All cities struggle with the problem of perennially dilapidated properties. In many cases, this is a challenge beyond the control of local policymakers, the result of national or local economic conditions. But in at least as many cases, lack of investment is a function of poorly designed land-use regulations that block the reasonable redevelopment of the lot.

A vacant lot in New Brunswick between these two houses has been absorbed by the property owners instead of being put to productive use. (Source: Google Earth)

A vacant lot in New Brunswick between these two houses has been absorbed by the property owners instead of being put to productive use. (Source: Google Earth)

Local planners and policymakers interested in redeveloping tired lots in their communities should start first by looking at the relevant land-use regulations and asking a basic question: Is the desired redevelopment of this site even legally possible? It’s as easy as it is unhelpful to merely propose this in theory, so let’s kick the tires on the zoning of two existing urban lots in need of investment. 

1. New Brunswick, New Jersey

New Brunswick is one of the most successful mid-sized cities on the east coast. Over the past several decades, its population and economy have grown alongside Rutgers University and major healthcare institutions. But while the downtown has seen tremendous investment, the surrounding neighborhoods represent a more challenging situation.

Much of the housing stock is over 100 years old, and the rapid turnover of college students and large families has taken a toll on the physical condition of the buildings. Vacant lots are scattered throughout the neighborhood and have often been absorbed by neighboring lots.

The lack of investment in spite of ever-rising rents isn’t a random phenomenon. Consider the following set of properties: 


Located just one block from the Cook Campus of Rutgers University, this humble cluster of aging single family homes has seen better days and is ripe for investment. Considering the presence of several nearby fourplexes to the southwest along Hale Street, an increase in density fits nicely with the neighborhood’s pattern of development. Fortunately, the city’s zoning code permits townhouses as a conditional use. Let’s see what we could legally build here.

First, we combine the properties and apply the required 15-foot side setbacks and 40-foot rear setbacks. This leaves us with a buildable area of roughly 10,000 square feet. Considering the minimum unit width of 18 feet and maximum height of 30 feet, we could legally build 11 two-story townhouses with 1,800 square feet each. Sounds good!

Not so fast, though. After applying the floor area ratio (FAR) of 0.35, we find that our total building square footage is capped at just 35 percent of the area of the property. Thirty five percent of 20,000 square feet leaves us with just 7,000 square feet, far below 19,800 square feet within our 11 two-story townhouses. While this has dealt a major blow to the project, we can still eke out seven one-story 1,000 square foot units, right?

Again, zoning says otherwise. The zoning code imposes a maximum building lot coverage ratio of 20 percent. That figure limits the total footprint of the buildings to just one-fifth of the area of the lot. Ultimately, we are left with a total footprint of just about 4,000 square feet on a 20,000 square foot lot. The legal building envelope is a mere 20 feet deep (see Figure 3). Such a small building envelope could hardly support any more square footage than what already exists on the parcels.

In this example, we have applied only a small sample of the regulations of New Brunswick’s zoning code before finding that it is essentially impossible to redevelop many of the city’s residential zones to their maximum potential. Townhouses are subject to additional project-killing regulations such as a mandatory 10-foot wide landscaped buffer around the property, open space requirements in excess of 50 percent, and minimum parking requirements. Although New Brunswick is one of the easiest places in the country to live without a car, and regulated on-street parking exists throughout the city, local and state regulations mandate 1.8, 2.3, and 2.4 on-site parking spaces for every one-, two-, and three- bedroom townhouse, respectively.

The sheer amount of land required for parking and landscaping combined with the tiny allowable building envelope has killed our project entirely.

2. Lexington, Kentucky

Let’s move on to another example. Consider an existing vacant lot in a desirable inner suburb of Lexington.

The lot is 50’ wide and 70’ deep. Lexington's zoning code allows for duplexes. However, the minimum lot size is 7,500 square feet. Right off the bat, zoning has added unnecessary headache to redeveloping the parcel, since the existing lot dimensions are non-compliant.

But knowing we can deal with the added paperwork, we push on (to follow this process visually, see the image below). Building height is limited to 35 feet. For the development's front, side and rear, setback requirements are 12 feet, 6 feet, and 10 feet respectively. So far, so good.

Based on the lot’s dimensions, we can build a two-story duplex with a total square footage of 4,028 square feet, producing two 2,014 square feet units. These two units would add new housing to an existing desirable neighborhood and would almost certainly fly off the market. 

It’s too bad, then, that this arrangement would be illegal. Lexington’s code also features a maximum FAR of just 0.35, limiting gross floor area to a measly 1,313 square feet. Our building envelope shrinks to 30 feet by 44 feet. We revise the plan to include two very small units with just 657 square feet each. These units would be harder to sell, but let’s persevere. 


Finally, we look at the parking requirements. Lexington’s zoning requires two on-site parking spaces per unit. The four required parking spaces would consume at least 720 square feet of land. Given how the building must be sited based on the required setbacks, the only possible place for the parking spaces is the backyard. But the backyard leaves only 132 square feet of available space. If we were to free up an additional 588 square feet of space for a surface lot, the building footprint would be so small that the project would be physically, not to mention financially, possible. 


With renewed interest in urban living and an awareness of the economic value of these sorts of neighborhoods in contrast to suburban, auto-oriented ones, cities should be doing everything they can to attract and accommodate investment on underutilized lots. Unfortunately, many zoning codes practically bar neighborhoods from growing and changing over time.

In some cases, a cumbersome zoning ordinance may be the biggest obstacle to meaningful investment in a struggling area. So next time you notice a block that has seen better days, take a look at your zoning code and see how a few key changes could make a world of difference.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the authors.

About the Authors

Austin Maitland is a planning professional and enthusiast. He lives in New Jersey.

Nolan Gray is an urban planning researcher and a contributor to Market Urbanism. He lives in New York City.