This article by Samuel Staley of Planetizen discusses they problems being faced by Cleveland and how they could be addressed. He criticizes “end-state zoning,” saying that it is inflexible, doesn’t allow for fine-grained development (one of the major issues Jane Jacobs had with development in New York City at her time), and wastes time and money. Zoning is prescriptive, a “thou shalt” law that doesn’t allow for innovation. Most cities have many more zones than they need. The German federal zoning code has only eleven mixed use zones, and the transect six, while the average city in Ohio has seventeen. This makes codes unnecessarily long and hard to understand. Staley also mentions that zoning assumes growth, not decline, which is the sad reality of much of the Rust Belt. Part of zoning’s weakness is the general weakness of our human ability for long-term forecasting. It is near impossible for planning commissioners, often not educated in planning, to make long-range decisions about the future of urban development. This protects the status quo and inhibits innovation and adaptation. The costs of zone changes and other approvals, not to mention the time that they take, can make any sort of adaptive, unconventional development economically unfeasible.
Staley advocates adopting regulations similar to that of Houston. Now, as many people who have been there know, Houston is not a great world city. A good aerial view of downtown will show entire city blocks dedicated to surface parking. So keep in mind, Houston has its fair share of weaknesses. One of these is relative youthfulness, and one would hope that Cleveland or cities like it, with a longer tradition of urbanism and better examples of good development, would have an advantage in this regard. That being said, Houston’s performance-based regulations and focus on speedy, administrative approval allows for faster and more innovative development, reflecting what the market demands and not what the zoning allows. To switch immediately to these sort of regulations would leave local developers scratching their heads for a long time and could halt all development for a while, so it may be best to implement these slowly over time, or to implement form-based zoning so that building use can be flexible as long as it fits into a neighborhood. But allowing more market flexibility than is currently allowed in conventional zoning is a great idea for many American cities.