On Monday the Planning Commission will meet to discuss the largest changes to the city zoning code in decades. The changes include a variety of amendments to existing architectural regulations, including a relaxation of height restrictions on commercial buildings, new restrictions on parking and new standards and procedure for getting building designs approved.
The changes represent a conceptual shift in city planning that has developed over the past two decades. Increasingly, city officials would like to move away from a planning model that sought segregation of commercial and residential districts, in favor of one that encourages mixed-use areas, in which people can live, work and find entertainment and social activities.
"Originally, zoning was a public health issue," says former Ald. Robbie Webber, who just walked into Michelango's Coffee House, where I am.
According to her, the attempts to protect residents from industrial pollution and other health risks became so ingrained in zoning philosophy that in the 1960's many cities had plans that schools, shopping, offices and residences all had their own spheres.
Ald. Lauren Cnare, the Council Pro Tem and a member of the Planning Commission, gave a similar analysis of the situation, and said she sees the proposed changes as a way to keep Madison from "becoming Houston."
In addition, Cnare said she believes the new code may increase demand for public transportation, as the mixed-use districts encourage urban living, which typically facilitates walkable communities and public transit.
However, while the new code will encourage mixed-use districts, it will by no means mandate them. Cnare says Madisonians should be able to live on a half-acre of land, away from commerce and city life, if they want to.
The new code should also make for a more consistent process for development approval. Cnare said she hoped it would mean less developers would have to apply for Planned Unit Developments for their projects. PUDs are one of the ways to seek an exemption from the restrictions of the zoning code.
The code sets out a number of different development districts, including the Traditional Workplace District, the Suburban Employment District, the Suburban Employment Center District, the Employment Campus District, the Industrial-Limited District and the Industrial-General District.
Each district has regulations which orient it towards a slightly different goal. For instance, the industrial districts have less burdensome parking and loading regulations and are meant to have access to highways.