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Zoning has become a political lightning rod. Just ask Des Moines

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Criticism of the Des Moines 2040 zoning proposal ‘does a disservice’ to what the code change intends to fix, says city planner

Des Moines

It’s a zoning change that’ll restrict density. It’s a city plan that’ll make it harder for Habitat for Humanity to build homes, and for homebuilders to make a profit. Des Moines, Iowa’s new proposed zoning code has been pilloried by critics as “backward” and unfair to poor renters, an example of the city “saying no thanks to 21st-century living.“

“It’ll be a tidal wave that’ll swamp many boats, especially Des Moines residents who are making less than $90,000 per year,” Lance Henning, executive director of the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity, told the city’s Planning and Zoning commission, arguing that the new rules will make new homes too expensive for certain income levels.

But speak to Michael Ludwig, the planning administrator for the city of Des Moines who helped draft the proposal, and you’ll hear a different side of the story. The changes proposed and recently updated—including a more strict set of materials and building requirements, streamlining code requirements, and minimum size requirements such as 1,150 square feet for a one-story home with a basement, among others—has been unfairly criticized, in his opinion. The Des Moines 2040 zoning proposal that’s gotten so much national attention—in the wake of the nation’s affordable housing crisis and efforts like Minnepolis’s citywide upzoning—has a much different intention.

At the end of a three-year process that he says included numerous stakeholders, including some of those discussing size requirements, he feels the current controversy is misinformed.

“Contrary to articles about the plan, the idea is to streamline construction, create a more sustainable city, and allow for more missing middle and affordable housing,” says Ludwig. “The amount of attention the square footage requirement is getting is doing a disservice to what this code does and encourages.”

Last week, the city’s planning and zoning commission approved the ordinance unanimously, 14-0, recommending the code as proposed, as well as an addendum asking for changes to the minimum square footage requirements for homes. Much of the backlash over the plan, and articles criticizing its potential impact, came about over the initial requirements for minimum home sizes.

But, after an addendum in the same planning and zoning commission meeting that approved that plan recommended lower required square footage for homes, based on feedback from developers and housing advocates, even some of the most ardent critics changed their take on the new rules.

Ted Grob, who’s owned and operated local homebuilder Savannah Homes for decades, told the Des Moines Register late last month that he simply “wouldn’t build in Des Moines” if the new rules went into effect. But in a conversation with Curbed on Monday, after changes to minimum house sizes had been included in the commission’s recommendations, he said that if the new changes carry through, “they’re on a good path.”

“If they follow the recommendations, which are unanimous, I think we’re in good shape,” he says.

A view of the Iowa State Capitol building from the 33rd floor of the Raun Cente in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
A view of the Iowa State Capitol building from the 33rd floor of the Raun Cente in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, in 2016. The fast-growing city is weighing a zoning change that proponents say would encourage more development downtown.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

How Des Moines’s zoning proposal came to be

The new zoning recommendations grew out of larger regional plans, Plan DSM, a set of regional goals and guidelines that has won planning awards (Silver Level Sustainability award from the American Planning Association and a Daniel Burnham Award from the state of Iowa). Ludwig says the city, which is one of the fastest-growing in the midwest, wanted to connect land use with transportation and overall budget.

The city’s zoning code hasn’t been updated since 1965. Instead, it’s been amended over 300 times in the preceding decades. Ludwig’s vision is to replace a disjointed, conflicting set of regulations with something that encourages the kind of development Des Moines needs: denser, closer to transit, and ideally more affordable. By eliminating code contradictions, the city could raise the quality and predictability of the development process.

“We are trying to steer the market to be more creative, and provide a product that’s different than what’s been provided historically,” he says. “We’ve heard there’s no market for mixed-use, but we’ve seen those really work when we targeted to transit corridors.”

The new code proposal is set up with what Ludwig calls a fast lane, what’s known as by-right development. This allows property owners to build as long as plans meet a strict set of requirements, opting out of a 90-day approval process.

The more detailed requirements for home sizes and materials, which have been the subject of critiques of the plan suggesting they’ll ultimately drive up homes prices, are part of a trade-off. The requirements seem so strict compared to existing rules because, as the theory of by-right development goes, they need to be. Buildings that meet these standards, which were coordinated ahead of time with the city’s 54 neighborhood councils, will get automatic approval.

If developers meet these strict requirements, then they don’t need to go through a community review, saving them time and money for construction, which ideally gets passed down to the homebuyer. Will this trade-off—having more constrained building regulations and codes in return for faster approval and construction—create as much housing as upzoning the entire city, like Minneapolis just did? Probably not. But the intention behind the trade-off is to help more housing get built closer to the city, as opposed to the suburbs and exurbs, where prime farmland is being turned into housing in fast-growing towns.

Ludwig also argues that by adding the design standards and fast lane approval, it can eliminate NIMBYism and barriers to more multifamily development and encourage more duplexes and larger structures near transit. The plan also allows denser development in the middle of neighborhoods, not just arterials and streets where transit is located.

“Eliminating site review and adding by-right development is a huge support for the affordable housing community,” he says.

Ludwig cautioned that the proposal wouldn’t outright ban homes that don’t meet the standards. It just means they would need to go through the traditional process, and go through design review by the neighborhood councils. Buildings that don’t meet these standards aren’t banned, they simply aren’t fast-tracked.

The minimum-size revision, which was attached to the plan and zoning commission approval last week, has smaller minimum size requirements in the downtown: 1,150 square feet for a one story with a basement, 1,250 square feet without a basement, 1,300 square feet for a 1.5-story with a basement, and so on. Buildings in greenfields on the periphery of Des Moines have larger size requirements, starting at 1,300 square feet with a basement.

While critics have argued that the new code would push development to the periphery and cause sprawl, Ludwig says that the intention, at least, is to encourage more dense housing closer to downtown.

What about the complaints from Habitat for Humanity, that the initial minimum size rule makes it harder for the to build their standard, 1,100-square-foot home? Curbed reached out and wasn’t able to connect with a member of the Des Moines chapter of Habitat, but Ludwig says that the new code allows staff to approve buildings with a 15 percent size variance, meaning the smallest home permissible through the “fast-track” process is 977 square feet.

The next step for Des Moines 2040 is getting a hearing before the city council, as well as a city council vote. The recommendation will likely be debated during meetings in September, and could go into effect as soon as late October, though Ludwig believes it’ll take longer to discuss the proposal.

For Ludwig, the plan is about incentives, and encouraging infill development and development along transit corridors as opposed to greenfield development in open fields on the city’s periphery. Ideally, the Des Moines 2040 means smaller homes near the city core, and more townhouses and row houses to help more families in the region downsize. The code also allows for accessory-dwelling units, or ADU, detached units on an owner’s property that can add additional density to a neighborhood.

“Simply building brand new housing isn’t going to solve the housing issue in Des Moines,” Ludwig says. “Ideally, our plan encourages more missing middle housing and multifamily in transit corridors and nodes. We’re the urban center of the metro, we have the most public transit in the metro, so densification is what we need to focus on.”