Suburban Zoning Codes: Modifications Could Accelerate Number of Units

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on affordable housing.

Less than a year after the city of Omaha’s 2023 Housing Affordability Action Plan (HAAP) was submitted, the city’s planning department launched one of the first public-facing campaigns to encourage missing middle housing options: the 2023 ADU for U Accessory Dwelling Unit Competition.

With 80% of residential property zoned for low-density, single-family units, particularly west of 42nd Street, ADUs are one of the only options available with minimal zoning challenges, which isn’t to say it’s easy, cost-effective, or quick.

“I think it’s needed as a part of the toolbox,” said Andrew Whealy, housing development manager for inCommon Housing Development Inc.

However, he said more zoning changes will be needed in order to support Omahans through various life stages, whether it be their first apartment, family home, or transition into retirement living.

By 2030 it’s estimated that the Omaha area will need 18,000 affordable units. The task is nearly impossible without broader changes to zoning codes and collaboration across industries.

Application Bottleneck

The city of Omaha’s urban planning department, guided by the master plan, is tasked with managing all of Omaha’s development, ensuring that land and resources are being used efficiently.

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“There are maybe 20-25 years left of westward suburban growth that we can handle with our current facilities,” said Eric Englund, assistant director of urban planning for the city of Omaha.

“When you look at that, it is important to achieve that density and continue growth throughout the city and in our urban core.”

When a property owner wishes to make a zoning change to a property, for example adding an ADU to a property zoned as single-family residential, they need to go through an application process.

Each application is reviewed a minimum of three times, starting with a pre-application meeting with the city, followed by a public hearing during a planning board meeting, and finally city council. For more complex projects, owners and developers may be tasked with exploring alternative solutions and revising preliminary plans multiple times, extending the process.

For better or for worse, the application process takes a minimum of three months.

Adding a Fast Lane

Englund hopes that the ADU for U competition will present a solution to accelerate the process, and potentially pave the way for greater zoning changes.

A map included in the Housing Affordability Action Plan highlights the large percentage of Omaha that is zoned for 
single-family residential. (Photo courtesy of RDG Planning & Design)
A map included in the Housing Affordability Action Plan
highlights the large percentage of Omaha that is zoned for
single-family residential. (Photo courtesy of RDG Planning & Design)

“A goal would be to be able to develop some [of the submissions] into pre-approved plans,” he said. “That could really expedite the permit approval process and lower the expenses of hiring an architect.”

Omaha by Design released a similar solution last year with the Affordable Housing Design Playbook. The playbook focused on single-family units, specifically in configurations applicable for infill developments.

Seventy Five North, which was heavily involved in the project, has used components of the playbook in its Highlander Development. However, the playbook has not been officially accepted by the city of Omaha as a pre-approved database.

Omaha by Design is currently working on a similar project with inCommon Housing Development to create a playbook of missing middle housing plans.

In the same way that pre-approved plans could accelerate growth, Whealy wonders if there could be exemptions for routine zoning changes. For example, if there is a single-family lot that a developer wants to put two to three units on.

“That really wouldn’t change the makeup of the designated neighborhood,” Whealy said. “It would help tremendously if there could be a streamlined, pre-approval process where the city looked at maps and the zoning areas where there are a lot of empty lots and rezoned the area to be pre-approved rezoning.”

Complex Projects

However, the larger the project, the more complex the zoning considerations.

“Mixed-use developments, like Civic Square, face zoning challenges related to land use compatibility, building density and height, parking, transportation, and infrastructure,” said Jay Kline, vice president of business development for White Lotus Group.

Civic Square, which was announced by White Lotus Group in May, is a massive project that brings together residential, commercial, and recreational spaces in a compact area. The development will be on the site of the former Civic Auditorium in downtown Omaha.

Kline said the project is one of the 11 “big move” projects in Omaha’s Urban Core Strategic Plan, which aims to bring 30,000 new jobs and 30,000 new residents to the core in the next 20 years. 

In a preliminary request for plat approval for Civic Square in June of 2023, the Planning Board requested 17 items be addressed before the plat could be approved, ranging from stormwater management to several traffic-related items.

Parking Problems

Whealy said parking and traffic are big considerations for most projects, especially in older neighborhoods in eastern Omaha. For the past 10 months, he’s been working to receive approval for various zoning changes for inCommon’s Poppleton Place project. The project is southeast of Poppleton and Park Ave.

“When we’re talking about zoning requirements, it isn’t just about density, it’s about parking too,” Whealy said.

He said inCommon pursued a business district designation “which provides a little bit more flexibility in terms of required off-street/on-street parking.”

The city also rolled out the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) designation three years ago to help encourage infill development where major public transportation initiatives are present or planned. The idea is to attract individuals who want to use public transit or alternative modes of transportation on a regular basis, therefore eliminating the need for standard parking stall requirements.

Englund said TOD designations allow a reduction of parking by 50% of code requirements. 

Community Input

One such development that has been controversial was approved by the Omaha City Council in early August. Located near 31st and Marcy streets, the “Digs” apartment complex will bring 188 units to an area south of Leavenworth Street. However, there will only be 147 parking spaces on the property.

“That is less parking stalls than the number of units so there’s obviously concerns from certain neighbors about street parking,” Englund said.

Since plans were announced in early 2021, neighborhood residents have voiced their concerns, notably in a petition that gathered over 200 signatures, and through a presence at planning board and city council meetings.

Their consistent presence meant the developer sought additional solutions to encourage alternative modes of regular transportation. One such solution was leased bike storage lockers, while another was partnering with ZipCar to provide residents with cars when needed.

It Takes a Village

During the final reading for the Digs apartments, City Council President Pete Festerson acknowledged the residents and the developer for working together to create a compromise.

“There are some cultural changes that we will be challenged with here in Omaha, that we have to be real about,” said Brinker Harding, representing District 6.

“Density is certainly one of those issues if we want to continue to grow our city and maintain the level of services that we provide to the taxpayers.”

The same sentiment was expressed by Englund, Kline and Whealy. Whealy acknowledged that it might seem hard to get involved with the conversation, but residents have to be willing to speak up for zoning changes for things to move forward faster.

“If you have a heart for this or are moved by this, come alongside us with your time and resources,” Whealy said. “Advocate to your city council person, advocate with your congresspeople, your senators.

“It’s amazing how much one person or one group’s voice is heard by a lot of different stakeholders, and constituents. Every voice does matter.”