by Michael R. Allen
With change coming to the Sixth Ward aldermanic seat, perhaps it is timely to consider the new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue in the Gate District. While the Gate District’s reconstruction has led to many new houses built with non-urban forms for a net decrease in the historic density of the neighborhood, none of the houses built since the Duane-Plater-Zyberk-authored master plan was adopted in 1991 have been quite as, uh, non-urban as this recently-completed one-story house. The house’s floor heights are far too short for it to complement surrounding building stock (which admittedly is somewhat depleted), its width occupies three lots and thus starts an imbalance in the rhythm of its street face and its setback from the street is excessively deep for Lafayette Avenue. The problem isn’t style or age, because there are two new houses across the street that work well enough for the urban setting.
Of course, this house is not worth considering because departing Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett had something specific to do with its design or the fact of its existence. Alderowman Triplett had no direct control whatsoever, since the owner sought no tax relief from the public, or any favors from the city government. It is worth considering because both the departing and new alderperson have a fundamental power over construction of this house and any others ever built across the city.
How do aldermen have power over the urban forms of houses? The Board of Aldermen has the authority to adopt the city’s zoning ordinance, a power not used since the city passed a new code in 1948 (a 1992 revision notwithstanding). The little house on Lafayette Avenue, with is gigantic setback, abundant width and economical construction is perfectly in compliance with the 1948 zoning code, which was written at a time when city leaders feared overcrowding. One year earlier, the city adopted a new Comprehensive Plan (again, this has not been replaced) drafted by the City Plan Commission under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. Bartholomew prophesized the city’s population rising to 1 million people, and feared that the density of the city core would lead to unworkable congestion. Thus he recommended clearance of the first ring of urban growth around downtown and a new zoning code that would mandate spacing new buildings apart in the manner of suburban development.
Bartholomew and his staff were not enamored of suburban life, but saw overcrowding as a real threat to the city’s future. Much of the city was built om 25′ and 30′ wide lots, which allowed for the density that made the city a true walking city in the early 20th century. Buildings often rose up, especially in the largely unrestricted 19th century neighborhoods in the city core. Three, four and five story multiple dwellings were not uncommon. Single dwellings often were attached in rows. Rather than strike at the poverty that led to excessive occupation of these buildings, Bartholomew took aim at the physical forms themselves, mandating wider lots and lower building heights.
The house on Lafayette Avenue meets the zoning code meted out in 1948. The section on height of single dwelling starts as follows:
No building hereafter erected shall exceed 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet in height unless two side yards of not less than 10 feet in width are provided, in which case a building may not exceed 3 stories or 45 feet in height.
The short house is perfectly legal. Note that attuning heights to the dominant forms of a neighborhood is not part of the code. Also, the code mandates side setbacks — even in areas where row housing may be found. No exceptions are named in the code. Here is the section on side setbacks, which makes one allowance to reduce requirements from four feet to three feet:
There shall be provided a side yard of not less than four (4) feet in width on each side of a building, and the total width of both side yards shall be not less than ten (10) feet; provided however, that lots of record prior to the effective date of the Zoning Code having a width of less than (40) feet, may reduce the total side yard width by an amount equal to one-half ( 1/2) the difference between the width of such lot and forty (40) feet, but in no case shall either side yard be less than three (3) feet in width.
Likewise, the section on front setback actually is disruptive to historic traditions, even in areas of the city where deed restrictions required front lawns:
When 25 percent of any frontage within the district is improved with dwellings and a majority of such improved frontage has observed a front yard line with a variation in depth of not more than 6 feet, no building hereafter constructed shall project beyond the average front yard line so established except that in no event shall the front yard line be greater than 50 feet. In all other cases, there shall be a front yard line of not less than 25 feet.
Some neighborhoods, like Soulard (recommended for total clearance by Bartholomew), have residences with no front or side setbacks whatsoever. Other neighborhoods have setbacks between 5 feet and 15 feet. The 25-foot setback had only been used on private places and in tract housing outside of the city limits when the 1948 code made it the base line requirement. Today, new developments that seek a more traditional setback have to receive an official variance from the city zoning code. While the Board of Aldermen is set to approve an ordinance that will allow overlays of form-based codes across the city, this treatment is not systemic and will result in an uneven use of zoning policies.
No matter what, the house on Lafayette Avenue is perfectly allowable under the city’s zoning code — even thought it occupies a site historically occupied by three residential buildings and even though it is located in the core of the city east of Grand Avenue. Honestly, the materials and size are not as improper as the form itself. Above is shown a historic center-hall frame house, built c. 1880, at the northeast corner of Vista and Taylor avenues in Forest Park Southeast.
This Land Reutilization Authority-owned house may not last much longer, but it shows that frame construction historically maintained scale, height, and setback even in areas with mostly masonry construction. The old house is wider than its neighbors, but balances this by combining two lots of the same size as others on the street so that its facade is proportionately suitable to the street. This old form would have been a good model for the house on Lafayette Avenue, but since the zoning code did not require any attempt at doing things differently why would the owner have bothered to look?