where the bus will go and where it will stop. Then, the ReZone team can make the changes it needs to—like lifting the ban on housing along Erie, or allowing more mixed-use development in Salt Springs—if that BRT service is going to succeed. The clock on ReZone is ticking, and Syracuse needs better bus service now.

Exclusionary Zoning in One Neighborhood Will Gentrify Another

With all the new apartment buildings going up on Syracuse’s Eastside, it seemed like a fluke that one planned for Westcott Street never got past the drawing board. It wasn’t. That apartment building didn’t get built because of exclusionary zoning policies that prohibit new housing in some places and concentrate it in others. As Syracuse grows, that imbalance will push people looking for housing into certain neighborhoods, driving up rents, gentrifying them, and displacing current residents. ReZone—City Hall’s comprehensive rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinance—is a once-in-a-generation chance to prevent this by creating housing opportunity in more city neighborhoods. That’s a chance City Hall needs to take.

City Hall enacts exclusionary zoning policies when vocal neighborhood groups like UNPA pressure it to do so. Those exclusionary policies—minimum lot sizes, required setbacks, limits on multi-family housing, parking requirements—make it difficult or impossible to build new housing in a neighborhood. The Westcott Street project—one that would have added 32 middle-income apartments to this well-off neighborhood—ran afoul of all of these.

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Meanwhile, about a mile away on Genesee Street, three enormous new buildings are adding hundreds of new apartments to the foot of University Hill. Each of those buildings is much larger than what had been planned for Westcott Street, but they’re going up without much of a fight. That’s because Genesee Street is already zoned to allow apartment buildings by right—something that wouldn’t be true if a powerful neighborhood association like UNPA was guarding that land. In fact, there is no neighborhood association worrying about what all that new housing will do to Genesee Street’s ‘character’ because there are hardly any people living near that part of Genesee at all.

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For now, this works. People in Westcott get to keep their neighborhood to themselves, people looking for a place to live can move to Genesee Street, and everybody who relies on municipal services benefits from the new tax revenue. The same thing is happening across the City where the zoning is lax and there aren’t enough existing residents to block new residential construction—Franklin Square, East Brighton, University Hill, the Inner Harbor, and even Downtown. All that empty space has been a safety valve, allowing developers to build and market new housing without putting pressure on existing neighborhoods.

But Syracuse is running out of empty space. Three recent projects turned old factories into new apartments in established residential neighborhoods on the Westside. This month, City Hall and the Allyn Foundation announced that they want to build hundreds of new homes on land currently occupied by public housing on the Southside.

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New housing is not a bad thing. Too many older homes in Syracuse are poorly insulated, have roofs that leak, are painted with lead. New housing of good quality is an opportunity for current residents to live somewhere better. Similarly, too many older neighborhoods in Syracuse don’t have enough people. New neighbors pay taxes, shop at local businesses, bring up property values, and increase the neighborhood’s political power.

The problem is that limited supply and geographic concentration mean that a lot of this new housing isn’t affordable for the people who already live in the neighborhoods where it’s being built. Developers can’t build much new housing at all, so they’re pricing and marketing what little is allowed to attract the small pool of tenants who can pay $1,385 for a 1-br in the Dietz Lofts, say. That’s more than twice the median gross rent of the Westside neighborhood where the Dietz building sits—a neighborhood where half of tenants spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent.

Converting empty factory buildings into expensive apartments won’t displace anybody, but the same zoning laws that made the Dietz Lofts possible also allow property owners to convert existing 1-family homes into multi-family apartments. The same economic pressure that set the Dietz’ rent at $1,385 will do the same to any newly renovated duplex. That will displace people.

People have to live somewhere, and developers are building new homes for them where it’s easiest—where the zoning already allows it. Because some neighborhood groups have been so successful at redrawing the City’s zoning map to exclude new residential construction, it’s concentrated in a select few neighborhoods. Because developers will always go after the highest rents first, they’re building homes that are often unaffordable for the people who already live in those neighborhoods. This is how exclusionary zoning in some neighborhoods causes gentrification in other neighborhoods.

Syracuse’s zoning map controls the supply and geographic concentration of housing in the City. City Hall needs to amend that map to allow more housing in more neighborhoods. City Hall needs to make those changes now—before Syracuse runs out of empty land for new residential development—in order to get ahead of the economic trends that have led to rising rents, displacement, and housing crises in other cities.

ReZone provides the opportunity to do just that. City Hall’s Land Use & Development Plan—the document that’s supposed to guide the ReZone project—contained a map that showed how to disperse new residential development and population growth across many city neighborhoods. It recommended zoning to allow 1 and 2-family homes (shaded bright yellow) in almost all of Westcott, the Northside, the Southside, the Westside, and in half of Eastwood. It recommended zoning to allow bigger apartment buildings (shaded olive green, magenta, and pink) along neighborhood main streets and in parts of all those same neighborhoods. If Syracuse was zoned this way now, that Westcott Street apartment building could have been built.

LUDP map

ReZone is now on its third draft zoning map. The first draft (February 2017) followed the LUDP’s recommendations to allow new residential construction in most city neighborhoods with three unfortunate exceptions. First, the February 2017 draft zoning map all but banned multi-family housing from Eastwood outside of James Street itself. Second, it significantly reduced the amount of multi-family housing that could be built in Westcott. Third, it significantly increased the amount of multi-family housing allowed on the South and West sides, particularly in an area where Onondaga Creek regularly floods.

Since that February 2017 draft, it’s only gotten worse. From the Northside, to Tipperary Hill, to Lincoln Square, each successive draft has limited the amount of housing that can go into certain Syracuse neighborhoods, effectively funneling future population growth into a select few others with predictable negative consequences. (Lots shaded yellow are zoned to exclude new apartment buildings).

Syracuse needs people. It needs for kids to grow up and make their lives here, and it needs for people to move in from out of town. It needs these people to pay taxes, ride buses, shop at local businesses, attend PTA meetings, vote, and invest in the community.

And those people need a place to live. As it stands, they’re going to have a hard time moving into some neighborhoods where exclusionary zoning policies have artificially limited their access to housing opportunity, and they’ll have an easier time moving into other neighborhoods where their presence will, at least in the short term, be a hardship on their new neighbors.

It shouldn’t be this way. That 32-unit apartment building should go up on that Westcott Street parking lot, and a few dozen people should be able to choose to live there, lowering demand for new housing in other neighborhoods and spreading out the effects of new residential development and population growth across the entire City. That’s the only way to equitably harness the population growth that Syracuse needs and ensure that it benefits everybody who lives in the City.

Writing ReZone for Better Bus Service

Buses work best where there are lots of people, businesses, and institutions all within walking distance of each other. Zoning laws that allow a mix of people, businesses, and institutions work best in places with good bus service. Transportation planning and land use planning go hand in hand.

In Syracuse, the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing. Take ReZone, City Hall’s once-in-a-generation rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinance. It grants a 30% reduction in off-street parking requirements for lots within .25 miles of a public ‘transportation terminal,’ but it doesn’t define what a transportation terminal is. The 2012 Land Use & Development Plan—upon which ReZone is based—suggests that ReZone is talking about stations on a Bus Rapid Transit network:

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The 2014 Syracuse Transit System Analysis identified six “major transportation corridors” for improved bus service, but it did not identify any “fixed stations” along them. The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council’s SMART1 report does identify station locations, but only for two BRT lines.

 

It’s anyone’s guess, though, when and if Centro will actually run that BRT service. The fixed stations identified in the SMART1 report don’t actually exist yet, and if the Common Council turned ReZone into law tomorrow, there would be no clear ‘transportation terminals’ in the City to trigger the ordinance’s 30% parking requirement reduction.

 

In the meantime, City Hall’s very reluctance to zone for transit is affecting Centro’s ability to offer the service. Centro is going to need money from the Federal Transportation Administration in order to build out this BRT network, and the FTA takes a city’s land use policies into account when it decides whether or not to fund a project there. According to the STSA, Syracuse’s current zoning policies hurt its chances of getting funding from the FTA.

Even worse, City Hall keeps revising ReZone in ways that will make Centro’s life harder. One glaring example is the area around the Regional Transportation Center. The RTC is supposed to be the last stop on one of SMART1’s BRT lines. The first ReZone draft would have allowed housing and businesses on all of the parking lots around there, but the current draft actually bans new housing in the area—how’s that for TOD?

Less obviously, each new draft of ReZone has reduced housing opportunity along the corridors that the STSA picked out for BRT service. Around N Salina, Solar, W Fayette, and W Genesee Streets, City Hall has amended its zoning map to either ban or minimize residential development in the very areas where SMTC and Centro are planning to provide better bus service.

 

The idea of a TOD-overlay makes sense, but it’s impossible to implement while planning for that BRT service is independent from the ReZone project—the overlay won’t come into effect until the BRT service starts running, and the BRT service is difficult to plan until the overlay comes into effect. It’s a catch-22.

City Hall, Centro, and SMTC can fix this with a little cooperation. All three organizations need to get together and narrow the STSA’s transportation corridors to specific streets. City Hall has already said that it wants the eastern half of the Camillus-Fayetteville corridor to run along Erie Boulevard. It shouldn’t be so hard to make similar decisions for the rest of the corridors—will that line’s western half run on Fayette or W Genesee? Will the Northside-Western Lights line run on Gifford or Onondaga? Where will the buses stop?

Once they’ve agreed on specific streets where BRT service would run, the ReZone project team will have enough information to write transit-supportive zoning policies into the new ordinance without relying on an unnecessarily complicated mechanism like the ‘proximity to transit’ parking reduction. That means making all lots within .25 miles of the planned BRT stations MX-4 or R-4—zoning classifications that allow enough housing to mix with businesses and institutions so that people can meet their daily needs on foot.

The project team should also eliminate all minimum parking requirements from ReZone.

These changes won’t cost a penny, they will make land more valuable, and they will lay the groundwork for better bus service in the future.

Flexibility is Adaptability is Resiliency

I used to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the back end of a building on the City’s Northside. The building had been a standard Syracuse double-decker—two identical three-bedroom apartments stacked one on top of the other—but at some point the owner split the second floor into two one-bedroom apartments. That was good for me because it meant there was a one-bedroom apartment that I could afford, and it was good for the landlord because the combined rent from those two second floor one-bedroom apartments was $980 a month—significantly more than the $750 a month that the three-bedroom apartment on the first floor brought in.

Small modifications like this one—putting up a wall and building a new kitchen and bathroom to convert a two-family building into a three-family building—make Syracuse resilient. The City is full of old buildings that have been modified over the years to better meet the needs of a changing population, and you’re most likely to find them in the neighborhoods that are most diverse and that provide people with the greatest variety of opportunity.

It’s a problem, then, that City Hall’s new zoning ordinance would make that kind of responsive modification largely illegal in so many of the neighborhoods where it’s most useful.

ReZone divides all residential buildings into 1 of 3 categories: one-family, two-family, or multi-family. That double-decker apartment I lived in would have originally been considered a two-family home, but now with its three apartments, City Hall will call it a multi-family home. ReZone allows two-family homes in all of Syracuse’s inner neighborhoods, but it bans multi-family housing from almost all of Tipperary Hill, the Southside, Westcott, Skunk City, and the Northside. That ban restricts people’s ability to modify their properties in the small ways that will make those neighborhoods able to cope with change.

City Hall needs to amend its draft zoning ordinance to accommodate a greater variety of housing types. The could mean adding more categories to its list of residential uses (three-family, four-family, five-family, etc.), it could mean expanding the two-family category to include other small-scale apartment buildings with more than two units (up to six, say), or it could mean getting rid of the two-family category entirely to allow all kinds of multi-family housing in every neighborhoods except those quasi-suburban spots like Meadowbrook and the Valley.

Syracuse’s strength is its flexibility. The City’s been around for about 200 years now, and the people who call it home have adapted to huge economic, demographic, and technological changes in that time. Left to their own devices, city residents will keep on doing the little things—like converting a two-family home into a 3-family home—that will keep the City responsive to the needs of the day, but those kinds of modifications will only be possible if City Hall relaxes its planned restrictions on multi-family housing. Do that, and Syracuse might just make it another 200 years.

Two Views of Syracuse’s Future

2019 will see two policy announcements that will shape Syracuse for decades to come. New York State plans to let us all know what it’ll do to replace I81’s downtown viaduct, and Syracuse City Hall plans to adopt its first new zoning ordinance since 1922. With each of these the community has the choice to make a big change or to keep things the same as they are now, and its decisions will reveal whether or not Syracuse believes in its own future.

 

Take I81. NYSDOT is going to demolish the downtown viaduct and uncover a lot of land in the city center, and a lot of people see the potential for something transformational to fill in that space. Here’s just one possibility, described by the Gifford Foundation:

“[The Community Grid plan is] the best opportunity for reclaiming the geography presently occupied by I-81 as a transformational neighborhood with mixed-income housing, extraordinary schools, and facilities, programs, and services that honor the rich history of the community, reflect priorities of those who live there”

That’s a vision of a better future–for a Syracuse that’s an inclusive empowering city–and that vision drives the Gifford Foundations decision to endorse NYSDOT’s plan to move the highway out of Downtown.

Contrast that with State Senator Bob Antonacci’s argument that Syracuse has nothing to gain by removing all those off and on ramps from the middle of town:

“The theory goes that tearing down I-81 through downtown Syracuse will unlock a dormant potential and uniting downtown with the University Hill neighborhood. I personally am skeptical of this. A previous attempt, the Connective Corridor, at uniting those two areas was described as having brought crime into the university and surrounding neighborhoods.”

He doesn’t think any significant positive change can come from getting the highway out of Downtown and that unless we all realize this, then “the 81 debate will end in a zero-sum game where a significant portion of the community will feel they lost.” The best result that Antonacci can imagine is to maintain the status quo.

 

It’s the same with the new zoning ordinance. At the beginning of the ReZone project, City Hall published the Land Use and Development Plan. That document sees Syracuse as the region’s future:

“Syracuse is uniquely positioned within the Central New York region in light of increased national and statewide focus on Smart Growth and widely renewed interest in urban living…. Many neighborhoods which currently possess high vacancy rates are poised to accept population growth, particularly among young professionals and families who desire a traditional urban environment and who may take advantage of Syracuse’s affordable historic housing stock and walkable, urban neighborhoods… over the long-term the City may market its ability to cost-effectively absorb regional population growth—based on existing infrastructure and an urban land-use pattern that lends itself to walkable neighborhoods, local commercial and business services, and efficient transit service.”

This Syracuse is a place where people want to live, a place that can welcome those people, and a place that will be better off for having done so. That vision informs the Land Use and Development Plan’s prescriptions for more housing, more housing options, better bus service, more opportunities for small businesses, and neighborhoods where people can meet all of their needs easily.

Contrast that with how Owen Kearney, a city planner, described the project to Grant Reeher on WAER:

“We’re really a city of residential neighborhoods with neighborhood business districts and Downtown. And kind of thinking of those three elements: that Downtown core, our neighborhood business districts, and essentially the neighborhoods surround them, and continuing to protect all three of them and enhance all three of them through our land-use regulations, which is what zoning are, but to allow new uses in those neighborhood business districts, at the same time protecting those residential areas”

His focus is on protection and stasis. This explains all of the changes that City Hall has made to the draft zoning ordinance since the first draft–rolling back housing opportunity, restoring old parking regulations that penalize bus-riders, keeping it difficult for new people to move into stable neighborhoods. Those changes all ‘protect’ the status quo by limiting the City’s ability to welcome new people.

 

Where the Gifford Foundation sees the potential for connected neighborhoods that empower their residents, Antonacci can only see traffic and crime. Where City Hall once saw the possibility of new housing mixed with new businesses so that lots of people could walk to the grocery store, the current administration can now only see problem corner stores and absentee landlords.

With I81 and with ReZone, that reflexive urge to keep things the way they are–to ‘protect’ them–comes from a fear of the future. When you can only imagine change for the worse, it makes sense to hold onto the present. In that case, Syracuse’s best hope is to slow its inevitable and irreversible decline.

The City deserves better than that. A better future is possible, Syracuse can be a better place to live, big changes can leave us better off. It’s only possible, though, if the people with the power to effect those changes can imagine that better future. Let them know. Call City Hall, call your state reps, call the Governor, and tell them that you know Syracuse can make a better future, and you want their help to make it happen.

ReZone’s Rules for Rowhouses

Rowhouses combine many of the benefits of both single-family and multi-family housing. They all have first floors at ground level, so everybody gets a front stoop and a backyard, and the houses don’t take up much space, so many families can live within walking distance of schools, shops, and bus stops.

But not all rowhouses are created equal. These, on the corner of Lodi and Gertrude, are all on their own individual lots. Even though they’re connected, each house is a separate building, meaning that each one is an opportunity for someone to become a homeowner. That’s the opportunity to build equity, accrue wealth, achieve stability.

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There are more rowhouses the next block down on Lodi. These are really just one big apartment building on a single lot. It’s owned by just one person, so fewer people have the opportunity to secure the many benefits of homeownership.

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That’s a big difference, but it’s one that City Hall’s new draft zoning ordinance doesn’t recognize. Here’s all that the draft has to say about rowhouses:

“[Dwelling, Multi-Family] includes both stacked and side-by-side units. The current Syracuse ordinance includes some references to “townhouses” in some districts as distinct from “apartments.” In some communities, we include a use type called “single-family attached”; however, staff prefers not to introduce that term in Syracuse and to use instead a broad definition of “dwelling, multi-family.”
pg 233

So are rowhouses single-family or multi-family? Can somebody buy a single rowhouse, or do they have to buy a whole set at once? Is this different from building multiple single-family houses with party walls on narrow lots as is allowable in zoning district MX-5, but nowhere else? Do the ordinance’s minimum lot dimensions for multi-family housing apply to a single house in the row, or the row in its entirety? Are rowhouses allowed in zoning district R-2 where the ordinance bans ‘multi-family housing’ but allows ‘2-family housing’? There aren’t obvious answers to any of those questions in the ordinance as it’s currently written.

Rowhouses can have an important place in Syracuse’s future. They create more opportunities for people to own a home that’s within easy walking distance of daily needs. Building more of them would bring more of those opportunities into the City’s existing neighborhoods, and they’re a good option for building entirely new neighborhoods at the Inner Harbor and the Almond Street area.

Before that can happen, though, City Hall needs to amend its new zoning ordinance to clarify its rules for rowhouses. It should make it clear that rowhouses are a type of single-family housing, that they’re allowed in all zoning districts, and that they can be bought and sold individually. Simple changes that will make for a better Syracuse.