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21st-century makeover for Baltimore’s zoning code

The slide presentation by Laurie Feinberg to a small group of planning and real estate development professionals began with an eclectic set of images: the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, at 11 years old, was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine; a 1971 model Buick LeSabre convertible was a choice available to the auto-buying public; Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Feinberg, division chief for comprehensive planning at the Baltimore City Planning Department, has been project manager for the city’s rezoning effort. She was making the point that it’s been nearly 40 years since the city last adopted a new zoning ordinance. Drafting of the new zoning rules has been under way for nearly two years, with the help of a Chicago-based consulting firm, Camiros Ltd., and its local partners.

The rezoning initiative is moving forward with the recognition that Baltimore is a very different place than the city of four decades ago. The blue-collar, industrial city of the mid-20th century exists largely in memory. And the city’s zoning regulations have to reflect the changes that have taken place in the economy and in society. The proposed new rules make a strong move in that direction.

The new code being drafted recognizes some industries that weren’t even imagined 40 years ago.

Biotechnology, for example, based on using living organisms to develop industrial, agricultural or medical applications, was just beginning to be discussed as a part of the Baltimore economy in the mid-1980s. Now, the city has two biotechnology centers under active development, by the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University. These centers, along with the still-developing Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus, are changing the local landscape in significant ways.

The new code would include a BSC zoning category, with the Bio-Science Campus Zoning district intended to accommodate this new reality. This new category would allow a broad mix of uses, including manufacturing, office, and research and development. The BSC designation would also allow supportive uses, including limited retail activities, educational facilities and some higher density residential uses.


Transforming the waterfront

As one who settled in Baltimore in 1970, I remember a local economy dominated by heavy industry, including auto assembly at General Motors on Broening Highway, the Key Highway Shipyard at what we now know as the Inner Harbor, and the local terminals of the Port of Baltimore, busy with imported iron ore and coal to feed the furnaces of Bethlehem Steel at nearby Sparrows Point.

Little thought was given then to the possible crowding out of these industrial areas by residential condos, restaurants and recreational boating. That competition for land was well under way in the 1990s, and led to a new zoning feature, the MIZOD, or Maritime Industrial Zoning Overlay District.

Baltimore established the MIZOD in 2004 to reduce increasing conflicts between mixed-use waterfront development and maritime industries and shipping by reserving certain land for industrial use for a period of time recently extended to 2024.

In the new proposal, there is no longer an overlay but a Maritime Industrial category, without a defined time period. In the text of the new code, “The purpose of the MI Maritime Industrial Zoning District is to ensure the preservation of limited deep-water frontage of the Port of Baltimore for maritime use. The intent is to delineate an area where maritime shipping can be conducted without the intrusion of non-industrial uses and where investment in maritime infrastructure is encouraged.”

New rules vs. reality

Feinberg noted that all of these ideas, along with those to encourage transit-oriented development, mixed-use projects, and many others, are still in the form of a draft document. At the same time, mapping of the zoning proposals, which means applying the new rules to actual parcels on the ground, is under way.

The process is useful in identifying possible conflicts between the details of actual land uses and the draft text.  This process, including the resolution of conflicts, will continue for several more months. Meanwhile, there are still opportunities for citizens, property owners, developers and other interested parties to express their views. Go to rewritebaltimore.org and get your opinions on the record.

At some point in 2011, we can expect the planning staff to complete their work and the zoning code will take the form of a bill for consideration by the Baltimore City Council. After review by the Planning Commission, the council will have the final word as to whether we will have a new zoning code suited to the needs of the early 21st century.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.