Land Use Law Center

Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Editors: Jessica Roberts, Jillian Aicher, Colt Watkiss[*]

The story of local land use law is one of constant new beginnings. It began as a mechanism for designating zoning districts in which specific land uses are permitted and others prohibited and building construction prescribed. As development sprawled, local land use law began addressing the need to protect natural resources and promote smart growth. As evidence of climate change later mounted, local land use law shifted focus to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the realities of a warming climate. Now, as U.S. cities confront the challenges posed by COVID-19, local land use law finds itself engaged in another new beginning.

While it is too early to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on cities, there is evidence to suggest that people who can leave them are doing so in substantial numbers. In New York City, real estate values and office and residential rents have fallen dramatically, and vacancies have more than doubled from just last year. Meanwhile, data shows “unprecedented sales growth” in suburban areas like Fairfield and Westchester counties, “driven by a continuation of New York City buyers relocating” amid the pandemic.

One reason for this exodus is residents’ concern over crowding, especially considering the ease with which COVID-19 can spread. There are legitimate concerns that the subways, busses, sidewalks, playgrounds, restaurants, and entertainment venues that have long attracted people to cities may now be unsafe. The command to socially distance and convenience of working from home compound the situation. However, if this mass migration from cities continues, we risk recreating the post-WWII “white flight” that eroded cities’ tax bases, segregated communities, exacerbated health disparities, and contributed to a massive amount of sprawl.

Given these risks, planners and lawyers must continue working to prevent this pattern of urban flight from repeating. While no one can be sure of the duration of this pandemic, the likelihood of future pandemics, and the ultimate effect on cities, one thing remains clear: cities need to become safer. Cities must continue to make density appealing by making public health a central concern in urban planning and design. What follows is an abbreviated menu of options for how cities can begin:

Comprehensive Plan: Cities can include public health components into their comprehensive plans. These plans can specify the goals, objectives, strategies, and techniques for achieving safe buildings and densities.

Building Standards and Checklists: Local checklists of safe construction techniques can be created regarding, for example, better internal ventilation, ultraviolet light to disinfect indoor air, high-efficiency air filters, health screening technology, wide corridors, work from home spaces, more elevators (including voice-activated elevators), automatic doors, special distance metrics for indoor service, and redesigned interior amenity spaces.

Capital Investments in Infrastructure: City budgets can fund “creative place-making,” including social distancing in urban parks and open spaces, tree canopies, broader sidewalks, increased bike lanes, expanded capacity for outdoor retail, curbside management to facilitate pick-ups,  and “slow” and “dining” streets.

Zoning and Land Use Regulations: Short term permits can be given for new uses and expansions, and temporary permits can be offered quickly to commercial tenants adjusting to the changing economy. Cities can award emergency variances from setback requirements, reduce the amount of required parking, allow retail and dining uses of parking lots, and amend office zone standards to allow creative interior arrangements and flexible residential uses. Where retail is not feasible, cities can eliminate requirements for on-street retail use. Permits for all small business applications can be expedited by bringing together regulatory agencies, authorities, and government departments to review projects simultaneously. Pre-application meetings with developers can include health professionals to assure the health of future occupants.

Existing Buildings: To reduce the risk of potential contagion, cities can encourage building owners to retrofit their properties, work with public health experts to create standards for safe buildings, and offer incentives for compliance with these standards. Emerging ratings such as the WELL Health Safety Rating and Fitwell Viral Response Module models can be consulted, and financial incentives such as tax abatements given for adopting recommended improvements.

Small business recovery: Grants and affordable loans can be provided to small businesses so they can better accommodate their customers’ changing service needs. Courts can also refer eviction proceedings to city-supported mediation clinics to search for win-win solutions where both commercial tenants and landlords’ bottom lines are considered.

These suggestions provide a brief overview of how cities can begin preparing for a safer future. Additional strategies will be developed by our team and highlighted in future blogs and reports.

[*] Jessica Roberts is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Jillian Aicher is a second year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
Colt Watkiss is a first year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.