Blog: John Petz

The island model of development, where the workplace, living space, and businesses are separated by gulfs of highway and five-lane roads, has fallen out of favor, but zoning regulations haven't kept up with the changing tide. John Petz, director of real estate and public affairs at Domino's Farms, writes on this issue and on bringing young leadership into the fold.

The Zoning and Development Divide

I have an interesting role at Domino's Farms straddling the world of real estate and politics.  A world often in conflict between private property rights and government regulatory control.  One where real estate operates in the built environment providing space solutions to help business compete more effectively, while enabling individuals to create a respite for their home life.   And the other, which often times seems to constrain the opportunities for business and individuals.

Any real estate developer will tell you this area is sometimes challenging (to put it kindly) to bring a project to fruition.  Now, there is certainly a role for government regulations when it comes to ensuring structures are built with certain quality and safety standards.  But when it comes to design and land use, I firmly believe real estate developers responding to the needs of the market is the only route and only truly sustainable path for communities.

Today's employees, more skilled and mobile, are driving change in business and the built environment.  They have changed the standards of workplace attire, they have advanced flexible schedules and telecommuting, and they are changing the very nature of the built work space – from an era of corner offices, to one of cubicles, to now the open collaborative work spaces common in many entrepreneurial businesses.  This new generation is looking for interesting and creative spaces at both their place of employment and, increasingly, third places – public spaces and private locations that foster social interaction and community engagement.

They demand authenticity.  Places of real character and distinction that aren't cookie cutter in nature or institutional in feel.  For most of the second half of the 20th Century, land use and zoning were about conformity and placing every use in a highly predictable manner.  We know many of the results: suburban sprawl; subdivisions of uniform McMansions; longer commutes because of the separation of land uses; rising obesity because of the lack of walkability; and a less-civil society due to increasing disconnect between neighbors.

One would have hoped the solution would be to throw out the old playbook. But often the result has been more complex and sometimes convoluted layers of zoning regulations that stymie the ability of development to improve the built condition for business and individuals.

I have to image that just as businesses have learned to respond to the changing needs of their employees by changing the work space, communities will ultimately need to respond by permitting greater flexibility in zoning and design regulation.  A flexibility that encourages businesses who employ these workers to locate in their community, invest their money, support their schools, contribute to their civic organizations and generally make it a place well worth living.  Lack of flexibility will likely drive these entrepreneurial and knowledge-based economy workers to less regulated or stringent communities, leaving ultimate stagnation behind.

Our built environment is not for one generation of decision makers alone, but needs to have increasing flexibility to address the needs, vision and functionality of each generation.  Vibrant communities are constantly changing.  In the Ann Arbor area we say this is what we want, but more often than not, our regulatory actions don't reflect that.