As the city continues to work on proposed changes to its zoning laws, local developers have concerns the proposals will impede progress and make the city less business friendly.
With months to go before a document is ready to present to the Planning Commission, attorney Casey Pipes recently met with a group of concerned developers over the proposed changes and how they could impact the future of their businesses.
The code could change a lot based on what the city’s rough draft includes. For instance, the draft does away with traditional commercial designations in favor of more flexibility. This means commercial businesses could be included in neighborhood center traditional (NCT), neighborhood center suburban (NCS), corridor mixed (CM), corridor traditional (CT), downtown (D) and other designations.
While this could mean a change in designation for landlords and business owners who have traditionally had commercial zoning, Pipes said those buildings would be grandfathered in. Other factors could benefit a business as well.
“If the original project was built as a planned unit development (PUD)—and as y’all know, just about everything was built as a PUD over the last few years—your PUD survives this zoning change,” Pipes said. “You don’t lose your PUD.”
Pipes said developments approved through the PUD process will be able to make improvements to a site without triggering the rezoning process, in most cases. However, for developments without a PUD, it’s more complicated.
For buildings with a legal non-conforming use, Pipes said it’s unclear whether or not an owner could make improvements without triggering a lengthy approval process. Because of that, Pipes told the developers, he asked the city to allow for a “safe harbor.”
“If you’ve got a legal non-conforming [use], you can re-roof your building,” he said. “You can change out the HVAC system; you can paint it.”
“You can re-stripe the parking lot,” he added. “You can do an interior buildout, blow out an interior wall and move it. Get that permit and move on, because none of those things are all that clear here.”
Shayla Beaco, executive director of Build Mobile, told councilors in a recent briefing on the Map for Mobile process that the new code was meant to protect neighborhood character, while also allowing for more mixed-use development and an improved pedestrian experience.
While the public comment period ended Monday, April 8, Beaco told councilors the “unprecedented” level of public involvement would continue, as a third draft would be released before the code ultimately goes to the Planning Commission and council for final approval. The draft release would include another 30-day comment period, Beaco said. A fourth draft would follow in July. The Planning Commission will then have at least one public hearing on the proposal, Beaco said. When it’s approved at that level, it would go to the council, she said.
Another issue with the draft code, Pipes said, has to do with uses. Current uses will be grandfathered in, but if a tenant leaves and a building stays vacant for two years, the next use has to comply with the city’s proposed table of uses for the district, he said.
“You’ve got a two-year window to retain a building,” he said. “You can put it back to the use that you had. So, if a coffee shop wasn’t allowed and you had a coffee shop there, you could put it back in.”
Where a landlord might have issues with the use requirements in the new code would be with more specialized centers, like financial institutions.
“I think the landlord there is going to be struggling to get anybody in there who somehow complies with financial institution. It might force you to put in a substandard…it’s not going to be a Regions Bank, but it’s going to be something just to get a financial institution in there to hold your place,” he said.
On a positive note, Pipes said, the proposal typically allows more uses per district than is currently the case.
“They’ve gotten rid of a lot of definitions; they’ve made it a more generalized thing,” he said. “Like ‘coffee shop’ is a use under the current code, but it’s just ‘retail general’ under the new code, [which would include] 50,000 other kinds of stores.”
Developers who met with Pipes also had concerns over the increased involvement of the Mobile City Council and the Planning Commission. Specifically the bodies would have more input on planning than they do currently, Pipes said.
“Their roles are greatly expanded, which is not really the objective of a form-based code—to have so much involvement at the legislative level that you start to design projects at the last stage,” he said. “Generally a form-based code is designed to give you the bigger table of uses, higher design standards but more predictability, more flexibility, more speed in getting things approved. Less site-specific approval, less inconsistency.”
Pipes has also suggested the city make accommodations to business or property owners who may not realize a property is going to be rezoned. One idea is an abbreviated rezoning period.
“Don’t charge the $150 filing fee, don’t make them have a neighborhood meeting, don’t make them come up with all these design plans that are going to cost 10 grand to generate,” he said. “At least have the decency to let them apply for free.”
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