Des Moines has drawn national attention for its rewriting of zoning ordinances, and most of it has not been positive.
Officials in the capital city floated a proposal last month that would set the minimum size of homes and lots, while requiring single-car garages and full basements. A one-story home would be, at a minimum, 1,400 square feet, with 1,800 square feet mandated for a two-story dwelling.
Critics, including local homebuilders, Habitat for Humanity, and others pointed out how the new requirements would drive up home prices, reduce the availability of housing by discouraging density and price some middle-income and younger workers out of the market.
In the face of criticism, Des Moines officials recently dropped the size requirements and the basement mandate. But the capital city’s overly prescriptive zoning rewrite is a cautionary tale, and is in stark contrast to the philosophy recent zoning code changes in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
At both ends of the I-380 corridor, local officials are trading in old, rigid zoning rules organizing classes of property by use in favor of more flexible rules acknowledging the need for different types of housing. This “form-based” approach to zoning evaluates a neighborhood’s character and needs and potentially makes room for multiple uses and densities.
Iowa City leaders are focusing on creating form-based code for the South District. In Cedar Rapids, a new zoning code emphasizes many factors beyond traditional use and density, including walkability and bikeability. As in Iowa City, a form-based code will put an emphasis on how structures fit into neighborhoods, not simply the structure’s use.
Cedar Rapids’ zoning code makes room for beekeeping, accessory dwellings, non-conforming lots and doesn’t ban garage-forward “snout” houses.
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Smarter, more flexible zoning allows communities to adapt to changing circumstances and offer more housing choices to a broader spectrum of residents. Instead of drawing thick lines between single-family, multifamily and commercial properties, cities can plan more complete neighborhoods with a broader mix of uses. Those old lines, too often, divided communities by race and income.
New rules reflect how people will live in urban areas in the future. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City deserve ample credit for their forward-thinking approaches.
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