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Transforming Baltimore

By now, it should be fairly clear to Baltimoreans that the old mill buildings along the Jones Falls make great offices, apartments and restaurants. It shouldn't take months or years of wrangling and an act of the City Council to get permission to convert one to those new uses. Nor is it a new idea to build a deck on the rooftop of your rowhouse. It shouldn't take advanced knowledge of the city bureaucracy to figure out whether you can build one or what size it can be. And Baltimore's Metro and light rail aren't exactly new; isn't it about time that we decided that new businesses built to take advantage of those transit lines get a break on the number of parking spaces they're required to provide?

All that and much more is addressed by Transform Baltimore, an effort to update the city's zoning code for the first time in decades. The driving principles of the effort are to make the law reflect the realities of city living and to produce a code that is clear, predictable and transparent. It may represent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's most meaningful step yet in her effort to draw 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade.

There are some big, philosophical problems with Baltimore's existing zoning code that this rewrite seeks to address, along with many small ones. The old code was not well suited to regulating the kinds of mixed-use neighborhoods that define city living in Baltimore, and as a result, people interested in creative re-use of old structures or building new ones found themselves locked in a maze of regulations and often in need of action by the City Council to approve new zoning.

For deep-pocketed mega-developers, that's an unnecessary expense, but it is an obstacle they have the expertise and resources to overcome. For the little guy, it can be an insurmountable barrier — or a discouragement from even trying. And if this city is truly going to flourish, it will need thousands of little guys in neighborhoods all over town, redeveloping abandoned or underused properties and starting new businesses. What you can do with a piece of property should not depend on who you know, how many lawyers you hire or who you talk to at City Hall.

In ways large and small, the new code, which is the product of extensive public hearings over the last four years, reflects lessons learned since the old code was put in place in 1971. This time, the code makes clear how things like air conditioning units on rooftops are counted when it comes to height limitations. It addresses the use of solar panels and wind turbines. It adds permanent protections for maritime uses along the waterfront. And it seeks to limit the number of corner liquor stores in residential neighborhoods, nonconforming uses that can be harmful to the community.

The new code recognizes the importance of hospitals, colleges and universities, and mixed-use biotech parks to the city's future and provides specific rules — and new flexibility — for them. It also streamlines the process for allowing limited commercial uses — like art galleries, offices and cafes — in some residential areas. And it encourages transit-oriented development by allowing greater density, mixed uses, and fewer parking spaces.

One of the best aspects of the effort is a new, Internet-based mapping tool that allows users to click on any property in the city and see its current zoning, proposed zoning and a description of the possible uses there. That will be helpful as the public seeks to determine the effects of the proposed zoning law but also in the future, so prospective buyers can easily determine the possibilities for a property.

The bill, more than 300 pages worth, goes now to the City Council for more hearings and a vote. Assuming it passes, the next task will be training a city bureaucracy used to the old ways of doing things to adapt to a more flexible, streamlined approach. For this effort to achieve its maximum potential, we need not just new rules but a new mindset.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake says she is looking to apply the principles of transparency, flexibility and predictability to other aspects of city government, and given her goals to attract people and businesses to Baltimore, that will be essential. There are still plenty of forces that steer people to the suburbs, from high tax rates to struggling schools and neighborhoods still plagued by crime. Baltimore can't afford a confusing, unpredictable bureaucracy, and this rewrite of the zoning code is a step in the right direction.

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