Editorial: A Case for Neighborhood Business Zoning in Carbondale

The Carbondale City Council made a good decision last week when it did not make proposed revisions t
Chris Wissmann

 

The Carbondale City Council made a good decision last week when it did not make proposed revisions to the Neighborhood Business zoning district.

The city just made major revisions to it, along with the rest of the zoning code, about eighteen months ago (when, full disclosure, this writer served on the council). The changes, as proposed last week, would have saddled the Neighborhood Business zone with unnecessary restrictions and thus made it even less viable.

Currently, no properties in the city are zoned Neighborhood Business. The reason nobody has applied for a rezoning to Neighborhood Business, however, has nothing to do with an unworkable current code— it has to do with the political atmosphere in which the code exists.

Carbondale in 1974 adopted a suburban-style zoning code that strictly segregated business uses from residential areas, probably to ensure quieter neighborhoods; at the time, SIU was coming off its reputation as a riotous hotbed of political radicalism and starting to earn its status as a wild party school. The permanent community wanted some separation from what they perceived as SIU’s vulgar, hedonistic students and the places where they gathered— an asinine, unwelcoming attitude that helped lead to the university’s shocking enrollment declines.

Suburban-style zoning had unintended consequences, however. Areas where businesses could legally operate began to concentrate in the center and edges of town— far enough away from residential areas that getting a gallon of milk or loaf of bread required a car trip.

It’s not a family friendly arrangement, either. How many parents of children younger than fifteen would never let their kids ride bikes out to the Hot Wheels Skatium, the Superblock and its coming splash park, Cool Spoons, or even Dairy Queen for fear of them getting hit by cars?

And areas zoned for business began to get bought up, often by out-of-town corporations with no connections to Carbondale— they might not even know they own them, or they’d rather take tax writeoffs than adjust their asking prices to local market realities.

Here is one of the challenges I frequently offered to Carbondale citizens when I was on the city council: Think about a deficiency in Carbondale, then look into starting a business to fill that void.

Let’s say it’s a coffeehouse. Look for available, appropriate commercial real estate, price it out, and try to figure out how much coffee you’d need to sell in order to afford the lease. Chances are that number is completely unrealistic— and you haven’t even factored in other business costs, like gas and electricity, phone, water, payroll, taxes, insurance, equipment, and cleaning supplies. And the last twenty years of SIU enrollment declines don’t point toward a better economic atmosphere in Carbondale.

So available commercial properties sit empty for years at a time, blighting the landscape, while the businesses that occasionally fill them rarely last, even when they offer quality products or services. It’s not that the city’s citizens lack entrepreneurial spirit— it’s that owners of too many available business locations are often completely out of touch with the reality of what the Carbondale market can support, and local entrepreneurs who run the numbers are smart enough to flee from certain financial ruin rather than take bad risks.

But properly crafted Neighborhood Business designations can play a role in reversing all of this through blending residential and commercial uses— what is often called the new urbanism. Neighborhood Businesses can help transform subdivisions into actual, self-contained neighborhoods. They can help make the city more walkable and its citizens less-reliant on motor vehicles, and more attractive to a large student population that doesn’t have cars. They can give opportunities to young and boutique businesspeople to cut their teeth in lower-risk atmospheres while serving needs in the neighborhoods where they reside.

But Neighborhood Business districts will require change, and that scares people who have lived under the present system for decades. Citizens have long heard horror stories from supposedly expert realtors about how the integration of businesses into neighborhoods will cause residential property values to collapse. Inappropriate businesses can do this, yes— a nightclub with live nude dancing and a 4 a.m. liquor license (which, by the way, isn’t legal in Carbondale) might well hurt adjacent property values. And even good, conscientiously run businesses aren’t appropriate for all areas of the city.

To protect residential property values, however, zoning changes currently require Planning Commission hearings and council approval, and the council can take plenty of opportunities to ensure the compatibility of any Neighborhood Business districts through special-use restrictions on the types of allowable operations, parking, size and hours of operation, and more. The outcry that comes from the most benign rezoning requests tends to ensure great care on the part of the council, and the controversial nature of the Neighborhood Business designation will serve to make elected representatives even more cautious.

Generally, however, many studies enumerated by the National League of Cities— columnist Neal Peirce is an especially strong, eloquent advocate— describe the overwhelming benefits of the new urbanism. In addition, Christopher B. Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo authored an instructive Brookings Institution study. In the New York Times, Leinberger wrote, “There is a five-step ‘ladder’ of walkability, from least to most walkable. On average, each step up the walkability ladder adds $9 per square foot to annual office rents, $7 per square foot to retail rents, more than $300 per month to apartment rents and nearly $82 per square foot to home values. As a neighborhood moves up each step of the five-step walkability ladder, the average household income of those who live there increases some $10,000.”

This city’s paranoia, however, has killed wonderful opportunities for Carbondale. When the old Jim and Ruth’s grocery on Hickory Street was for sale some years back, for example, a local businessperson told me he wanted to buy it and turn the building into a high-end Italian restaurant. As examples, he cited eateries in the Hill district of Saint Louis. He had more than enough money and energy to do the job and do it right. He also knew the city council would never approve the necessary zoning changes, so he didn’t bother. Instead of a thriving business, the building sat vacant for years, degrading adjacent property values.

Carbondale’s citizens and leaders appear to be waking up to this danger, though still myopically. Last week’s proposed revisions to the Neighborhood Business zone, for example, didn’t take in the big picture. If approved, the Neighborhood Business zone would have applied to only select buildings in a few areas in the city— mainly the old central high-school campus on High Street and the old National Guard Armory and Coke building on the corner of Springer and Sycamore, for example. (Home Rentals owns the latter property, a situation that makes the entire Neighborhood Business zone more controversial than it might otherwise be. In fact, some councilpeople seem to prefer entirely removing the Neighborhood Business designation from the zoning code than creating a situation where a single Home Rentals property would be eligible for rezoning to Neighborhood Business.)

The previous 1974 zoning code seemed to posit that as those properties exceeded their useful lives, developers would demolish them and replace them with single-family dwellings. That will never happen. The Armory in particular was built to withstand military firepower— knocking it down would prove difficult and inordinately expensive. Developers are not in the business of losing money, and they will not recover their demolition costs through redevelopment of those properties into houses.

Those neighborhoods, then, are coming to terms with reality. The status quo will end, and those neighborhoods need to decide what kind of change they can accept. They can either live amid businesses or deteriorating eyesores. The former, even when thriving, might hurt adjacent property values, but the latter most definitely will.

City ordinance shouldn’t preclude all open-minded neighborhoods from experimenting with desired mixed uses. So thoroughly restricting the Neighborhood Business zone, as would last week’s proposed changes, does just that— it would have concentrated rather than opened up ownership of potential commercial real estate, destroyed economic opportunity, and fostered isolation rather than giving all of the city’s neighborhoods chances to unify around common commercial centers. Hopefully the next round of revisions brought to the council by city staff will promote rather than crush the many advantages of appropriate mixed uses. Then the council will have an ordinance worthy of approval, and the public should support its passage.