Thursday, August 8, 2013

What Good Is Zoning When...

First of all: Don't forget the Zoning Workshop tonight at Hancock Fire Co. (Airy between Haws and Stanbridge), 6-8 pm.

They've changed the proposed zoning map. R1 (light yellow) stays the same, that is, single-family homes on large lots. R2 (bright yellow) now encompasses the old R2 and R3--pretty much every other kind of housing except apartment houses: single-homes, twins, duplexes, rowhomes, regardless of whether the occupants own or rent.

If they really do block-by-block zoning, and don't allow anything to be built that doesn't exist on a block already, even, as they assured us, on each particular lot (that is, you wouldn't be able to build rowhouses where there were twins), these changes would be all we'd need. Though, if I lived in one of those single homes across from Rittenhouse, or over on Stanbridge or Buttonwood or Markley below Roberts, I'd have to wonder why the homes on Coolidge Blvd. get R1 protection and my block doesn't. Especially since one of those R1 blocks includes, at Markley and Freedley, 3 rowhomes, plus another apartment and a luncheonette attached to the corner house.

But today, before heading into the workshop, let's look at new construction around town. Remember those quotes from the Comprehensive Plan on my blog yesterday?  How new construction should blend in with neighboring buildings?

There's a fairly new house at Airy and Hamilton. No way could you say it blends in with the neighborhood.
The style is pure suburbia. The light yellow siding makes it stick out like a jaundiced thumb. Still, the worst feature of this house is how close it's set to its neighbor. The side yard is half the width of side yards on the rest of the block. The new house completely blocks off the southwest wall (sunniest and breeziest exposure) of the next house on Hamiton (I wouldn't think this would make the neighbor feel very neighborly). The placement of this house, and the look of it, went against the zoning, so why was it allowed?

The photo at the right are new houses on Dekalb and Elm Sts.  They blend in very well to the existing houses and I applaud that--all new houses in Norristown could take a lesson from the architectural style used here. They're also "green" construction, which is excellent. And by being low-cost, they encourage homeownership, which we need more of in town. 

The problem with these homes is, there's 12 of them, crammed into 2 lots that originally held 4 houses. They're called "stacked" townhomes, which to me sounds like a fancy name for duplex or condo. There's nowhere near enough parking for that many residents. Our zoning people say they're against packing more houses into existing spaces, yet that's just what they allowed here.

The developer, Sarah Peck of Progressive Housing Ventures, just received a variance for a similar project further up Dekalb at Basin St. The plan there is for 24 housing units on just 2/3 acre. If you live in a typical Norristown twin, try imagining 4 or 5 houses, with at least one car apiece, on your lot, and you get the ratio..

As you can see from the photo, on the block where this new development is planned, there's one set of historic twin houses. So much for block-by-block zoning.

Yes, this development means more affordable homeownership, and I assume we'll see green construction and matching achitecture like the others (we had better), but doesn't it become a quality of life issue when you pack residents in like sardines? You can't assume only single people will move in. Where will kids play with no yards? Where will extra cars go, especially when we get snow? (How unlikely is it, in Norristown, that someone will eventually get shot over a parking spot?)

The neighbors protested this development, yet they were willing to negotiate. (See Times Herald article.) They asked if the number of units could be halved, or at least reduced. They signed petitions. They tried to be heard. Council ignored them.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Comprehensive Plan talks about "infill" development. Are these the kinds of developments they mean? The Zoning people assured us at the last meeting that this could never happen, yet the variances they've been granting seems to show that they'll rubber stamp anything. And Council seems willing to embrace every developer that comes along, and continues to ignore the taxpayers.

So, what good is zoning?


  1. On the map you posted I only see one color yellow.

    1. If you click on the map, you can get a bigger version of it. On the fringes--at the top end of Dekalb, on the east near New Hope, and a couple blocks across from Eisenhower, you'll see light yellow, which is zoned R1. But yes, the majority of Norristown's residential zoning is R2 in bright yellow.