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Overlay Zone

Best Practice Category:

Compact Design Complete Neighborhoods Site Layout, Parking Layout, and Building Design Parking Management Transportation Demand Management


Overlay zoning is a regulatory tool whereby a special zoning district is created and placed over an existing base zone(s). The overlay zone identifies special provisions in addition to (or instead of) those in the underlying base zone. The overlay district can share common boundaries with the base zone or fall across several base zone boundaries. Regulations or incentives are attached to the overlay district to encourage particular types of development within a special area – such as within a radius of an existing or planned transit station or along a transit corridor. The overlay can allow for different uses, higher development intensity, and modified standards, sometimes combined with various bonuses and incentives. Overlay zones can also be used to stimulate new development by reducing development requirements (such as parking standards, setbacks, etc.) to support new construction near transit. There are three basic steps to creating an overlay district: 1) defining the district’s purpose, 2) identifying the geographic area, and 3) establishing specific rules for the district.

Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan credit: SCAG and City of San Bernardino, developed by PlaceWorks for San Bernardino TOD Overlay, a SCAG Compass Blueprint Demonstration project, 2010.

The advantage of an overlay zone is that adoption can typically be accomplished more easily than a Specific Plan or comprehensive zoning update, which results in cost or time savings. In general, overlay zones have the potential to be very effective tools for promoting transit-supporting development near stations or stops. Since the standards are tailored to development needs of specific districts, they can help communities evolve towards an envisioned urban form or address specific inequities/undesirable land uses.


  • Standards and guidelines tailored to a specific district
  • Increased flexibility for developers
  • Improved pedestrian and bicycle access to transit
  • Streetscape and other infrastructure improvements near transit
  • Appropriate transitions to surrounding neighborhoods


West Hollywood Transit Overlay Zone.

Bus Rider at WEHO bus stop; Chris Yarzab

In order to facilitate new projects being built near existing and potential future transit nodes, the City of West Hollywood established an overlay zone in the General Plan Land Use Element. This Transit Overlay Zone applies to parcels along commercial boulevards and adjacent multi-family zoned parcels within 1/3 mile of major bus transfer points. This special zoning allows for modifications to the development standards to encourage mixed-use development (and other transportation-related improvements). The West Hollywood TOZ is different in that it offers incentives for building in transit areas that are not related to the intensity or height of a project; rather, projects can get exemptions or changes on less visible but often just as critical zoning requirements such as setbacks, stepbacks, lot coverages, parking requirements, open space requirements, etc. The incentives granted are subject to planning department and design review discussion, fostering a highly flexible set of standards.

Specifically, individual development projects in a Transit Overlay Zone may be allowed modifications to development standards, excluding height and density, for providing certain amenities in addition to any required TDM measures, including one or more of the following: contribution to City transit programs; pedestrian improvements as appropriate; on-site shuttle program for seniors and persons with disabilities, group trips, subway shuttle, or other purposes; accommodating bus stops or taxi stands on-site; bicycle facilities; or other improvements that meet the intent of this policy.

See more General Plan, LU-2.4, Page 3-27.

Pasadena TOD Overlay Zone

To encourage transit usage and to generate a safe and pleasant pedestrian-oriented environment, the City of Pasadena developed an overlay that applies to new development projects located within 1,320 feet (1/4 mile) of a light-rail station platform. The TOD overlay zone specifies standards and requirements for the following:

  • Prohibited uses. To bolster the transformation of the land uses surrounding transit, the overlay zone includes a list of uses that are no longer allowed, such as drive-throughs, vehicle service, gas stations, wholesaling, and storage.
  • Desired character/development type. To guide development towards the built form envisioned by the City, the zoning language requires that new projects with over 15,000 square feet of non-residential uses meet the following findings: the proposed project is oriented toward the transit user, is designed to enhance pedestrian/bicycle access to public transit, and encourages pedestrian activity and/or other non-motor vehicle modes of transportation and reduces dependency on motor vehicles.
  • Parking. The regulations set both minimums and maximums for residential parking. By restricting the number of parking spaces that can be built without a discretionary action in rail-served areas, the zoning works to support the trip reduction goals of the 2004 General Plan. Reductions can also be granted for retail and office uses.

See more Section 17.50.340.

San Bernardino TOD District.

San Bernardino Transit; House1090

In planning for the completion of the sbX E Street Corridor Bus Rapid Transit Project (sbX BRT), the City of San Bernardino prepared a Transit Overlay District (TD) that would allow and encourage an appropriate mix and intensity of land uses in a compact pattern around stations in order to foster transit usage, create new opportunities for economic growth, and encourage infill/redevelopment. The existing General Plan Land Use and Zoning designations are maintained for all affected parcels – the TD District is a true ‘overlay’ zone which further defines development standards specifically for the station areas. The guiding principles for the districts included:

  • An attractive transit station with surrounding pedestrian amenities as the focus of the area.
  • An appropriate mix and intensity of uses such as office, retail, residential, and recreational facilities that support transit use and are designed for convenient access.
  • Inviting and pedestrian-focused open spaces on both public and private properties.
  • A walkable and bikeable area with pleasant connections linking transit to neighborhoods.
  • An interconnected street and non-vehicular network where walkways, bikeways, landscaping, and other streetscape amenities receive priority.

A table (on page 49 in the Plan) is included to clarify the key differences between existing zoning and the overlay zone:

  • Eight foot minimum upper floor step-back (none in existing zoning)
  • At least 50% minimum building façade presence is required (none in existing zoning)
  • No maximum Lot coverage (50-100% in current code, depending on zone)
  • No minimum front setback, max front setback of 15-25 ft (minimum of 5-20 ft in existing zoning)
  • New setbacks, step-backs, commercial service location and screening for residential transitions

Overlay Zone

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Artesia City Center Mixed Use Overlay Zone

The City of Artesia is in the process of adopting a very simple overlay zone with the stated goal of enabling and encouraging mixed-use development (residential over commercial retail) in the city center. While this zone was not expressly created to support transit (the City does not currently have any rail transit), a mix of uses is highly supportive of public transportation and TODs in general, and as such, could be applicable to similar contexts. The allowed uses in the overlay zone are the same as the uses allowed in the underlying zone – with the addition of condominiums, live/work units, and other affordable housing units.

To meet the goals of downtown revitalization, the overlay zone allows for a maximum 2.5 FAR, 45 dwellings units per acre, and seven stories. Providing this additional development capacity should stimulate new investment in the City’s central core. The adoption ordinance also includes a variety of standards and requirements to ensure good planning principles and architecture are used in mixed-use developments.

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Additional Examples

  • San Fernando TOD/Corridor Zone . Originally adopted in the late 2000s, the TOD zone is currently being revised. The changes that have been suggested by the community illustrate some of the trade-offs between revitalizing underutilized areas and protecting the adjacent, high quality single-family neighborhoods from new development perceived as out-of-scale.
  • Mixed-Use Development Zone, County of Los Angeles . Provides for a mixture of residential, commercial, and limited light industrial uses and buildings in close proximity to bus and rail transit stations.
  • Southeast Los Angeles Community Plan Implementation Overlay . The Transit-Oriented District maximizes the presence of fixed light rail transit as well as intersections with established Metro Rapid bus lines, within the community, and offers greater development incentives for mixed-use projects that provide affordable housing. The overlay includes a series of TOD “sub-areas” which are calibrated to the existing neighboring development intensity and the proximity to transit.
    See more : Chapter 4: Transit-Oriented District