Fixing Kingston’s zoning code woes focus of $500,000 project

A major barrier to quality of life in Kingston is its antiquated zoning code, which dates from 1961. The code separates residential from commercial uses, segregates people racially and economically, and promotes cars, the underpinnings of the urban renewal policies that destroyed much of downtown. An attempt to amend the code as part of the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan (by the same firm that authored the urban-renewal-era code) failed, but now the city is finally turning the page. It has hired Dover, Kohl & Partners to create a new form-based code that promises to be transformative. A form-based code rejects the conventional code’s reliance on uses and metrics of square footage to instead focus on the physical appearance of buildings. It considers the design of existing buildings and how they relate to the street, site and each other in crafting a pattern of land-use that preserves existing assets and promotes a diversity of structures and streetscapes to formulate a richer, more cohesive urban ecosystem.

On Thursday night, November 4, Dover, Kohl, which has won numerous awards and done dozens of projects all other the U.S. (as well as in a few foreign countries), began a week of charrettes for what’s being called Kingston Forward. It consisted of two kick-off events, four neighborhood walking tours, a series of hour-long stakeholder meetings (addressing the environment, arts, transportation, housing, preservation, business and economic development, and institutions and non-profits), and several drop-in open studios, in which the public was invited to peruse the various maps on display and look over the shoulder of staff making drawings and visualizations of the future city based on the public input. The week will end with a presentation by Dover, Kohl of the work in progress at City Hall on Wednesday, November 10, at 6 p.m. (the event can also be accessed online).

The origins of Kingston Forward go back to February 2019, when Mayor Steve Noble appointed a zoning task force to address the failing code. After nearly a year of research and inquiry, the task force issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) and got four responses from planning consultancies. Dover, Kohl was chosen as the most qualified, but funding stalled during the pandemic and it wasn’t until April, 2021, that the Common Council voted to hire the firm, for a cost of nearly $500,000. After so many ineffective band-aid approaches, it was decided that jettisoning the old zoning and starting new was the best way to create a code that aligns with the city’s comprehensive plan.

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The kick-off event on Thursday night, which was virtual and followed by an in-person session at City Hall the following evening — Friday’s event was attended by 40 or so people — featured a presentation and a sharing of the results of an online survey (Should Kingston grow? 55 percent of respondents said yes, 10 percent said no, and 35 percent were unsure) before small-group breakout sessions of the attendees, with each instructed to come up with three big ideas.

“Zoning is the genetic code of how to grow the town,” said Dover, Kohl founding principal Victor Dover in his presentation. “If you have the right DNA, you’ll get more of what you want.” A form-based code “creates rules organized according to a place,” unlike conventional zoning which leads to unpredictable results. Requiring a certain square footage, for example, could result in a tower in the park or a one-story building covering an entire lot. Dover said Kingston’s “excellent architecture showed a deep commitment to design and neighborly ways of designing them that was the pride of Kingston before streets were paved. It’s like a textbook of beautiful living spaces and how the whole is greater than the sum of little parts.”

With a form-based code, “the uses are regulated but there’s more flexibility built into the code,” he said. Seven hundred cities have adopted form-based codes in the past several years. Dover cited a study that’s shown cities with form-based codes bring in more revenue even as they reduce displacement and are better at addressing housing shortages and preventing zoning rules that deepen the racial divide.

Amy Groves, a principal and vice president of Dover, Kohl, described how the new code will address local conservation efforts, urban agriculture, climate change, the density, height, and setback of buildings, and permitted lot coverage. She said the general lack of small-scale development in America, coined “the missing middle,” is partially attributed to the onerous parking requirements of many codes. Many cities have done away with such requirements entirely.

Indeed, minimum parking requirements have been a huge deterrent to small businesses in Kingston. “Right now someone is trying to open a restaurant and retail space on Broadway that’s required to have one parking space for every 100 square feet,” said Kevin Corte, Kingston’s Director of Housing Initiatives and one of two point people at City Hall working with the consultants. “That means with a 1,000- square-foot restaurant, you’d need the same space for parking…If you think your business will be successful without parking, you should be able to proceed.”

The current code makes it difficult for anyone but large developers to build, added Anthony Tampone, an activist and member of the Zoning Task Force. “If a small developer wants to put a three-family house on an infill lot, they have to navigate a complicated code and need variances. It’s much easier to get a variance to take down a bunch of buildings and build something cheaply that’s large and doesn’t look like it belongs in the space.” Corte noted that the most appealing sections of the city, the historic waterfront and intimate grid of streets in the Stockade District, would be impossible to build under today’s code.

Another big problem is the conflicting zoning requirements of the city’s numerous overlay districts, which leads to much confusion, according to Rennie Scott-Childress, alderman of Ward 3. Indeed, some of the code stipulations “are questionable in terms of their legality,” said activist Tanya Garment. That creates a disadvantage for small businesses, since “only the big guys can afford to hire lawyers.” (Dover, Kohl is partnering with several other firms to ensure the new code complies with all legal, environmental review, and other technicalities. They are Laberge Group, Land Use Law Center, Hall Planning & Engineering and Gridics, which will integrate the code with maps and other visualization tools.)

The consultants have been getting an earful on such issues as unsafe streets; neighborhoods disconnected from green space; the loss of mature trees and historic bluestone sidewalks; lack of small businesses in residential neighborhoods; too many large parking lots; and what is perceived as the city’s failure to engage and communicate with its citizens. The lion’s share of the public outreach has been done by two volunteer residents, Tampone and Garment, who with several others, including Scott-Childress, launched an informative website, ImagineKingston.com, that describes form-based code, provides background on Kingston Forward and lists resources. Imagine Kingston has been emailing people who sign up on the site daily updates of the week’s events. Tampone and Garment also printed and distributed 2000 flyers.

The big ideas that emerged from the break-out groups addressed many of these issues and also included the following: creating more density though development of parking lots and other empty spaces; possible building of housing for mixed use at Kingston Plaza; allowing for nonconventional housing types, such as co-housing and eco-villages; better design of new construction, and more public transit options. Legislation is currently pending that would make it easier to establish an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on one’s property and expand the allowable square footage to 600 feet; ADUs, while somewhat controversial, could also be addressed in the new code. Creating more safe passages at the railroad crossings, improving way-finding signage and “stitching the Rondout back together” were other suggestions.

After a series of drafts and more public input, Dover, Kohl expects to have a final draft by next August. The code will be accompanied by maps and other visuals to make it more accessible to the public. The Common Council would then vote the new code into law. “It’s in the hands of the Common Council, which is why we reached out to every person running” in the recent election, Tampone said — with disappointing results, which he attributed in part to peoples’ focus on the election. The Imagine Kingston group “will continue to put pressure on the Common Council and people to make sure the Council adopts the code.”

At the Open Studio held at the Rondout Neighborhood Center on Sunday afternoon, this reporter asked Victor Dover, who is a founder of the Form-Based Codes Institute and co-author, with John Massengale, of Street Design: the Secret to Great Cities and Towns, what his impressions of Kingston were so far. “You have a lot more intact fabric than you think,” he said, noting that the city has areas developed between 1870 and 1920, which “are tightly wound together in all its parts. Urban renewal will say a complex lot pattern is an indicator of slums, but I’m seeing an amazing image of prosperity. Ironing out the complexity is the reverse of what we should do.”

Noting that he still had a lot of audiences to hear from, Dover said that so far “I hear tremendous consensus. It’s yes to historic preservation, yes to fine-grained [a combination of small, medium size and large buildings], yes to everything doesn’t have to be the same, and yes to diversity, not just of population but architecture.” His prescription for success? “If you can work together, you can do anything.”

Visit Engagekingston.org and imaginekingston.com to learn more about Kingston Forward.

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