Post last updated at 9:52 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31:
A lot has changed in the past 16 years — but that’s not reflected in the document that lays out the regulations meant to help the city implement its goals and visions.
Aging it further, Lawrence’s land development code, adopted in July 2006, was based on the city’s comprehensive plan that was adopted in 1998 — Horizon 2020.
What is Lawrence’s land development code?
In simplest terms, the 559-page code basically says what can be built where.
It’s a lot more complex than that, however. It covers everything from how closes together houses can be to whether you can raise livestock in your backyard; from how many parking spaces different types of housing and businesses must have, to how many trees and different tree species must be planted — just to name a few examples.
But it’s based on a nearly quarter-century-old vision for the city, and it’s due for an update, local leaders have decided.
Now the city’s strategic plan, published in 2021, and the updated comprehensive plan, Plan 2040, will serve as guiding documents for the update to the land development code.
And a steering committee of 14 community members, working with consultants, will help shape the updated code.
It’s exciting for Nick Kuzmyak, who is serving on the steering committee in his capacity as chair of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission. He said code updates seem to happen about once a generation, and they have the potential to radically reshape the community.
“This update comes at a particularly interesting time, partly due to the housing affordability crisis … but also because the planning and municipal finance fields have made quite a bit of progress in the past 20-odd years compared to the suburban paradigm of the ’50s to ’90s,” he said. “Academics, planners, and city leaders around the country have come to realize how some historic land development decisions have led to unintended detrimental consequences, however well-intentioned they were at the time.
“We’re seeing examples of these changes around the country: eliminating single family exclusive zoning, allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), reducing or removing off-street parking minimums, or reducing minimum lot sizes.”
Kuzmyak is also an environmental engineer who works with municipal infrastructure, and he has worked as a Realtor. Basically, he said, this is an exciting time to follow city planning — “a typically wonkish subject that happens to affect a large portion of our lives.”
A couple of key outcomes Kuzmyak said he would like to see from this code rewrite are to reduce or eliminate minimum lot sizes for housing, and to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs). If lot sizes could be smaller, it would allow homes to be built closer together and lower the minimum cost per unit due to the land requirement, he said.
ADUs are smaller, detached structures on the same lot as a single-family home. Renting them out can help folks pay their mortgages, and that means they could be rented to college students — “which seems to be the greatest fear from most of the opposition in core neighborhoods,” Kuzmyak said — but they can also allow seniors to stay at their own properties as they downsize, for example.
They’re currently only allowed in a few types of zoning districts, and the code lays out fairly strict guidelines for their use and construction.
“One’s property was once a primary way to build generational wealth through renting out rooms or starting a business/storefront. Strict use regulations now prevent nearly all the home modifications our forebears took for granted,” he said.
“… Lawrence is stuck in a dated view of what a neighborhood can be, and who’s allowed to live there.”
What does he expect from the code update?
“I don’t believe we’re going to see huge changes. Lawrence is politically progressive at a national level, but locally conservative; basically, change is scary for the vast majority of people,” Kuzmyak said. “Plus, unless you’re from another country or a big east-coast city, most Americans have only ever known low-density suburban development patterns, despite the best-loved parts of our communities being created before regulations turned our cities into car-dominated landscapes of separated uses.”
You can read more from Kuzmyak below.
More from steering committee members
We reached out to all 14 of the steering committee members. Here’s what a few more of them had to say about why this work is important to them:
Derek Kwan, serving as the Lawrence chamber of commerce representative:
“When my kids graduate from college several years from now, I would love for them to be able to find a great job here in Lawrence and also be able to live here on their own. As it currently stands, the chances of that happening are not particularly high. I believe that thoughtfully reexamining and updating our land development code has the potential to really improve those odds.
“I’m committed to approaching this work with an open mind and with a focus on what will benefit the greater good of the entire community. With the recent Panasonic announcement, there is an even greater sense of urgency to get this right. Consequently, I wonder if the planned 24-month timeline needs to be altered so that our community has a better chance to leverage the opportunities surrounding this development. I appreciate the opportunity to serve on this committee and look forward to the process.”
Marci Francisco, serving in an at-large appointment by the Lawrence City Commission:
“As a city, we’ve set rules for development and re-development to help make Lawrence a good place for all of us to live, work, and play. As things change, we need to update our codes to make sure they are still working to enhance city services and transportation networks. We want to provide for affordability and home-ownership. We need to set good ratios for indoor and outdoor space to accommodate density along with gardens, recreation space, stormwater management, and homes for birds and other wildlife.
“We need to be especially mindful of how proposed patterns of development will impact the cost of delivering city services to reduce the escalation of utility costs and infrastructure. I also want to make sure the code sets good patterns for future development while respecting the existing development patterns in historic neighborhoods.”
Danielle Davey, city commission-appointed real estate representative:
“I come to the table as a real estate attorney and the Governmental Affairs Director for the Lawrence Board of Realtors®, so, obviously, my primary focus is going to be on housing. The development code impacts housing in Lawrence by regulating all aspects of where, what kind and how much housing our community can offer.
“Lawrence has had a shortage of available and affordable housing inventory for several years. With the announcement of the Panasonic project, now more than ever we need to find ways to work together as a community to meet housing needs at every level or we’re going to continue to see an unsustainable increase in housing costs as demand outpaces supply. My focus on the committee will be looking for innovative ways we can update our development code to diversify and increase our housing inventory in Lawrence.”
Rebecca Buford, city commission-appointed at-large representative:
“As an affordable housing developer and a leader of a not-for-profit organization who believes that family, neighborhood and community stability are created through sustainable and affordable housing, the development code update is critical to ensuring that we have more affordable housing. We want everyone who works and contributes to Lawrence to be able to live and thrive in Lawrence. But as rents and housing costs explode, there is giant gap between what most people in Lawrence make and what housing costs. Not only are people struggling to purchase a home, many are struggling to keep a roof over their head. The lack of affordable options means many Lawrencians are overly housing cost burdened — paying more than 50% of their income for housing, meaning day care, food budgets and emergency savings funds cannot be sustained. Neighborhood schools are losing enrollment because families with young children struggle to afford the high housing costs here. We are seeing an increase in homelessness among seniors and families with children. If the child sitting next to my child in school is experiencing houselessness, this affects me.
“The problem is that land and building costs continue to rise, so if we want to develop more affordably, we need to increase the types of housing and densities that are allowed in Lawrence. Density can be done in a very residentially friendly way, and well designed housing developments can create community that only improves our social experience. Large, single-family, cookie-cutter development does not create community, affordability or sustainability for anyone, no matter what they can afford. Not only is it important to build environments that are affordable to those who work here, but we also need to reduce our footprint to make Lawrence sustainable for the next generation. Large lots and expansion outwards, challenges sustainability. The code needs to adapt to the economic and environmental realities of our time. It needs to incentivize infill development, make re-development and land use adaptation less expensive, and promote affordable units in every new development. The current code does not allow us to build using smart density and a mixture of building types — but these elements are critical to building homes that serve the majority of incomes in our community and to ensuring that we have a healthy mixture of housing types and incomes in all neighborhoods. This variety will build strength and resilience in our neighborhoods and make sure that Lawrence retains the character we value given the variety of its residents. If we want Lawrence to remain inclusive and welcoming, we must adapt our development code to allow for a greater spectrum of housing types and price points. We must allow the code to incentivize building the types of housing the community actually needs to not just survive, but thrive.”
The other 10 members of the steering committee are:
• Brad Finkeldei, committee chair and Lawrence city commissioner
• Jim Carpenter, Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission representative
• Kay Johnson, Sustainability Advisory Board representative
• Trent Santee, Affordable Housing Advisory Board representative
• Debra Ford, city commission-appointed architect
• Timothy Stultz, city commission-appointed developer
• Eric Wagner, city commission-appointed homebuilder
• Philip Struble, city commission-appointed engineer
• Travis Harrod, Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods representative
They did not respond to an invitation for comment by the time of publication.
Make your voice heard
The steering committee’s first official meeting will start at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31, opening with training on the Kansas Open Meetings Act and progressing into icebreakers and a discussion on land development code issues and opportunities.
The meeting will be in person at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., as well as virtual. Those who wish to attend and give public comment virtually may do so by registering at this link. The meeting will also be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel. See the full agenda at this link.
The city wants public input as this process unfolds. There’s an online survey available through Sept. 30 at this link.
There are also several other kickoff meetings planned this week, including round table discussions, open houses and more, starting Tuesday afternoon. Here’s the full schedule:LLDC-meetings
To stay on top of this steering committee’s progress, you can also sign up to receive updates from the city via email at this link. Select “Planning & Development News.”
More from Kuzmyak
Kuzmyak shared quite a bit from his perspective and experience.
Below are his full responses to questions sent via email, which may help further explain why this code update matters and what it could mean for Lawrence as a whole.
Any thoughts you’d like to share about this process?
As far as I can tell, the City is going about the code update in the best possible way given available resources. They assembled a consultant selection group of various stakeholders and experts, and now — along with this steering committee — seem to be soliciting as much input as the public will give. I’m not familiar with the selected consultant, but as long as there is enough collaboration between them, the City, the Steering Committee, and the public, we should get an updated code that satisfies a majority of people.
That being said, I don’t believe we’re going to see huge changes. Lawrence is politically progressive at a national level, but locally conservative; basically, change is scary for the vast majority of people. Plus, unless you’re from another country or a big east-coast city, most Americans have only ever known low-density suburban development patterns, despite the best-loved parts of our communities being created before regulations turned our cities into car-dominated landscapes of separated uses.
Why does this update matter?
- Code updates seem to happen about once a generation (the last one was in 2006), and have the potential to radically reshape the community. This update comes at a particularly interesting time, partly due to the housing affordability crisis (not only in Lawrence, but most of the anglosphere) but also because the planning and municipal finance fields have made quite a bit of progress in the past 20-odd years compared to the suburban paradigm of the ’50s to ’90s. Academics, planners, and city leaders around the country have come to realize how some historic land development decisions have led to unintended detrimental consequences, however well-intentioned they were at the time. We’re seeing examples of these changes around the country: eliminating single family exclusive zoning, allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), reducing or removing off-street parking minimums, or reducing minimum lot sizes. Basically, this is a really exciting time to follow city planning, a typically wonkish subject that happens to affect a large portion of our lives.
- Like other American (and Canadian) cities, Lawrence has spent the last seven decades building around the personal automobile and vaunting single family home ownership above all else. Homogeneity and predictability are key now that Americans’ largest assets are typically their homes, if they own one. These were lofty goals in the post-WWII period of newfound American power and wealth, but the effects of these decisions are now becoming evident.
- Car dependence. Participation in society is effectively contingent on car ownership. Use-separated zoning has forced car travel for nearly every aspect of daily life, with the attendant consequences that come from this: pollution, carbon emissions, crashes, the expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle, and health issues, just to name a few.
- Those who cannot drive (or cannot afford to) are stuck at home or with underfunded and incomplete infrastructure for transportation alternatives. Just look at the budget split between roads, sidewalks, bike paths, and transit and you’ll soon see that one of these vastly dominates the others.
- Wealth creation. One’s property was once a primary way to build generational wealth through renting out rooms or starting a business/storefront. Strict use regulations now prevent nearly all the home modifications our forebears took for granted.
- Inability to maintain infrastructure. Buildings are separated by use, but are also further apart from each other than really necessary. Utilities still have to flow through pipes and cables to service properties (not to mention roads, which must be wider to accommodate all the vehicles), so this spreading out proportionally increases the amount of infrastructure required to serve the community. For example, Lafayette, LA had 10x the length of pipe per person in 2015 as they did in 1949, while the median household income only increased 60%. If you’ve seen roads crumbling with no money to fix them, or heard about deferred maintenance issues during budget discussions, this is basically why: with our development pattern, we don’t collect enough tax revenue per acre to maintain the amount of infrastructure we need to serve it. This isn’t about raising taxes, it’s about making the most out of our infrastructure investments, which we are currently squandering.
What goals do you have?
- The headliner: The Multimodal Transportation Commission (MMTC) wants to improve transportation in Lawrence such that all modes are affordable, accessible, and safe.
- Frankly, the land development code doesn’t need updated so much as completely rewritten. The overly prescriptive use tables, dimensional requirements, and separation of uses are a product of mid-century suburbanization, and don’t necessarily reflect the way cities were historically built (the best parts of which are still our most treasured neighborhoods) nor the need for cities to evolve and adapt.
- Since a total rewrite is an unrealistic goal, I believe that we at least need to tackle a few overarching concerns:
- Reduce the cost burden of infrastructure maintenance. We have far too much linear feet of infrastructure for the dollars-per-acre generated in tax revenue. Basically, the math doesn’t pencil out. This is a ubiquitous problem across the US, not just in Lawrence.
- Reduce the cost of household transportation. Owning and maintaining a car is a significant cost, and must be factored into housing affordability. The H + T Index visually compares these costs across the country, and reveals fascinating comparisons, such as how — in Lawrence — many census tracts that have lower-cost housing are in fact less-affordable than core neighborhoods when transportation costs are factored in.
- There are also some tangible outcomes I’d like to see that would signal that we have our priorities straight and aren’t letting familiarity with the status quo get in the way of much-needed change.
- Reduce or eliminate minimum lot sizes. Elsewhere, a 1,000-square-foot lot is perfectly sufficient for a two- or three-story home. Here, it would need to be combined with an adjacent lot to have any building at all, forcing buildings to be spread out and requiring a high minimum cost per unit due to the land requirement.
- Reduce or eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements. This does not mean getting rid of parking, only handing judgement over to property owners rather than the government. If you think your business would benefit more from an additional 1000 sf than from 3 parking spots (which would take 1000 sf), you should be allowed to do that. Also, if expansion or retrofit would require buying and knocking down an adjacent property for more parking (this is quite common around the country), then that’s an additional expense the owner could forgo. Yes, this will lead to more on-street parking. Also yes, that is a good thing for slowing traffic on smaller streets, something we’ve collectively decided is a good thing.
- Reduce or eliminate minimum setbacks. Sure, some areas could still prohibit owners from building to their lot line, preserving the detached home aesthetic (which would likely still predominate), but you shouldn’t be hemmed into an unrealistic footprint that may prevent development on small lots — i.e., the infill development that our comprehensive plan (Plan 2040) encourages. Plus, if you have a front yard but never use it and don’t want to maintain it, why shouldn’t you be able to build an addition toward the street rather than towards the rear of the property?
- Eliminate exclusive single-family zoning. The U.S. is the only country that sets aside large portions of its cities exclusively for detached single family homes. Other countries have residential areas where multi-family homes (duplexes, etc.) or neighborhood-appropriate businesses (small grocery, cafe) can exist, but only in the U.S. do we force people to live apart from nearly all of their daily needs. Besides this, owning a single-family home is a high financial barrier to entry, which shuts out those of lesser means to what are often the most opportunity-rich neighborhoods (or entire municipalities). Due to decades of redlining and white flight, the persistent national household wealth gap between Black and white families means that economic segregation is, in effect, racial segregation.
- This does not mean eliminating single family homes. Those can and will and should still be built, but not at the exclusion of everything else.
- Also, this does not imply that Lawrence is any more segregated than anywhere else, simply that single-family exclusive zoning historically arose around racial segregation. That segregation persists to this day despite the illegality of racially restrictive covenants, because the wealth gap that arose during those early years has led to economic segregation becoming a proxy.
- Allow ADUs. In late 2019, the City was going to consider — for the fourth time — allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in nearly all residential zones, which would have opened up vast portions of the city to this flexible home type. This move was stalled due to complaints from various stakeholders for pandemic-related concerns, such that while collaborative City business has continued (and ADUs are allowed in far more cities nationwide), Lawrence is stuck in a dated view of what a neighborhood can be, and who’s allowed to live there. ADUs are great for aging parents, “boomerang” kids, or offsetting a mortgage through long- or short-term renting, and are often not even visible from the street. Yes, they could also house college students, which seems to be the greatest fear from most of the opposition in core neighborhoods. Therefore, to prevent a few students living nearby, we are also prohibiting elderly folks from staying at their own property as they downsize, to give a common example of how ADUs are used (they’re called “granny flats” for a good reason).
- Beyond what is contained in the land development code itself, there are other factors that influence the built environment that will need evaluating, as the consultant noted in their proposal.
- Cities’ building codes, while developed with the best of intentions for safety and quality, often make certain types of construction rather difficult. Even cities where “missing middle” type buildings are allowed by zoning (e.g., ADUs, cottage courts, small apartment buildings, live-work units), they are often financially infeasible through building codes that generally favor cookie-cutter suburban tract homes and large apartment buildings; anything in between is often financially infeasible or technically impossible to build. The International Building Code can still be the “gold standard”, but could use some deviations to fit a wider variety of buildings.
- The Subdivision Regulations and Design Standards for streets both influence much of what is in between buildings in Lawrence, and also favor the car-dependent suburban paradigm. For example, the minimum right-of-way width is 50 feet for a residential street. Other than fire standards which mandate a 20-foot minimum street width (a component of the right-of-way), there is no binding reason why streets must be so wide. Unnecessarily spreading buildings out is an inefficient use of infrastructure, encourages faster car traffic, and creates more pavement that will cost more to maintain and generate more stormwater runoff.
From the perspective of the group you’re representing, how does the land development code impact community members?
- As chair of the MMTC, I will aim to steer the new code in a direction that makes transportation better for everyone in Lawrence. This also means people other than drivers, and I expect some of this rebalancing will create friction in the code update process. Most Americans have only ever known a life tied to their personal vehicle, and taking away any driving-related convenience — real or perceived — will be met with opposition.
- A main goal of MMTC is to make life easier for those who cannot or choose not to drive. This is already a much larger demographic than many realize; plus, lots of people who are currently on the road should not be driving (or don’t want to).
- Enabling and encouraging denser and more mixed use infill development will make it easier for people to access their daily needs without a car. Just as importantly, while they’re biking/walking/taking transit, people deserve to not be in constant danger from being injured or killed by a vehicle collision. Pedestrian fatalities have been rising in the U.S. over the past few years, so there is an urgent need to address this systemic issue.
- We hope to inform changes to the code that will make life easier for all of Lawrence’s citizens, not just those who own cars. Personally, I am OK with trading some driver convenience in exchange for making life easier and safer for children, the elderly, those with limited mobility, people with suspended licenses, people experiencing homelessness, and those who cannot afford cars.
- MMTC goes as far as we can in promoting alternatives to driving (while making sure driving is safe as well), but until we have mixed-use and denser neighborhoods, with narrow streets that discourage speeding, we will always come up short in achieving true transportation equity. The land development code is where the rest of improvements have to happen.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.