Nick Kuzmyak: Key changes in the draft land development code, explained (Column)

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Last year, I attempted to explain some of Lawrence’s land development code and the ongoing update process. The full draft of all three modules of the code has now been released for comment along with a series of community meetings intended to educate the public and solicit feedback. Now is a good time to remind everyone of the importance of the code and why you might want to get involved.

A lot has changed since the early 2000s — a major recession, a pandemic, and an Anglosphere-wide housing affordability crisis — but not much has changed in our code. Now is our chance to meet the challenges of an evolving world, though that may mean that things look a bit different than we’re used to.

Instead of an exhaustive walkthrough of the content, I’d like to highlight two areas that I’m betting are of particular interest: single-family zoning and off-street parking.

Single-family zoning

Though Americans tend to value “traditional neighborhoods,” this is usually code for historic collections of single-family homes. Our now-predominant development pattern of single-family exclusive neighborhoods was not widespread prior to a 1926 Supreme Court decision that allowed cities to ban multifamily housing from being sited near single-family homes. 

True traditional development, still common in most countries, combines different housing types along with small businesses that allow residents to meet their daily needs. The trick is, very few people alive today remember a time before the single-family home was enshrined as the paragon of American living to the exclusion of all other uses; these zones now make up 75% of all residential zoned land in the U.S. No wonder what we call “traditional” is actually a historical and geographic anomaly.

It is difficult to say exactly why the U.S. is the only country that has dedicated so much land to a single use type, but the how is fairly well understood. Racially restrictive covenants in well-to-do neighborhoods in the late 1800s began to divide who was allowed to live in newer single-family developments and who was not. These rules were later codified to avert problematic discretion by local leaders, only becoming illegal with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. By then, a few passing generations had inflated the racial wealth gap so much that merely preventing multifamily housing (typically less expensive) was enough to maintain racial segregation, even if the intent may have been economic segregation in many cases. We’re now at the point where your zip code of birth is a major determinant of life outcomes because the greatest opportunities are typically afforded to those who live in newer, single-family dominant neighborhoods that exclude any lower-priced housing such as duplexes, apartments or accessory dwelling units.

What does this mean for Lawrence?

First off, no one is going to “ban single-family homes” or bulldoze neighborhoods. Instead, things other than (but compatible with) single-family homes would now be allowed in places where they’re currently not.

Ask anyone who has been here at least a year and they can tell you which areas are richer than others. One might ask: why don’t folks just move to the “good” neighborhoods? After all, not only is the infrastructure newer and nicer, but just being in proximity to wealthier people can improve life outcomes. The answer: the price of entry is too high. In other countries, one can often rent a studio apartment or duplex even in nice neighborhoods, but we’ve effectively raised the bar to exclude anyone but the “right” economic class.

Essentially, this is our chance to finally level the playing field and allow for housing at all price points (and for different types of families) in all parts of the city, not to mention the fiscal benefits that come from infill housing, the preservation of prime farmland from suburban sprawl, and the opportunity to create more walkable neighborhoods.

Off-street parking

Another major change in the new code removes off-street parking minimums for all land uses. 

As with the previous section, it bears clarification: parking will most certainly still be provided, it will just no longer be government-mandated. Building parking costs money — approximately $5,000 per space for surface parking and $25,000 per space for garages — and this cost is passed on to the consumer whether they use it or not. “Free” parking is built into the cost of goods at stores, rent for apartment buildings, etc. 

This change will allow property owners to decide how much parking they actually need, rather than relying on pseudoscientific formulas copied from city to city (one space per 300 square feet of retail, one space per acre of junkyard) that typically prepare for the worst-case scenario. If airlines sized their fleet for Thanksgiving they would go bankrupt, so it seems like a bit of overreach to require similar oversizing by property owners.

But what happens if people start parking on the street? For the few neighborhoods where this is a problem or could become one, there are options:

  • Residential permitting can ensure residents have access to an on-street space. This typically undervalues a public resource and is no longer widely recommended.
  • Dynamic parking pricing can ensure that at least 5% of spaces are always available.
  • A “parking benefit district” can help show the value of parking by diverting profits to the host neighborhood.

Conclusion

Wherever you fall on the opinion spectrum around zoning changes, I still encourage you to get involved: Get to a community meeting, check out the draft online, or just call up Planning & Development if you have specific concerns. 

It’s your code, your city, and your future — get involved!

— Nick Kuzmyak is an environmental engineer who works with municipal infrastructure, and he has also worked as a Realtor. He is serving on the land development code update steering committee in his capacity as chair of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission.

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Nick Kuzmyak: Key changes in the draft land development code, explained (Column)

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”I’d like to highlight two areas (of the draft land development code) that I’m betting are of particular interest: single-family zoning and off-street parking,” Nick Kuzmyak writes in this column.

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