That is the basic premise of a 15-minute city, which Cleveland is aiming to become.
The problem? A century's worth of zoning and planning that, in its current state, not only doesn't allow that to happen but actively works against it.
Centered on the belief that city dwellers should have options when it comes to getting around, the 15-minute city concept originally grew legs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when New Urbanists like Jeff Speck and Alan Ehrenhalt began writing screeds decrying city planning that revolved around private automobiles. But it was in 2016 when Paris professor Carlos Moreno actually coined the term.
The idea seems pretty logical: Your daycare, your grocery store, your dentist, your pharmacy, the daycare, a bank—all the key amenities of your daily life, the principle dictates, should be reachable within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or transit trip. Not just an automobile.
Matt Moss, manager of Strategic Planning Initiatives at the Cleveland Planning Commission, believes that the local interest stems from a combination of Cleveland's unrealized potential as a walking city along with a shifting of priorities for a bulk of the city's younger residents.
"I think the origin of it is most clearly drawn to the pandemic," Moss said, sitting at a conference room table outside his office. "It was a shock in a lot of ways, one that changed how people thought about things that had sort of always been taken for granted. How they worked. How they spent their time."
Moss, a geospatial analysis guru who bikes to work daily, is a central figure in City Hall's gradual build-up to a 15-minute city pitch to city council in the next year. By the end of 2023, Moss and about a dozen of his cohorts are planning to send two key pieces of legislation that would allow Cleveland to further win its goals from a legal standpoint.
One, a test pilot of a 21st century update to Cleveland's 1929 zoning code in three neighborhoods (Hough, Detroit Shoreway, Fairfax), would change how zoning is done. And two, legislation that would require developers to build housing with non-car transportation incentives in mind.
As Moss told Scene in a dense two-hour interview, a bulk of the reasons why the 15-minute city concept is just now surfacing is because our legacy zoning code—the structural laws that tell developers what they can or can't build or use on a specific site—is, by design, limiting. It's why it's called Exclusionary Zoning: This here can only be a single-family house; that over there can only be an industrial site.
Moss and City Planning's answer, as begun in a $225,000 partnership with Code Studio, was to adopt, and eventually codify, what's called Form-Based Code. While its older uncle — exclusionary zoning — solidified a top-down approach to tell Clevelanders what to build and where to build it, Form-Based, Moss said, taps into a data analysis of a specific neighborhood and the "needs and desires" of its residents. (A drug store? A school? A daycare? A decent park?)
Take the Detroit-Shoreway pilot project, for example.
Back in October 2019, Code Studio consultants, CPC staff (then Kyle Reisz, now project manager Shannan Leonard), and Councilman Matt Zone held open houses in Detroit-Shoreway to demonstrate how the newly dubbed Land Code could reshape the surrounding 20-or-so blocks in the next decade. Resident input—"Better landscaping policies," "Need traffic calming," "Need pedestrian infrastructure on Lake Avenue"—influenced planners to draft a specific Form-Based code for Detroit-Shoreway, one that included raising the max building height limit (to 7 stories), allowing accessory dwelling units ("granny flats"), and building triplexes and more townhomes.
The upshot is what, Moss said, wouldn't be possible under the city's nearly 96-year-old zoning rules: to build the aforementioned projects in areas where such mixed-use construction is not legal. Sure, developers could get a zoning variance—the "norm," according to Moss—but dealing with Board of Zoning Appeals takes, on average, upwards of three to four months. In other words, Moss said, it's a deterrent.
Getting a Cleveland Land Code made official in 2024, Moss said, would remove that variance norm entirely. Constructing mixed-use projects like Church + State, or Waverly & Oak, would be more streamlined, along with arming builders more with locals' interests in mind.
"[Developers] have very little room to do something that's perhaps more contextual, more creative," Moss said. "Everything trends towards the same product based on that. And so what Form-Based Code allows is greater flexibility in terms of what developers can build."
It's the ultimate intention of legalizing the Land Code: to encourage as many developers, with either townhouses, cottage courts or mid-rises in their eyes, to build on long-dormant parking surfaces, used car lots or abandoned Burger King sites to reach the golden benchmark of 15-minute density—30 housing units per acre. (20 units/acre, Moss said, is the "bronze" benchmark.)
The rub, again, goes back to the problem of "outdated" zoning law, those created by pre-Depression era Clevelanders.
"All that land? You can't use it," Moss said, referring to 60 percent of the TOD area. "It's either industrial, which doesn't permit housing at all. Or it's single or two-family [housing], which means you can't build more than two units within that five-minute walk."
Assuming the Land Code pilot legislation will pass in council before December, Moss and his CPC team's second prong of 15-minute legislation is complementary.
Taking a cue from transit-rich megapolises like San Francisco, Moss and his team in writing a Transit Demand Management "menu" for developers hungry to see projects built near the Red Line or bus routes. What was by developer preference in the past would then become law: urging those builders, via a "menu" of auto-alternative options, to think how they're incorporating 15-minute city ideas into their build.
In a draft of that TDM legislation showed to Scene, if they want their building permits issued, developers would have to choose from a 42 options all assigned point values. Subsidize RTA passes for your tenants? That's 8 points. Want to provide van pools or shuttles? That's six. Choose to unbundle parking from the lease? That's five. (Those values might change as the proposal works its way toward council.)
The latter being a Moss favorite. As the central goal with the new TDM legislation is to eliminate parking requirements entirely.
"Basically what we're saying to developers is, 'Build parking if you need it,'" he said. "Right now? They have no choice. They have to build it. But now [with TDM], we're saying, 'Build parking if you want.'"
In the end, Moss, who's keen to point out statistics related to a 1927 zoning map, the goal is a numerical one at its heart. As to reach the ideal of the 15-minute city, or come close to its fruits, Cleveland would have to nurture 25 to 35 housing units per acre, filling up those dry pockets of nothingness, or replacing pre-1939 homes with multi-unit apartments.
Ironically enough, Moss said, the code overhauls and transit-friendly point system is not just a "shift towards more urban form," he said, but "permitting the city to be what it once was, and what used to be." That is, as a 1920 zoning map on CPC's website shows, tiny lots and dense neighborhoods before the alluring call of suburbia.
In the planning commission conference room, Moss clicks between the map and today's source, from 2010. The difference between the two is stark. "I mean, this is 1920," he said, showing a mass array of homes off Lorain Avenue. "This is what the city used to look like. You can see this, all of this used to all be housing!"
He clicks to the 2010 map. The tiny lots grow bigger. "Okay, it's gone now," Moss said. His cursors wavers over a big census tract. "Look at all these surface lots," he said.
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