“Where existing areas remain underdeveloped in these regions of the City, the City should consider significantly restricting future development. Generally, significantly physically constrained lands would best be limited to use for agriculture, open space, recreation, and rural-density residential.”
— Kingston 2025 Comprehensive Plan
The City of Kingston last adopted a comprehensive regulatory framework some six decades ago, back when pay phones were as numerous on the sidewalks as fire hydrants. But it was only in 2016 that the city attempted to grapple with the regulatory mish-mash exposed by the passage of the decades.
Beginning Thursday, November 4 and over the course of seven days the city government will solicit opinions from its citizens regarding changes to their zoning code.
Intended to order the competing energies of a city into harmonious balance, a zoning code decides through various designations what types of buildings are permitted in which neighborhoods, and for what purpose. The seven days in November, known colloquially as a Charette Week, represents the final period when submitted ideas will be considered by the city.
A traditional use-based code keep a 7-Eleven gas station from being built inside an old, stone church or a five story condominium from springing up out of a wooded, stream-fed field. But like a wheelbarrow after much service transporting heavy objects, the language of the old rules can start to wobble and creak. To modernize the code in the name of progress, Kingston has adopted a new kind of planning initiative called Kingston Forward.
The virtual event on November 4. will kick off the public’s participation. The following, day, November 5, an in-person event has been scheduled by the city, at a location thus far undisclosed.
Thoughts regarding “economic development, historic preservation, increased housing options, neighborhood resiliency, public space design and much more” are specifically encouraged.
Kevin Corté is now director of housing initiatives for the city, “There’s no doubt that Kingston is being challenged by a housing shortage,” said Corté, who was appointed in March of this year. “Rents are rising and the threat of displacement is very real.”
The process of change
The French word “charette” refers to a wooden cart wheeled around at the last possible minute to collect the contributions of a diverse group of collaborators.
It was only last week that Kingston Forward got an official page posted on the Engage Kingston website touting the initiative and encouraging the participation of civic-minded Kingstonites (as opposed to degenerate Kingstonians). A 16-question survey at the bottom of the page attempts to take the temperature of citizen preferences across a variety of subjects ranging from quality-of-life issues to opinions regarding mixed-use housing.
Back in April, Kingston’s Common Council voted to approve the expenditure us $500,000 with which to hire the services of Dover Kohl & Partners, from Coral Gables, Florida to assist the city through the zoning review. The planning firm responded to an official Request for Proposals (RFP), which is the standard approach for seeking consultants for a project.
If one wishes to speak directly with the consultants themselves, one must present oneself as a member of a community group known formally in the process as a stakeholder. Like any synecdoche, the individual title refers to the whole and cannot exist without it. Dover Kohl will be available to meet with stakeholders during the Charette Week via slots that can be reserved by contacting Kevin Corté at the city hall.
The new code evolves
Daniel Shuster was a progressive young planner when he became the primary consultant of the 1961 comprehensive zoning effort, just one of many across the country at the time, bankrolled by the federal government under the rubric of urban renewal. What was progress then was regarded quite differently a few years later. It would take a book to explore that ugly, misguided chapter in American city planning; luckily, several have already been written.
Semi-retired now, Schuster has been consulting for decades in several municipalities. After much back and forth, the contract for Shuster-Turner Associates’ work in Kingston eventually expired. Shuster supported formation of a zoning task force whose members were appointed by Mayor Steve Noble.
It was decided that the old use-based zoning code was to be replaced by a form-based code.
The use-based code, also known as Euclidean zoning, has been the most common form of zoning in the United States. The name refers to a 1926 Supreme Court decision for the village of Euclid, Ohio and not the Greek mathematician. An advisory-style code, it emphasizes a separation of uses for various neighborhoods in a city, so that housing is relegated to one neighborhood while shops and restaurants are relegated to another.
According to many experts, use-based zoning exacerbated segregation issues, limited housing supply and encouraged urban sprawl. There is now general consensus against that style of zoning.
A form-based code by comparison attempts to take into account the scale and character of buildings and how they interact with the public spaces rather than on land-use categories. The Kingston 2025 plan emphasized such things as aesthetics, walkability over wide roads, narrow sidewalks and sprawl.
“The areas surrounding these cores [Uptown, Midtown and Rondout] should contain stable neighborhoods of quality housing, mostly in one- and two-family residences,” says the non-Euclidean Kingston 2925 draft. “The densities of existing neighborhoods should be maintained and the proliferation of illegal conversions should be reversed.”
The market changes
Before it could be implemented, the first pandemic virus of the century manifested itself and upended the checkerboard. The rented life suddenly fell from favor as inhabitants of every major American metropolis rushed to escape their city limits. Land ownership, as far from the crowded streets of urban centers as possible became the new pattern. New York City émigrés with any money to speak of crashed like a tall wave over the Hudson Valley.
Homes available for sale were snapped up in short order. The value of remaining homes increased dramatically overnight. With housing in such demand and supply reduced, even rental properties became scarce.
Almost two years out, the situation remains. Kingston’s zoning question, now more urgent than ever, is being taken up once again.
With the help of Dover Kohl and Partners, the city is listening. On the Kingston Forward website, both Kevin Corté and Amy Groves, a consultant from Dover Kohl and Associates, have provided their contact information.
Amidst the cross-chatter of submitted surveys and the voices of stakeholders and individuals who contacted them directly over email, what the planners have most taken to heart will hopefully be revealed at the end of the Charette Week on November 10. n Kingston Forward is set to present a summary of the ideas which will shape the new comprehensive zoning framework and solicit further feedback to make sure they’re on the right track.
It is important for good citizens dissatisfied with the face of their own city to suggest their improvements. A city zoning framework can be a beautiful thing, if you will it so.