New Zoning Code Threatened by Urban Renewal Plans

Date: October 18, 2017

In June 2017, after nearly ten years of planning, drafting and revising, Baltimore City's new zoning code became law.  In some areas of Baltimore, however, existing Urban Renewal Plans are undermining the new code's visions for growth and development.  While city and neighborhood stakeholders are working to align the new code with existing Urban Renewal Plans, the conflict between the two is creating uncertainty for developers in some areas of the city.  

What is an Urban Renewal Plan?

An Urban Renewal Plan (“URP”) is a type of zoning overlay that imposes additional restrictions above the underlying zoning with respect to the permitted uses and acceptable design within a defined area.  The geographies of URPs range from pocket business districts to entire residential communities.  Baltimore City currently has 62 URPs.   

URPs date back to the 1960s and 70s, when many cities across the country were trying to innovate spatial and social strategies to revitalize neighborhoods and stimulate urban growth and development.  The impetus behind the revitalization efforts was that cities were forced to address the challenges and opportunities that emerged in the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy.  URPs provided a planning tool to help implement the various revitalization strategies.  

In Baltimore, URPs have effectively become small area plans adopted by the Mayor and City Council in an effort to establish and implement design and development objectives.    The 62 URPs in Baltimore fall into one of four primary categories of plans: downtown, commercial corridors, industrial areas and neighborhood plans. 

Goals of the New Zoning Code

The Baltimore City Zoning Code was approved by the City Council and the Mayor in December 2016 and enacted in June 2017.  The first overhaul of the city zoning code in over forty years, the new zoning code is intended to foster a more flexible, contemporary development philosophy, promoting redevelopment of existing buildings, mixed use projects, transit oriented development, and walkable neighborhoods tailored to the lifestyles of today's urbanites.

In addition to the residential, commercial and industrial zones often found in traditional euclidean zoning, the City's new zoning code introduces a variety of special purpose zones designed to accommodate specific blends of uses.  Zones such as Transit Oriented Development, Office Residential, Educational Campus, Medical Campus, and the Port Covington zones, among others, are intended to provide more appropriate parameters for development in areas of Baltimore City which are defined by particular uses or institutions (e.g. transit hubs, medical campuses).  In addition to these specialized zones, the new zoning code provides for transitional zones to supplement the traditional zoning categories in areas of the Baltimore City where industrial or commercial areas abut residential neighborhoods.  The transitional zones are designed to allow a more diverse mixture of uses which will more seamlessly integrate into areas where diverse zones and uses are adjacent to one another.   

What Challenges do the URPs bring to the new Zoning Code?

While much of the design and development philosophy underpinning the new zoning code incorporates the themes found in many of the city's existing Urban Renewal Plans, this apparent harmony is not universal throughout the city.  In fact, there are certain areas where Urban Renewal Plans are in direct contrast to the flexibility permitted under the new code.  In these instances, the Urban Renewal Plan trumps the code and any flexibility which the new code may permit.  

The City Council, in conjunction with the Department of Planning and various neighborhood stakeholders, has been working to harmonize the URPs with the new zoning code where there are inconsistencies.  Over the last 12 months, two URPs have been repealed and eight have been amended.  In the coming months, more URPs will be updated or repealed in an effort to implement the new zoning code unfettered.

Whiteford, Taylor & Preston is monitoring these transitions for our clients.  As you perform your diligence, whether it is for new development, redevelopment or even a change in use, you should confirm whether the area is within a URP and, if so, how the URP may impact any uses or development of the property.  If you have questions or concerns regarding URPs, the new zoning code, or a particular city property, please feel free to contact us.