City Model, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from psd’s photostream

Back when Pittsburgh’s zoning code was first rewritten, it was ahead of its time. The zoning code contained some forward-thinking development standards that advocated for environmental sustainability and the protection of our natural topography. It recognized the changing economic landscape of the city and moved us away from industrial development and instead towards education, medicine and neighborhood business districts. However, it has been nearly 20 years since our code was rewritten and much has changed in the field of city planning, the economy of our city, and development patterns and techniques nationwide. Therefore, we need to reassess our zoning code and find ways it can be streamlined, made easier to understand and comply with, and ensure it is compatible with our 21st century city. Rewriting a zoning code is no small task. It will require a great deal of community input, technical expertise, feedback from developers, and cooperation from all political stakeholders. But it is a task well worth taking on and one that I think can have a highly positive impact on the future development of our neighborhoods.

1. A Zoning Code That Respects Our Past and Informs Our Future

Last May, my Council office applied for and won a technical assistance grant from Smart Growth America, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The grant provided funding for consultants and Smart Growth America staff to travel to Pittsburgh and work with community stakeholders, architects, developers and Council and City Planning staffers to examine our zoning code and offer suggestions on how to modernize and approve it. The consultants and Smart Growth America staff recommending we both create more and strengthen existing incentives for sustainable development, enhance historic preservation opportunities, simplify zoning codes, provide renewable energy options, and increase density and walkability while prioritizing transit access. While we could simply incorporate these ideas into our existing code, adding additional complexity to an already highly complex code may not be the best way to advance these goals. Instead, it makes more sense to start fresh and create a new code that includes these priorities.

As mayor I would like to initiate a complete revision of our zoning and development code to make it easier to develop and cut down on needless complexity. I will bring on a broad and diverse group of community stakeholders and highly skilled consultants to work with a newly reinvigorated City Planning Department. Together we will create a model code that will carry our city into the future. Buffalo, New York recently completed a similar process and there is much we can learn from both their successes and the challenges they faced. What especially stands is their inclusion of city residents and neighborhood stakeholders as ongoing partners throughout the process. The roadmap they have created is flexible and understandable, but still maintains important protections for neighborhoods.

The most common thing I hear from both developers and neighborhood stakeholders is that our current code is too complex, forcing developers to seek multiple variances and zoning exceptions. This is a sign of a code that no longer reflects the current conditions and development patterns in our city. Additionally, it shows our city is not facilitating good development at the level it could. I think we have a great opportunity to reexamine our outdated zoning and development codes with fresh eyes and create a vision and a blueprint for a 21st century Pittsburgh.