23 Aug Downtown-Adjacent Residential

A companion problem to the issue of many downtowns being illegal is that many of the small residential lots surrounding the downtown are also illegal.  Homes on these lots were often constructed prior to World War II, when walkability was a much higher priority, and bigger homes were not always considered better.  Instead of maintaining a zoning district that acknowledged the on-the-ground conditions of these older residential areas, most cities and villages changed their single-family residential district to require bigger lots, wider lots, and more substantial setbacks. The single-family district was then indiscriminately used to encompass all single family neighborhoods, new and old. Where the pre-WW-II standard lot size was 1/5th an acre or less, the new suburban standard became a quarter-acre or more; lot width was typically 60 or 65 feet, but the suburban ideal was set at 80 or 90 feet; setbacks may have been 15 feet, whereas the new standard became 25 feet or more.  In applying all these mandates to existing residential lots, cities and villages made wide swaths of development nonconforming.  Other than the desire to implement the “modern” standards of low-density development, there was little reason to attempt to force existing development to comply – smaller lots can be accommodated without things like overcrowding or fire danger becoming an issue.  There are, however, detriments to making  so many lots nonconforming, the biggest two being that it discourages investment in the properties and sends the signal that the City would rather have people live elsewhere.  Investment is limited because structures become nonconforming under the zoning code, which can make it more difficult to secure financing and undertake what otherwise would have been a simple addition to accommodate changing needs of residents.  Acknowledging that these “inner-city” lots will never (and should never) be bulldozed in order to retrofit the area to the suburban “ideal” is the first step in revitalizing areas close to the downtown. The second step is adopting a zoning district that closely matches the historical pattern of development.  Formulating the district should be relatively easy – all a community needs do is look at existing maps, measure some setbacks, and perhaps review a copy of the previous ordinance (if one is available).  This smaller lot residential district should also be available for new development – not just development platted before a certain date.  However, with the general preference for attached garages in new homes, communities must make sure that new development on smaller lots does not become dominated by garage doors. Having a small lot residential district can also make infill development of single-family housing easier without having to resort to Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, which triggers more submittal work by a developer and more review work by a City.  With an increased interest in walkability, easy access to shops and restaurants, and an average new home size that is actually starting to trend downwards (see chart below), cities and villages should be making it easier to develop on infill lots in a manner that fits in with the surrounding context, rather than requiring infill to meet suburban lot dimension and size requirements.   Vacant lots that are already served by streets and utilities should be a priority area for residential infill, as it requires less municipal infrastructure investment and offers the added benefit of providing more customers who can easily walk to downtown businesses.  

(Source: US Census)

Cities and villages can also implement programs to encourage homeowners to invest in their properties.  Depending on what county a municipality is located in, Community Development Block Grant funding may be available to assist certain homeowners in updating their homes.  Tax increment districts can be amended to fund housing stock improvement in and around the TID.  If a TID is closing, cities and village have the power to extend the district a year and use the additional funds throughout the community to improve affordable housing stock.  The City of Monona has taken advantage of §66.1105(6)(g) to create “Renew Monona,” a housing stock improvement program.

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