The overhaul of Baltimore's zoning code the City Council gave preliminary approval to this week may well represent one of the most lasting legacies of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration. It has taken years of public hearings and refinements to get to this point, and it suffered in some respects in the hands of the council, but it nonetheless represents a major step in making a more livable Baltimore for its residents and creating a set of predictable rules for its business owners.
Much of the attention related to this legislation has focused on the city's efforts to use the zoning code to reduce the over-concentration of liquor stores in residential neighborhoods. When Baltimore's zoning rules were given their last comprehensive update, in the 1970s, dozens of such businesses were grandfathered into non-conforming zones. The result has been a variety of negative outcomes, from increased crime to higher rates of hypertension and diabetes. Johns Hopkins researchers in 2013 found evidence to support the idea that using the zoning code to reduce the number of such liquor stores could reduce a variety of negative health outcomes and improve the community's quality of life. Nearly 100 such stores will be affected by the legislation, and we're glad to see those provisions remain.
Councilman Nick Mosby sought to go farther with a 60-page amendment intended to crack down on nuisance bars and liquor stores more broadly, and to give communities more of a voice in the liquor regulation process. We are supportive of his intent but concerned about the potential for unintended consequences from such a far-reaching piece of legislation. We hope members of the next City Council will take up Mr. Mosby's ideas in stand-alone legislation so they can be subject to more extensive debate. He's right; zoning 100 liquor stores out of existence doesn't begin to solve the problem.
But the implications of the new zoning legislation, called Transform Baltimore, are far broader than the question of liquor stores. The measure aligns Baltimore's rules for how commercial, residential, office and industrial uses interact with each other in a way that recognizes both how the city evolved over the centuries and how we would like to see it developed today. It promises more of the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that have become so desirable, and it has the potential to remove many of the headaches that have hindered redevelopment and business growth.
The old zoning code was a product of 1970s ideas about separating different kinds of properties — residential all together in some areas, commercial in others — but it didn't recognize the reality of Baltimore, which was built up under different notions and different rules. It not only stymied the kind of new development people like but also made it more difficult to adapt old, non-conforming buildings to new uses that would be assets to the city. An old church in a residential neighborhood that was no longer used for its original purpose, for example, might make sense as a small office building, but the old code discouraged such a conversion, and making it happen was time consuming and unpredictable. The new code solves those sorts of problems.
Some of the amendments the council members made run counter to the goal of predictability by making certain uses in various zoning classes conditional on the approval of the council. Rather than having clearly defined rules and processes, proposed developments or conversions would be subject to the political process. In some circumstances, that could be a good thing. New bail bonds and check cashing businesses would have to be approved by the council, for example, and in those cases, a council member could serve a valuable role in protecting the community.
In other cases, it might become a hindrance to appropriate re-use of properties. The original proposal had cut-and-dried rules for the conversion of single-family homes to apartments, for example — they must have a certain number of square feet, a certain sized lot, meet certain parking requirements, etc., but now property owners will face the uncertainty of the council. In practice, that means they must get the OK of the one council member who represents the district, and if not, tough luck. Placing those kinds of decisions in the hands of a political body is unusual, and given the need to encourage more development in Baltimore, that's a distinction we don't need to have.
On the whole, though, Transform Baltimore makes Baltimore a better place to live, work and invest. We urge the council to give it final approval.