My Illegal Neighborhood: How Single Use Zoning Deadens Neighborhoods

This thought provoking article explores the quality of life benefits of living in a neighborhood of mixed uses and mixed building types in Portland, Oregon and how that mix can drive the value of real estate up and not down as you might expect — and yet how our current approach to zoning makes this kind of neighborhood illegal.  Food for thought as we begin the process of drafting our next Master Plan in South Orange where we need to be asking ourselves about whether allowing a greater diversity of uses and housing types in our neighborhoods could improve resident’s quality of life and make our neighborhoods even more appealing to new residents.

I don’t think that South Orange should be aspiring to the swirling mix of uses that characterizes older urban neighborhoods, but can we distill from those neighborhoods some principles that we could then implement  in a controlled fashion in updated zoning laws?  I think we can.  

The core learning is that a mix of uses is more appealing to residents than a single use; that a mix of uses creates vitality and a reason to walk and mingle with neighbors; and that a mix of uses makes a neighborhood more appealing and even increases rather than reducing property values.  That mix of uses includes both a variety of residential housing types and a combination of residential and commercial within a single neighborhood.

The housing issue is particularly urgent since every demographic study says that there will be dramatically more need in the future for housing for singles, for couples without children, for older people – and a decline in the demand for the traditional suburban single family house.  I guess we could continue to try to segregate all of those people in apartments on Valley and South Orange Avenue – make that our ghetto for all those people who don’t fit into a traditional suburban housing unit – but that is a pretty sad vision for the future of South Orange.  We should absolutely be considering changes to our zoning laws to allow apartments in existing accessory structures like garages and carriage houses, as well as the construction of accessory structures specifically to provide new housing choices in older neighborhoods.  We should also be considering how we might allow the construction of 2 and even 4 family homes in our single and two family zones to create a mix of housing types that attract and retain a mix of people to our family neighborhoods.

We should also reexamine the restrictions in our zoning laws that block all retail in our residential neighborhoods.  The right retail close to your home gives you a reason to walk instead of drive.  It also creates a focal point for a neighborhood, a place where you casually bump into long time and new neighbors.  Dry cleaners and cafes can and do serve this function within many older neighborhoods and they could serve that same purpose here.  Where to allow retail in our older neighborhoods will be a difficult question.  Could we look to allow some types of retail near our elementary schools or in and around our parks – take advantage of the fact that these are places that people are more likely to walk to already and so where walkable businesses  might fit best.  

South Orange is unusual for having a number of true neighborhoods with distinctive characters in such a small town – maybe we can nurture and develop the distinctive character of certain neighborhoods through zoning changes.  Maybe the differences among our residential neighborhoods is not just lot size and whether or not two family houses are allowed, but goes further with some neighborhoods allowing an even greater diversity of housing types and retail and professional uses to create a greater level of vibrancy and community.



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