Fixing the UDO: A New Zoning District and Correctly Mapping Buffered Commercial

The following is an open letter to the Raleigh Planning Commission to set the record straight regarding ongoing discussions about a new zoning district and the mapping of the current zoning district, Buffered Commercial.

Dear Commissioners,

Yesterday’s Planning Commission meeting was quite interesting to us. There are a broad number of topics that interest and concern us. In the interest of time and space I will restrict this email to the topic of a new zoning district and the mapping of Buffered Commercial.

The suggestion for a new zoning district arose from many discussions about NX and CX districts and how they do not adequately implement Neighborhood Mixed Use and Community Mixed Use in the Comprehensive Plan. Neighborhood Mixed Use clearly describes small, walkable, neighborhood oriented retail that services homes within one mile. Community Mixed Use clearly describes destination shopping centers that people drive to such as the typical Harris Teeter, Kohls, and even Best Buy (think Capital Blvd near Spring Forest).

Despite these clear differences, the UDO provides no tools for implementing these visions and their associated policies. Both NX and CX allow structures of unlimited square footage. The Planning Department has arbitrarily drawn a line to allow anchor stores up to 50,000 square feet and centers up to 150,000 square feet in size in NX districts. But is this really implementing the vision of Neighborhood Mixed Use in the Comp Plan? We don’t think so.

The motivation for setting the 50K/150K line has more to do with expediency than implementing the vision of the Comp Plan. It turns out that a number of areas in the Future Land Use Map designated as Neighborhood Mixed Use have to be mapped to CX rather than NX. One reason is that those centers contain uses that are not permitted under NX but are permitted under CX. Bars, for example, are one such use.

NX could be changed to permit bars. But to place these existing centers into NX sets a precedent for allowing very large centers with very large anchors in NX. Thus, we defeat the purpose of NX – to implement Neighborhood Mixed Use – in multiple ways. First, we allow very large anchors and centers and, second, we permit uses that were not originally intended for neighborhoods.

The ideal solution that provides predictable growth and avoids these conflicting goals of size and uses is to establish a new zoning district and a new land use category. Grow Raleigh Great advocates a zoning district with a limit of 30K for anchors and 65K for centers. These limits, rather than being arbitrary, are well established in the literature as appropriate for neighborhood centers. We think that such centers are a good match for Neighborhood Mixed Use.

If we adopt a new zoning district with a 30/65 limit, then it will map nicely to Neighborhood Mixed Use. The existing NX district could then be modified to allow anchors greater than 30K and centers up to the 150K limit that the Planning Department has suggested. This change along with some additional uses (such as bars) will accommodate the larger Harris Teeter/Kohls/Best Buy centers that already exist. We suggest adding a land use category to the Comp Plan that will map to this revised NX district.

The CX district and Community Mixed Use land category will remain as is.

These three zoning districts and corresponding land use categories will provide the diversity necessary to accommodate a range of development projects. They will also give citizens – homeowners and business owners alike – much needed predictability in the zoning process. Without it we degrade into situations like yesterday where large groups of citizens must repeatedly come to the City with their attorneys. We need predictability and not repeated confrontation as Raleigh continues to grow beyond the available land.

Finally, this idea of a new zoning district with a limit of 30K/60K brings me to Mr. Crane’s comments that the Planning Department thinks that a new zoning district capped at 3K (not 30K as we advocate) to replace Buffered Commercial is not wise. We completely agree that a new zoning district to replace BC is not wise and have never advocated such a position. Let me be clear, we advocate for a new zoning district that limits anchors to 30K and not 3K.

On the other hand, the Planning Department has recommended mapping Buffered Commercial to NX. We argue that this is the wrong mapping. Buffered Commercial limits commercial development to 3000 square feet per floor per building and does not allow fuel sales or drive thrus. NX currently provides unlimited square footage and allows fuel sales and drive thrus. NX enormously expands the current entitlements for Buffered Commercial. WE ARGUE THAT MAPPING BC TO NX IS HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE AS IT GREATLY INCREASES THE ENTITLEMENTS WITH NO RELIEF TO SURROUNDING PROPERTY OWNERS.

A simple solution, however, is to map BC to OX. OX, like BC, does not permit fuel sales or drive thrus. OX also limits commercial to 4000 square feet per floor per structure. OX is a much better fit for BC than NX without a loss of entitlement. Indeed 4000 square feet for retail is a modest increase in entitlement. Therefore, we advocate mapping BC to OX and not NX.

We definitely look forward to future discussions about the mapping of BC to OX and a new zoning district. In the mean time I would like to ask a favor. When the agenda for the Planning Commission is published, could you indicate in the agenda if public comment will be allowed for the issues that are on the agenda? As you know, public comment on these issues was not taken yesterday. It would have been more convenient for many of us to have had a heads up so we could have watched the video of the meeting rather than attending in person.

Thank you very much.

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