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South Bend wins award for innovative zoning policy — but what does that mean?

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WVPE News
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Last week, South Bend won the 2021 Driehaus Award for the Evolution of Form-Based Codes due to the city’s innovative zoning policy, and local urban planners are excited. But what exactly does it mean?

“It is really exciting for us to have won this award,” city planning director Tim Corcoran said. “I know most people probably don’t care about zoning until something happens next to them — or it’s proposed to happen next to them — that they don’t like.”

Traditional zoning is based on land use — residential, industrial, commercial, Corcoran said.

But form-based codes are more focused on urban scale and density — think building heights and lot sizes, walkable neighborhoods and infill developments on vacant lots.

The city’s new zoning code following those ideas went into force in January 2020. Previously, it hadn’t been updated since 2004.

“I think it was kind of stuck before — stuck in time,” Corcoran said. “Our former ordinance had a lot of suburban biases in it that were driving more suburban outcomes — larger lots, large setbacks. We wanted to look for a way to drive more urban outcomes.”

There are now no more parking requirements anywhere in South Bend, and it’s much easier to build mixed use developments, duplexes, apartment buildings and ADUs, or accessory dwelling units — that’s like adding a cottage to your backyard or an apartment above your garage.

“We wanted to really cut red tape,” Corcoran said. “Builders and developers find it very easy to use, which was one of our major goals, and it allows for so many things to happen that weren’t allowed in the past.”

But does the new zoning code — and the award for form-based zoning — mean you could end up with a factory next to your house?

Corcoran said no, and that there are still protections for residents and guidelines for used based zoning.

“Industrial will still happen in industrial areas, and residential areas will still be protected,” he said. “There are standards in there for when those two uses bump up against each other."

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.