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Conventional Zoning

Best Practice Category:

Compact Design Complete Neighborhoods Street and Network Connectivity Site Layout, Parking Layout, and Building Design Transit Prioritization, Accessibility, and Area Design Parking Management Transportation Demand Management Pedestrian and Bicycle Circulation


Zoning is the most basic component of land-use planning. A zoning code is a policy and regulatory document that establishes development standards, development intensity, allowable uses, and design guidelines to regulate land use in distinct areas. In a zoning code, areas of land are divided into mapped zones within which various land uses are permitted (residential, industrial, recreational or commercial). 1 In addition to use, zoning laws also typically regulate character of development; its shape, design, and compatibility.

Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan credit: Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan

Zoning includes regulation of development density (from low-density housing such as single family homes to high-density such as high-rise apartment buildings), the height and location of buildings, the proportions of the types of space on a lot (between landscaped space, impervious surface, and vehicle lanes), and where and how much parking is provided. According to state government code, zoning may regulate any of the following:

  • The type of use, and the intensity of that use, of buildings, structures, and land as between industry, business, residences, open space, including recreation, enjoyment of scenic beauty, use of natural resources, and other purposes.
  • Signs and billboards.
  • The location, height, bulk, number of stories, and size of buildings and structures.
  • The size and use of lots, yards, courts, and other open spaces.
  • Setbacks, and the percentage of a lot which may be occupied by a building or structure.
  • Requirements for off-street parking and loading.
  • Public parks, public buildings, or other public spaces. 2
Urban Design Framework, Willowbrook TOD Plan; County of Los Angeles / LA Metro

Zoning can be used as a tool to promote development around transit by allowing for compact development and a mix of uses, requiring active ground floors, and other critical elements as described in the examples below. Additionally, it offers a great deal of flexibility compared to other tools, as there are many interventions that can be performed within the context of conventional zoning that are less time intensive and costly than preparing a Specific Plan or form-based code. These can include adjusting existing zoning categories to allow for mixed use, creating basic urban design standards, requiring bike parking, or allowing for exemptions to private or public open space requirements. These actions are relatively easy for local governments since they can be done through simple amendments to an existing zoning code.

This section will address only basic, “traditional” zoning as it relates to transit. However, there are several other zoning-based tools, which will be covered elsewhere in this Toolkit. For example, a zoning district can be form-based, be complemented with additional overlay zoning, contain performance-based standards, or provide for incentives and bonuses.


  • Increased development near transit stations.
  • Encouraging or requiring mixed-use development.
  • Diverse and appropriate mix of uses near transit stations.
  • Building design and location that supports transit use and pedestrian activity.
  • Regulations relating to ground floor dimensions and character.


South Gate Transit Village Zone (TV).

Based on language and policies in the City’s existing General Plan, the City of South Gate adopted a new zoning designation for areas in close proximity of an existing or planned transit station. The TV Zone is intended as a transit-oriented mixed-use district combining housing with retail, office, civic uses, entertainment, and employment. The zone provides for vertical and horizontal mixed-use development, blended with high-density transit-proximate housing. Preferred frontage types are listed, and bonuses are allowed for density, height, and FAR. Specifically, the TV zone states that:

  • Buildings should be mixed- or single-use, forming a streetwall of 2 to 4 stories, with upper volumes of up to 8 stories, and bonus allowances for up to 10 stories.
  • Requires 80% of all building frontage along primary streets or facing public open space or plazas to incorporate ground-floor retail and active pedestrian-oriented uses.
  • 65% of the building shall include a 0 foot setback and build to the property line.
  • Streetscapes should be urban and comfortable, with wide sidewalks in support of pedestrian activity and canopy trees for shade.
  • Non-residential parking near a transit station should be provided through a combination of on-street customer spaces (parallel and/or diagonal) and park-once/public parking.

Conventional Zoning

See more Pages 46-47. Chapter 11.22.050

Culver City Mixed-Use Development Standards.

In lieu of creating zones that exclusively allow mixed use, Culver City went in a slightly different direction and created separate, overarching zoning standards that govern mixed use, where allowed by applicable underlying zoning districts. Various bonuses are available for providing specified community benefits.

  • Residential density shall not exceed 35 dwelling units per acre, increased to 65 du/acre for lots identified for transit-oriented development and that provide community benefits (public parking, pocket park or public open space, streetscape improvements, or funding for a city shuttle).
  • All uses permitted in the underlying zone are permitted in mixed use developments.
  • Residential uses other than live/work units are prohibited on the ground floor adjacent to arterial streets.
  • Commercial uses are required on the ground floor adjacent to arterial streets and at all corners adjacent to arterial streets (minimum depth of 30 feet). Commercial floor area shall be 10% of the projects total gross floor area, or 30% of the project lot size.
  • At the Director's discretion, an economic feasibility study evaluating the viability of the proposed commercial uses within the mixed use development may be required. (to prevent empty/tenantless ground floors)

See more Chapter 17.400.065.

Long Beach Boulevard Planned Development District.

Planned Development Districts; City of Long Beach

Several years prior to construction of the Blue Line stations, the City of Long Beach established a planned development district around these areas to provide design guidelines, development and parking standards, and use tables. Essentially no different from any other zone in the municipal code (with the exception that it was subject to development review by two separate agencies), the nomenclature signifies the City anticipates major change and development activity to occur.

The design vision described in the zoning is one of focused "nodes," which are to be focal points of Long Beach Boulevard in order to encourage pedestrian activity. Developers will be required to provide special design and architectural treatments for public spaces (outdoor seating, landscaping, retail plazas, etc). As the City’s former ‘auto row,’ the district’s zoning also includes provisions to address the high concentration of auto-related businesses. Minimizing the negative impact of nonconforming uses is important to generating the appropriate pedestrian ground-level character. Some of the other notable transit-supportive components are:

  • Pedestrian-friendly design guidelines (page 5). Emphasis on streetscape quality, articulation, plazas, open space, and avoiding blank walls at ground level.
  • Performance standards for non-conforming uses (pg. 10-12). Detailed regulations for auto dealerships to prevent an overly adverse impact on adjacent properties and surrounding neighborhoods.

See more

Palo Alto Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development District.

Downtown Palo Alto; Sanfranman59

The City of Palo Alto created a special zoning district intended to allow higher density residential dwellings on commercial, industrial and multi-family parcels within a walkable distance of the California Avenue Caltrain station, while protecting low density residential parcels and parcels with historical resources that may also be located in or adjacent to this area. The combining district is intended to foster densities and facilities that: (1) Support use of public transportation; (2) Encourage a variety of housing types, commercial retail and limited office uses; (3) Encourage project design that achieves an overall context-based development for the PTOD overlay area; (4) Require streetscape design elements that are attractive pedestrians and bicyclists; (5) Increase connectivity to surrounding existing and planned pedestrian and bicycle facilities; and (6) Implement the city’s Housing Element and Comprehensive Plan.

See more : Chapter 18.34.
To read an evaluation of the success of the PTOD district, see McKay’s article

Additional Examples

Willowbrook TOD Zone.

Planned Development Districts; City of Long Beach

An excellent model set of regulations for a typical transit-supportive place. The Willowbrook zone emphases development standards for mixed uses and ground-floor character. These standards can be copied or adapted for any mixed-use zones near transit. Gives guidance on:

  • Setbacks, front yard depth, heights, intensity, unit size minimums
  • Transparency requirements
  • Standards for outdoor dining
  • Minimum Residential open space

See more Table 3-5, pages 38-41.

Other tools, toolkits, resources, or manuals that influence or relate to this tool

San Mateo TOD Report.

Recommendations for Infill-Supportive Zoning. Key suggestions are:
  • Smaller minimum lot sizes
  • Allow multiple units on vacant lots even if zoning is single-family or low density
  • Eliminate maximum densities, establish minimum residential densities

See more page 97.

1 Thomas, Eileen Mitchell (2006). "Zoning". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from
2 CA Government Code Section 65850. (2010). Retrieved from