Cambridge Main Street wanted to support local businesses—and new zoning is helping to make it happen

Downtown Cambridge
Main Street in downtown Cambridge, MD. Photo by Eli Pousson, via Flickr.

It took a golf course to make the city of Cambridge, MD reconsider how it was planning development.

The 1,000-acre project would have added 3,200 homes to Cambridge, a city of just over 12,000 people on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. After several rounds of city approval followed by fierce public opposition, the Maryland Board of Public Works purchased 70% of the land back from the developer and committed it to preservation.

“That experience was a major impetus to rewrite the City’s comprehensive plan,” said City of Cambridge Planner Anne Roane. In 2008 the City began the process of updating its plan for growth. And city planners weren’t the only ones excited about the new initiative.

Cambridge Main Street, a group representing local businesses in Cambridge, had begun to see zoning as a crucial part of achieving its mission to support businesses in the city’s historic downtown. In 2006, Cambridge Main Street began working with the American Institute of Architects to learn what residents liked about downtown Cambridge and what they wanted to improve. The organization hosted panel discussions, a town hall meeting and conducted surveys of residents, and came to realize that in addition to things like more hotels, the city needed new zoning that supported businesses downtown.

Cambridge Main Street and the City of Cambridge began working together to create a new comprehensive plan that would meet the needs of residents and businesses. The City hosted over 75 public meetings to inform the plan and in 2011, the City Council adopted a final comprehensive plan designed to “help prioritize community needs and investments…publicly announce and renew commitments to people, places, and to ideas, [and] give direction to all who would accept responsibility for the well-being of their city.”

Now the City is working to make the plan’s vision a reality, and updated zoning regulations are the first step. In convincing the public of a need to change downtown zoning, Roane noted that bringing the fiscal savings of smart growth strategies such as infill development into the discussion “made a big difference.” Smart Growth America’s recent Building Better Budgets report included a study that showed that the State of Maryland as a whole could save 60% on local road infrastructure over a 20 year period by employing smart growth strategies.

In September, the City’s Department of Planning will recommend a new draft Unified Development Code to the City Council. Roane’s key piece of advice to small municipalities undertaking big projects to help them grow smarter? “Work with partners as much as you can.” Cambridge worked with the Maryland Department of Planning and with students from the schools of architecture of Morgan State University and the University of Maryland. The City also had help from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which works to coordinate federal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments to help communities across the county strengthen their local economy, and help households in those communities save money and time.