Mixing it Up: City’s master plan might change zoning laws

HARLINGEN — We often think about where we live, and sometimes even how we live.

But rarely do we take time to think about the forces which led us to live where we do, or how those same forces might make things better.


Form-based code has the answers.

Since World War II, the philosophy of cities and towns when it comes to urban planning and zoning has been a rigid structure which dictates this is a single-family home, this is an apartment building, this is a retail zone and this over here can be light or heavy industrial.

These thick red lines segregating different segments of a city via zoning regulations were never crossed and rarely challenged.

As the country began to urbanize in the 20th century, this kind of determination to control growth on the part of urban planners was probably necessary to instill some order.

Without it? Well, just think of the mining towns of the Old West, where the shacks and saloons used to spring up on top of each other practically overnight, and collapse and disappear almost as fast.

Today many cities are determined to change the old prescriptions which have led many municipalities into a cul-de-sac of sprawl, a heavy dependence on the automobile and increasing isolation among neighbors and friends.

Harlingen is one of them.

Pitching the downtown board

The scene last week was a meeting of the Downtown Improvement Board, the Jackson Street-based city agency which monitors development and rules for businesses in the historic district.

Pitching the city’s evolving philosophy on a new kind of urban planning is Rodrigo Davila, the city’s planning and development director.

Davila says the changes the city wants to bring to its planning and zoning regulations is contained — at least the overview of the new thinking — in the city’s Comprehensive Master Plan adopted last year.

“You’re the first ones we decided to present it to,” Davila told the downtown board.

“There is some tweaking, it’s not set in stone,” he added. “We expect some input back, or feedback, positive or negative, it doesn’t matter, and then we can tweak it around and go from there.”

“You’re a brave man,” responded board member Lars Keim, to chuckles from his colleagues.

In the end, Davila had a receptive audience. After all, the downtown historic district in Harlingen is one of the only places in the city where mixed-use zoning is permitted, like putting single-family housing such as lofts above retail stores.

“Currently, we have Euclidean zoning, which is basically a separation of land use,” City Planner Albert Molina told the board. “What we’re looking for is form-based zoning which typically looks at the shape of the neighborhood, the shape of the streets. We’re more concerned about what the buildings look like — we’re not too concerned about the use itself.”

Mixed Use Zones where?

Davila and his staff are now doing the nuts and bolts work to revise the city planning and zoning rules to incorporate the philosophy of form-based code in certain sections of Harlingen.

They have penciled in some areas which the department thinks would be good candidates for what the planners called Mixed Use Zones.

They include the downtown district, La Placita, four blocks north of the current downtown district, and a long strip on the east side of Commerce Street running north from downtown.

Nearby, maps of possible mixed use zones parallel 77 Sunshine Strip and then head east down Loop 499 all the way to Rio Hondo Road and beyond.

These are, of course, tentative, and Davila and his cadre of urban planners are continuing to seek input on where Harlingen residents, business owners and city officials think such a philosophy will work best.

“One of the main things that we’re looking at with DID is that the template that has been created here is successful, obviously,” Davila said of the downtown district. “You are almost at capacity and even if you expand, and I know you’re going to expand, we’re looking at that same template that is going to be applied and we can sort of predict a good success rate.”

Walking the walk

City planners want to increase opportunities for mixed-use residential and commercial areas, and create walkable central areas for people living and working in the neighborhood to congregate.

Buildings also would be closer to the street, and instead of massive, unsightly parking lots, spaces would be hidden, tucked along the sides or behind the buildings.

“When we say mixed use we also want the understanding that we can have mixed business uses,” Davila said. “It doesn’t always have to be a retail environment in a livable area.

“The Reese is a perfect example,” he added. “You have a dentist, a restaurant, and now you have an event center on top. That’s all mixed use.”

And if you want a walkable neighborhood, you’re going to have to have more sidewalks and streetscaping, too.

The idea is to replace existing code with form-based code, stir it gently, and hope the concoction results in a savory mix of retail, office and residential in a dense, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Board member Jo Rae Wagner, who owns the Reese Building and Colletti’s Restaurant, said demand for these neighborhoods is already here.

“I have people who come in all the time who want to know where they can live downtown,” Wagner said. “They already work down there, and now I’ve got 90 of them who are asking me, ‘Is there any place really close where we can ride our bikes?’”

Wagner apparently was referring to attorneys and staff at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, more commonly known as ProBAR, which has taken a floor in the Reese Building.

“They’re as green as people get when it comes to walking or carpooling, and they would rather be able to walk to work,” Wagner said.

“And they want it now.”



What are form-based codes?

Form-based codes seek to restore old-time city neighborhoods, providing unity, efficient organization, social vitality and walkability.

How did this come about?

FBCs are a response to an urban development philosophy more concerned with controlling land uses than shaping livable cities.

What do the current zoning rules say?

Current zoning rules say this can be a single-family house but not a retail store, or this can be a multi-family residence but not a light industrial site.

Why do we not use form-based codes?

The current system of municipal zoning was devised to prevent undesirable juxtapositions. Nobody wants to live next to a factory.

How has standard zoning shaped our lives?

Standard zoning has led to communities being divided and separated into sectors, with zones for apartments, large houses, small houses, shopping, offices and industry. To move among these, everyone has to drive.

Source: Adapted from formbasedcodes.org

View the city’s Comprehensive Master Plan