Michael Ludwig is the planning administrator for the city of Des Moines.
Michael Ludwig is the planning administrator for the city of Des Moines.

As the summer of 2010 wound down, the city of Des Moines submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a $1.75 million grant to be used toward updating its zoning ordinance, plus other planning activities.

Why does the zoning ordinance need an update? Mainly because it was written in 1965, and the world has changed considerably since then.

An effort to revise the long, complicated document began in 2002 or 2003. However, Planning Administrator Michael Ludwig said city budget cuts a couple of years later reduced staff and slowed progress toward the goal.

“With the staff level we have now,” Ludwig said, “we take on piecemeal additions to the code as directed by the City Council.”

At the time of the grant application, Des Moines was in the process of finalizing the rezoning of the East Village, located between the Des Moines River and the state Capitol. Next on the agenda is a rezoning of the area south of that neighborhood, which is becoming known as the Market District.

“The whole idea of the proposed zoning ordinance,” Ludwig said, “is to raise the base standards and add tax abatement and tax incentives to promote ‘green’ building” and other desirable practices.

For example, the existing ordinance doesn’t prohibit one-story, stand-alone chain store construction in the East Village. But Ludwig is armed with photographs that illustrate what planners want and don’t want in that neighborhood.

For one thing, they don’t want to deal with the likelihood of future empty stores that will be of interest to only a few potential tenants, and they don’t want big parking lots in front of stores. They want to keep the area’s historical appearance in place when possible, and encourage a pedestrian-friendly design.

“In the long term, this is higher-value development,” Ludwig said. “It creates longer-lasting property values, not just value for the current tenant.”

Ludwig also offered an example of the need for changes in the residential portion of the code. In the 2020 Community Character Plan, city planners identified Beaverdale as an area worthy of replicating, with its narrow, small lots and relatively small setbacks from the street. Ironically, “we don’t have a zoning category that would allow a development like that, except as a planned unit development,” Ludwig said.

Des Moines is not alone as a city with an antiquated zoning ordinance. Denver, for example, this year finished revising a code that was more than a half century old. That city’s 1989 Comprehensive Plan called for the project, and then the 2000 Comprehensive Plan made the same plea again.

In 2005, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper appointed a community-based Zoning Code Task Force to guide the effort. It took until this year to get the project done.

“An ordinance revision will involve a lot of discussions,” Ludwig said. Developers and neighborhood groups will be involved, and there will be “concerns about adding regulation in a time of economic uncertainty.”

Part of the objective, however, is to make the code more user-friendly, so that those most affected by its rules can more easily find and understand them.

In Ludwig’s view, however, the greatest challenge is to “get traction” and move the project forward. “You can’t start and stop,” he said. “Other projects can take priority and halt progress.”

If Des Moines lands the federal grant, the money will be put to work in four areas: the revision of the zoning ordinance; a review of the comprehensive plan for compliance with Iowa’s smart planning principles act, which was signed into law in April; the writing of a “green” development supplement for building and development codes; and a land-use plan relating to Eco-Core, an approach to filling vacant office space downtown.

The money would be used to hire consultants and a project manager to keep all four components moving. Ludwig hopes to know by the end of the year whether Des Moines’ application is accepted. If it is, action will be required within four months, and the federal government will require the money to be spent within three years.

The long-range goal of city planners is to ratchet up the appearance of the place. “Historically, we have had minimal design requirements,” Ludwig said. “There are differences you can see along our corridors compared with West Des Moines, Johnston, Urbandale and so forth. They have required higher standards historically.”

The current trend is to rely on a “form-based code,” which focuses more on physical details of buildings rather than just land-use regulations. For example, Ludwig said, “there’s a fear of multifamily projects in Des Moines, so we’ve tried to write form-based rules for that category.” The Sherman Hill brickstones look great, he noted, but as for some other multifamily projects, “we would like to minimize their replication.”