How Northern Liberties is curbing garage-fronted rowhouse development

Last month Ashley Hahn wrote an EOTS column about why the Zoning Board of Adjustment should stop approving variances for garage-fronted rowhouses. In response Northern Liberties Neighbors Association‘s Zoning Chair, Larry Freedman, wrote in to say that Northern Liberties doesn’t quite have the same problems that other neighborhoods have when it comes to garages. Larry was kind enough to elaborate on how Northern Liberties is finding increasing success when it comes to convincing developers to ditch the front-loading garages in residential zones where they don’t belong. Here’s his take:

Several years ago, when Northern Liberties Neighbors Association first started reviewing proposals during the early stages of our Zoning Committee, it was required by the City to include off-street parking for new residential construction. That meant that in the middle of a residential block, if you built from scratch, you’d have to include a garage as part of your first-floor design if there was no rear access.

It didn’t take long for our group to realize that there was something terribly wrong with this concept. As we poked around some other developing neighborhoods we saw a theme of curb cuts and lack of street side activity as a result. This appeared to be just the opposite of what a City block should look and feel like and so we jumped into action.

We approached our Councilman to create an ordinance that flipped the requirement. A new zoning overlay required a review for four or less homes and a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) for garages.

We have, like most neighborhood groups, developed a philosophy and certain guidelines in order to assess the pros and cons of these proposals during review:

  1. If there was parking on the side of the street where the garage was being proposed, one strike.
  2. If the garage and the first floor front of the house prevented “eyes to the street”- meaning no windows or inhabitable rooms on the first floor frontage – another strike.
  3. If, by having less structures or an alternative site plan there was an opportunity to have one curb cut to access rear parking, another strike.
  4. If the neighbors were against it, final strike.

On the other hand, if there were no parking opportunities on the street (many of our narrow streets fall into this category) then we often supported garage front parking.

Maintaining street activity, stoops, and preventing cars from blocking sidewalks just creates a better City environment and flow that makes good sense.

There are many cases of neighborhoods losing that battle at the ZBA when opposing garages on the fronts of houses. But we’ve had some success here. I’m not sure why but I can describe our approach.

We try to resolve as many issues as we can at the neighborhood level. We have had as many, if not more applications over the years as any neighborhood. I think that has given us some leverage. Many of the builders and developers make return visits for different projects so they need to learn the ropes. Since we’re pretty reasonable we usually work things out. Our “clients” know we do not approve of garage fronts that don’t meet the criteria stated above.

I believe they have bought into the understanding that what makes a neighborhood desirable, and what has made our neighborhood successful, is maintaining neighborly street activities that are unique. We have seen projects come in with garage fronts on streets where they don’t belong and have asked that they be removed – and developers have listened.

Developers need to sell what they build. We often have an informal pre-meeting where we’ll offer a guesstimate as to what the issues may be. If we talk about the garages as a potential problem we usually discuss the viability of the potential for a sale even without the parking. We’ll point to spots on the street, proximity to public transportation, maintaining walkability and streetscape. Plus they know we have a pretty good track record at ZBA and, in the end, they look around and see that the houses without parking did sell. So, in most cases, we nip the problem in the bud. But it does take a sincere and informed discussion.

In our experience it’s proven important to apply these guidelines and try to be consistent, which is not easy because every application and every block have different characteristics. But it’s critical that your mantra remains eyes on the street, don’t remove a spot for the general public with a garage, maintain activity, and “long live the stoop”.

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