City Zoning: Know How High Before You Buy

Dallas zoning map. Don’t worry, we’ll zoom in for a closer look.

As the City of Dallas grows, it will grow up and become more dense.  Neighborhoods that were thought to be fully developed aren’t. Streetscapes and views, unchanged for decades, are changing. And honestly, it’s a good thing overall.

The only way to grow and leave everything alone is to continue to build out into the unsustainable money pits of the suburbs.  Their miles and miles of endless roadways, sewers, water pipes, and bridges make these low-density spaces impossible to support from their tax base. If you think Dallas has potholes, visit a built-out, middle-income suburb on its 50th birthday.

Besides, you really want to live inside LBJ, right? And even if you don’t, you still need to understand zoning.

In the grand scheme of city planning, areas are zoned for residential, office, retail, industrial and various government uses (schools, libraries, etc.).  Within these broad categories there are multiple sub-types of zoning.  The Zoning Districts of Dallas lists seven categories of single family homes, three for townhouses, four for multi-family, one each for duplexes and mobile homes, and one nebulously called “clustered housing” … clustered housing can be single or multi-family, and that’s not counting the three Mixed Use and three Urban Corridor designations that allow residential components.

Note: Clustered Housing aims to “cluster” housing closer together in order to utilize the remainder of the space for open area. It’s been around forever with medieval villages clustering housing to free land for communal farming in a way large divided lots wouldn’t allow.  It was reinvented as a way to limit large-lot sprawl (versus retain agriculture). The first cluster development in modern times in the US was in 1928 in Radburn, New Jersey. The resulting “Radburn design” was widely used, however the fullness of time revealed some flaws.

Multifamily District 3 equals MF-3 zoning

How Do I Find My Zoning? Read.

The easiest way to figure out your own zoning is to read your DCAD listing and compare it to the Zoning District designations (calm down, it’s two pages).  In the case above, it’s a condo within an MF-3 area, that among other things allows limitless height … essentially airplane-scraping. But what if you’re a buyer evaluating properties and are concerned with the area around your prospective purchase?

Instead of looking at address after address in the area of your considered purchase, you can look at the city zoning maps online.  The lead graphic of this story was taken from the interactive map.  While that map looks overcomplicated, it also covers a wide area.  Using your mouse to zoom into specific areas will get clearer, less frenzied results.

Outside the designation in the city zoning maps, you’ll need to know about:

PD = Planned Development District (+ number). These are areas with their own sets of rules that differ either slightly or greatly from city zoning.  They can be a single parcel or a large swath of land.  Within the PD, all rules and entitlements are a shared resource available to any parcel within the PD area.  Owners petition the city for a PD designation. (I have no idea why the abbreviation is PD when it should logically be PDD). If you reside within or near a PD, you should find out what its rules are. The PD’s number is simply a reflection of when it was approved. For example, my PD-15 was the 15th in the city and was created in 1947, while PD-946 was created in 2015 for the Laurel apartments on the corner of Northwest Highway and Preston Road.

PDS = Planned Development District Sub-District (+ number). Sometimes within larger PDs, sub-districts are created with rules that differ from the main PD.  This mechanism is used to avoid the time and annoyance factor of opening a PD’s governing documents.  Essentially, PDSs are created to treat one parcel within a larger PD differently for some reason.  Those reasons can be major or minor.

NSO = Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay. Unlike PDs, NSOs have only been around since 2005.  Their creation as a legal entity was brought about because neighborhoods wanted a tool that wasn’t as time consuming as a PD or PDS, which can take years.  In other words, NSOs exist because of poor city staffing to handle these types of changes, so a shortcut was created.  NSOs sound like something that would keep neighborhoods from falling into poverty or something. Nope. They’re mostly used by wealthier areas to combat McMansion-ing and comprise of front and side yard setbacks, policing garages, and to keep height at bay.  The height is typically for when an area of single-story homes (zoned for 36-foot heights) doesn’t want three-story McMansions peering into their backyards.

SUP = Specific Use Permit. SUPs are used when someone wants to build something that’s not zoned. For example, a church in a residential area.  The city may look at its impact and OK this specific use.  There is a danger of overusing SUPs that tips them into spot zoning which neighbors can challenge.

Full of “null.” Effective date is when it was entered into map. PD-15 created in 1947. ZILS

ZILS = Zoning Information Links Suck.  When looking at the zoning map, you’ll be able to click on specific parcels to get more information.  Often the differently-zoned areas were created years ago and the city’s intern program has not been robust enough to get those (pre-2012?) documents digitized, so there’s little to see.  And even on those rare circumstances when there is a case link, it’s almost certainly broken (in my experience). Think of them as electronic potholes.

All that said, let’s zoom in.  Above is the intersection of Northwest Highway and Jupiter. On this map you see SUPs with the black squares background. One was granted for Sam’s Club (likely for their gas station). Another was for Bethel Lutheran Church. Lowes is zoned CR or Community Retail while southeast of Jupiter and Northwest Highway it’s RR or Regional Retail.  The DR designations in red stand for Deed Restrictions (which could mean anything and are worth looking into).

Note: There are two kinds of deed restrictions, municipal and civil.  Restrictive covenants are a type of deed restriction.

One final thing to be informed about is whether you’re in an historic or conservation district. Historic districts require lots of time to deal with the city whenever you want to move a stone on your own property.  While annoying in the extreme, they’re also the most protected type of area in respect to zoning changes (they don’t happen). Conservation areas care about the pebbles and paint, but allow you to run it by city staff versus the whole City Plan Commission hearing and documentation required (cutting the weeks-and-weeks to hours-and-hours).

If you have problems or questions about zoning, perhaps you’ve seen a sign announcing a zoning change case has been filed (required) you can call the city at (214) 948-4480. In the times I’ve called, the hold times haven’t been too awful and folks seems happy to help figure stuff out or point you in the right direction.

Remember this? No excuses.

Now I Know. Now What?

If you’re in or buying in or near a PD or PDS, get a copy of the paperwork and read.  Because, let’s say it’s an area that allows significantly higher density. You’ll want to understand what that means and pay attention to what’s going on with any zoning cases.  One way of doing this is to participate, support, or at least get on the mailing list of your neighborhood association. If you live in Uptown, Knox, or Oak Lawn, that’s the Oak Lawn Committee who oversees the vast PD-193 area.

Developers go for the easy win and often seek out parcels that have enough zoning to do their business.  But as parcels within higher density zoning dwindles, they start nibbling around the edges.  It’s the developer version of, “Well, Molly’s parents let her stay out until 10 p.m.”  If the parcel next door has significantly more zoning, they’ll want to convince the city to extend the zoning to their parcel. Developers will also go after increased density if they want to build in a hot area that has no appropriately zoned land available.

If you want to sell out or purchase in an area ripe for increased density, there can be financial gains waiting. For those wanting nothing to change or to have outsized control over that change, that’s a little tougher to come by in hot areas and requires more careful planning.

Certainly the Toll Brothers’ high-rise in Oak Lawn, in an area zoned for high-rises, has been a vivid and painful lesson for those, many living in a neighboring high-rise, who have not paid attention to their area.

Yazz and the Plastic Population may not have had urban growth in mind when they sang The Only Way is Up in 1988, but they were right.

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com.

5 Comment

  • It’s funny how us homeowners are expected to know our zoning but when it comes to developers there is general agreement between them and the planning commission that it is just an opening offer and that they are entitled to more favorable zoning terms. I’ve seen it basically implicitly stated several times, that they are entitled to more favorable zoning because under the current zoning they way, way, way overpaid for the land. It’s incredibly frustrating how developers buying land knowing full well what was allowed and not allowed under the zoning start with the upper hand with having it rezoned.

    As far as the Oak Lawn Committee, many of us are incredibly frustrated with their stature with the city and the vastness of PD193. They are viewed as almost a city chartered authority on zoning issues in PD193 but they are often hostile to the interests of property owners and often work to undermine PD193 zoning in favor of developers with the typical stance that the developers inherently hold the upper hand in rezoning and they must negotiate. It is absolutely insane to me that the Oak Lawn Committee doesn’t require one to even own or rent property in PD193 to have an equal seat at the negotiating table yet the city views them as an authority on neighborhood interests.

    • mm

      Yes, it’s funny how people making the largest investment in their lives should be expected to understand how it can be impacted by change. People take a mental snapshot of an area and think “that’s it” until a zoned cement plant opens next door. Between looking at DCAD and the zoning map that’s a 30-minute investment tops. Most have spent more time looking at Yelp for dinner.
      .
      Breaking up PD-193 would be such a Herculean task of agreements, it’ll never happen. Are you a member of the OLC? Do you sit at the table and evaluate and critique developers’ plans? If you’re not involved, your opinion is weightless. I’ve watched them do good work and turn away dreck (they’ve turned away more than I would have). Regardless, they’re a whole lot better than letting the city work alone.
      .
      And you’re wrong, all OLC members either live, own property or own a business in the area, many all three.

    • mm

      The Oak Lawn committee started when a major developer razed an historical movie theater in Oak Lawn literally overnight. There is nothing more charming than small movie houses a la The Lakewood Theatre, or HPV. We could have had a charming one in Oak Lawn. I’m glad the OLC exists, but I do appreciate you sharing your opinion and invite you to tell us more.

      • mm

        You’re correct. That movie theater, The Esquire, sat where Eatzi’s is on Oak Lawn Avenue and the midnight tear down was performed by Trammel Crow Lincoln Property trying to avoid preservationists.

  • Jon Anderson is willing to do what most others are not: investigate, analyze, report. This article was informative, articulate and succinct.

    Those who criticize OLC should attend some meetings, “walk in their shoes”, and observe their diligence before lobbing criticisms. OLC is devoted to seeking the best outcome available for the neighborhood within zoning and aesthetic restrictions/options.