Staff at the planning department and their very capable Code Studio and other consultants have been working on a total rewrite of Raleigh’s zoning ordinances for the better part of two years. The new zoning code — a Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO — would give life to the concepts embodied in Raleigh’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan, which City Council adopted in the fall of 2009. The UDO exists now in draft form online.

Only a very few have read even part of it.

Done well, a new UDO would describe — and show with specificity — the type and scale of development allowed in any given place in the city. Implicit in that idea is the goal of ending the constant battles between developers and neighborhoods over whether a project complies with the code … and the Comp Plan .. or not.

It could be the best thing that’s happened in city government in 25 years. Or the worst disappointment.

The current zoning code, to put it mildly, is so “open to interpretation” and riddled with exceptions, work-arounds and overlays that it’s more of a Rohrschach test of what’s permissable (“I see 93 units!” “But the comp plan says 14-28!”) than it is a useful planning tool.

Will the new UDO be better? How specific is it? How will it be applied to a given site — or is that open to interpretation too? A few weeks ago, I organized an informal meeting of about a dozen folks who were following the UDO process to see what they thought. Like me, they have their fingers crossed on this thing, but they were unanimous that they have more questions than answers at this point.

In that session, we named 19 issues that one or more of us encountered as we [attempted to] read the draft UDO. We went on to rank them, leading to a top 4 issues — and three more with multiple votes. The list of 4 & 3 is spelled out below.

Next Wednesday, Sept. 7, we’ll get a chance to discuss the most important issues with planning staff, including Christine Darges, who’s managing the UDO effort for Planning Director Mitch Silver. This will be an open public forum, organized as a meeting of the City Council’s UDO Advisory Task Force not as an official meeting of the task force, because the task force was time-limited and no longer exists, the planning department tells me, so consider it an ad hoc meeting that some task force members will attend — but the point is that anyone who comes can participate.

The meeting is at Pullen Art Center, which is in Pullen Park by the intersection of Hillsborough Street and Pullen Road. It starts at 6 pm and we should wrap up by 8.

If it’s productive, more such sessions will follow.


Below is a summary I wrote of the issues discussed — the 4 & 3 — at that first gathering:

After everyone voted on their top concerns, our list of 19 issues devolved to four main ones:

Issue No. 1: Context and transitions

There’s quite a bit of uncertainty about how the UDO categories will be interpreted by staff and/or City Council, especially with regard to the always critical matters of context and transitions. We’re not seeing in the code enough clear standards for assuring that neighboring developments are compatible in terms of form, height and so on. This issue collected 7 votes, and there were 3 more cast for the issue of protecting historic neighborhoods from incompatible infill.

Issue No. 2: No Mapping

This might be considered the prime reason why Issue No. 1 arises. Without a map showing the specific UDO zoning categories for specific properties, it’s easy to imagine how the various “RX’s” & “NXs” & CXs” could be compatible in a given place; but it’s also very easy to imagine that, misapplied, they will NOT be compatible in a given place. The no-map issue received 4 votes, but it was generally perceived a major thorn in our sides.

Issue No. 3: No Modeling or Case Studies/No 3-D Tools.

A variation on Issue No. 2. There was a strong sentiment expressed that the UDO should be accompanied by models showing the scale of buildings, existing and proposed, to give people visual evidence of whether a project is compatible with what’s around it — or not. If I understood correctly, some felt the model should show the scale of buildings that would be allowed by the new UDO as mapped. No modeling received 5 votes, and a separate issue of No 3-D tools received 3 votes.

Issue No. 4: Absence of Quality

This received 5 votes and reflects the view that the code consists of form, height and frontage standards but lacks standards for assuring that the new building next to yours will be a boon to your neighborhood and not a Vernon J. Vernon special.

Not covered in this category, but another concern about quality in relation to the mixed-used zoning categories: Why isn’t mixed-use required in a mixed-use zoning category? Otherwise, it was felt that the incentives for mixed-use (greater density) could easily be abused.

Other issues receiving multiple votes included:

* Accessory dwellings.

* Building heights (definitions are too expansive — e.g., 3-7 stories max. in OX category, 3-12 stories max. in NX, Neighborhood Mixed-Use, category).

* TOD requirements (It was felt that, in areas of such intensive public investment, some “must-do” elements should be required — not simply allowed — by developers). [TOD is short for transit-oriented development, i.e., what’s the proper zoning for land near a rail- or bus-transit station?]

Thus ended our first meeting.