Mayor Kathy Sheehan formally released the final ReZone Albany draft Monday at City Hall. It’s a long-awaited plan intended to simplify the zoning ordinance.
The emerging plan envisions a comprehensive overhaul of the city's patchwork zoning system and the associated challenges with vacant and abandoned buildings, both residential and commercial. "We found the enemy and the enemy was us. In other words, our antiquated zoning was really driving business decisions and actually lack of ability to move forward with business decisions that would really help our neighborhoods. And so, that's one of the many challenges that we've been able to address in our new rezone."
Albany's zoning code got its last update in the late 1960's. Planners have been busy. One of the features in the plan provides for assigning overlays — special zones placed over existing zoning districts, establishing additional or stricter standards and criteria for properties there. "This new code that we're presenting to the Common Council provides for the opportunity to do overlay zones in other places in the city. So it really creates a lot of flexibility. It was done with a lot of input, and I know that the Common Council is going to take this and review it and have further public meetings and opportunity for public input."
City Hall says the goal of rezoning is to create modern codes reflective of the neighborhoods they represent that will stimulate the economy via investment and property development. Chris Spencer, the city’s director of planning, explained the rezone was conceived in three modules. "The first module is really talking about 'what are the districts?' What can you do with your land? Can you have a house, can you have a braber shop, can you have a restaurant. Those kinds of things. Really trying to get the rules in the districts correct. Then in module two it's really about 'how good does it have to be?" What are the design standards? How high can your building be? How close to the lot can it be? Things like that. So that was really about the development standards that go into there. And in the module three it was really about 'what's the administrative process.' If I'm gonna do something, is it allowed by right, who do I need to get permission from, so I need special permission. Things like that. We took all of the comments and information and feedback we got, then that went into a consolidated draft which was delivered at the end of August. We've taken additional comments, feedback from neighbors and business owners and done a lot of testing to see if this really works, and now we have the final draft available."
Spencer says with the "non-conforming" status of 70 percent of parcels in Albany, re-imagining the cityscape is long overdue. There already have been over a hundred meetings with the public, including community groups, neighborhood associations and business improvement districts. He adds that if rezoning gets the green light, 15,000 properties not currently conforming to zoning rules, in fact will.
Plans call for updating zoning to become more consistent with market demands, simplifying the complex permitting process to make it easier for businesses to open and for homeowners to make improvements.
Ayhan Celik owns a restaurant in Delmar and wants to open a similar one along Lark Street, but faces a mishmash of zoning requirements. "Under the city's current zoning, there are at least six special use permits and variances that I would need to get in order to do what I'm lookin' to do. Each one of these special use or variances represent to me unpredictability. Very lengthy process. If the current zoning wasn't going to be changed, I know, I wasn't gonna take such an enormous risk. With the new zoning that is being proposed, a business like mine, that is good for the neighborhood, would be permitted by right. In the end, instead of six special use permits and variances, I only need one conditional use permit, a relatively easy process."
The ReZone Albany draft requires approval by the Common Council. There will be meetings for public comment before the plan comes up for a vote by the full council, expected in May.