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Thread: Flexing away from new urbanism design concepts in infill?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Flexing away from new urbanism design concepts in infill?

    We've had our current development code for over a decade now and (unlike the previous) it stresses the grid pattern, block size, connectivity, homes (single and multifamily) fronting streets, etc. In the late 90s/early 2000s, when we had 100+ acre greenfield sites being developed, it resulted in the construction of several subdivisions that I would characterize as being new urbanist in nature. I live in one of them, and thoroughly buy into it.

    Now, in our life cycle of our town, we're in the situation of the 100 acre square shaped parcels being mostly gone and infill of irregular shaped parcels of around 25 acres being the norm. These parcels are usually surrounded by older PUD type subdivisions where there's no pre-existing gird pattern to connect into. Parcels shaped like a five pointed star with two ditches running through them and topography similar to Patagonia (slight exaggeration). There's brain damage that occurs in trying to make these parcels meet grid pattern, block size, and street fronting principles for all the units, further complicated by the surrounding neighborhood finding these design concepts too foreign for their existing conditions.

    My question or thought is this: Are there communities with new urbanism type design codes that allow flexing away these codes in the case of "infill"? If you have 100 acres and/or a square shaped parcel, you design one way; if you have 20 acres shaped like Chile you can design another way? I'm not a planner, but an engineer, so my apologies in advance if I misrepresent aspects of new urbanism as I understand them.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    NYC is a good example, although their approach predates trendy terms like NU.

    Infill gets it's own set of zones (generally with an "A" after the designation), applied most frequently to R-4, R-5 and R-6 (medium density residential). So R-6 for residential. R-6A for R-6 density but for an infill project. In general, infill designation means that the "Quality Housing" contextual bulk standards apply, which means that the original envelope is modified to allow for the development of buildings that are similar to those around them. Generally speaking, this means higher lot coverages, street walls, and development up to the street line without setbacks. This often results in a de facto density bonus.

    Also, parking requirements may be relaxed for infill designations. Infill designation doesn't seem to effect whether or not mixed-use retail is permitted. That seems to be governed by the presence or absence of a commercial overlay, which could apply to either normal or infill designations.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    We've had our current development code for over a decade now and (unlike the previous) it stresses the grid pattern, block size, connectivity, homes (single and multifamily) fronting streets, etc. In the late 90s/early 2000s, when we had 100+ acre greenfield sites being developed, it resulted in the construction of several subdivisions that I would characterize as being new urbanist in nature. I live in one of them, and thoroughly buy into it.

    Now, in our life cycle of our town, we're in the situation of the 100 acre square shaped parcels being mostly gone and infill of irregular shaped parcels of around 25 acres being the norm. These parcels are usually surrounded by older PUD type subdivisions where there's no pre-existing gird pattern to connect into. Parcels shaped like a five pointed star with two ditches running through them and topography similar to Patagonia (slight exaggeration). There's brain damage that occurs in trying to make these parcels meet grid pattern, block size, and street fronting principles for all the units, further complicated by the surrounding neighborhood finding these design concepts too foreign for their existing conditions.

    My question or thought is this: Are there communities with new urbanism type design codes that allow flexing away these codes in the case of "infill"? If you have 100 acres and/or a square shaped parcel, you design one way; if you have 20 acres shaped like Chile you can design another way? I'm not a planner, but an engineer, so my apologies in advance if I misrepresent aspects of new urbanism as I understand them.
    Please don't take personal offence but that is the type of thinking that infuriates me about many municipal planners. They get a set of rules in their heads and blindly apply them to all situations. Thatís not planning Ė thatís being a bureaucrat.

    Planning is all about finding the best solution given the situation. Each site is different and will require the consideration of a bunch of different possible solutions. Ideas like New Urbanism or Low Impact Development are sets of tools that can be applied in some of those situations to create a desired outcome. They are not intended to be used blindly in every situation.

    If you have two possible solutions, one of which is New Urbanism, and the municipality has stated it favours New Urbanist solutions then thatís when New Urbanism should be applied.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Since I'm not a planner, no offense taken.

    We currently have a prescriptive code here because of what we had previously, a performance based ("point chart") type of code. The concern from the public and developers was that the flexibility came at the expense of predictability. With the prescriptive code in place, a zoning map was established with Euclidean type zoning. There was no zoning map under the old code. So the current prescriptive code was adopted and the bar was set high using many of the new urbanist principles as the standard.

    That's not to say that the code should be a cookbook and if you follow the recipe, a perfect project results. Modifications/variances are part of the process and the planners here often encourage them to create the best solution.

    It's just right now there's a concern among the public that granting modifications and variances means we're dumbing down the standards, especially in the infill areas. So now staff is looking into ways to make infill areas more flexible (and avoiding the dreaded words "modification" and/or "variance") and to that end why I'm asking the original question.

    I guess it's just the ongoing pendulum shift between predictability and flexibility.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Yes Howl. Which is why you can, for any given (real) city pick through the smartcode line by line and find literally scores of problems for any given particular application, as we've done here plenty of times on numerous occasions.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    It's just right now there's a concern among the public that granting modifications and variances means we're dumbing down the standards, especially in the infill areas. So now staff is looking into ways to make infill areas more flexible (and avoiding the dreaded words "modification" and/or "variance") and to that end why I'm asking the original question.

    I guess it's just the ongoing pendulum shift between predictability and flexibility.
    Saaaay...there's a lot of work out there fixing changes done on a whim! ;o)

    I'm not a performance zoning fan, myself. Then again, is anybody who worked somewhere that had one?

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    I'm not a performance zoning fan, myself. Then again, is anybody who worked somewhere that had one?

    I like perf zoning. It keeps planners employed. View perf zoning as job security. We should push for perf zoning EVERYWHERE. muahahaha.

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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    From the outside looking in, in my view, performance zoning in the hands of a capable and adept municipal planner with negotiation and collaboration skills for both the developer and public, results in better solutions than checking boxes in a prescriptive code. In the hands of a less skilled planner however, performance zoning eats them alive.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    From the outside looking in, in my view, performance zoning in the hands of a capable and adept municipal planner with negotiation and collaboration skills for both the developer and public, results in better solutions than checking boxes in a prescriptive code. In the hands of a less skilled planner however, performance zoning eats them alive.
    Yes. Situations are rarely stable for numerous reasons. When staffing is iffy - like the past two years and the next 3-5 - these issues are exacerbated and have negative outcomes, which swing the pendulum hard the other way.

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    Cyburbian
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    If the goal is to create a better community then the over-arching objectives should be first-and-foremost and the details of how to achieve those objectives are secondary. If you want to use a very rigid standardized code then you have to also have a mechanism for reviewing alternatives against the primary objectives and not just the code. If the alternative is doing a better job than the code at meeting the primary objective in a particular situation then consideration should be given to the alternative. In practical terms a proponent generally follows the code but if they want to vary from the code they need to convince the municipality that the alternative meets the primary objectives better. The public needs to understand that the code gives them assurance that a minimum level of design will be met but that some developers may wish to go beyond that level and give them something better, which is the reason for the variance.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    NYC is a good example, although their approach predates trendy terms like NU.
    Cismontane, thanks for this info. I was meaning to look this up as a result of your input and didn't get around to a response. Looking at NYC's site, I like the concept of these specially designated infill zones. It's just funny to see how different the application of the details would be between our town and the Big Apple. An FAR of 1.35? Whoa.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Howl View post
    The public needs to understand that the code gives them assurance that a minimum level of design will be met but that some developers may wish to go beyond that level and give them something better, which is the reason for the variance.
    Our code prescribes the ability to deviate from the code provided the alternative is determined to be equal to the standard or exceeds it. Many times however it's hard to argue an alternative is either equal, better, or worse, it's just different. That's when the neighbors count the number of differences from the code and form the conclusion it's inferior. An applicant reducing setbacks, road widths, etc. all with staff support is seen by the public as the applicant trying to "shoehorn" a project that's too dense (yet still within the prescribed density of that zone).

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    Cyburbian HomerJ's avatar
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    As a recent student, I think I have a different perspective on all of this (less practical in the real world but more theoretical). I always took the notion that regardless of the specific zoning adoption used, a few fundamental goals should be addressed in each code:

    -flexibility in uses
    -Allowing older buildings to exist without becoming non-comformities
    -maintaining a consistent aesthetic standard

    I don't like to pick favorites as far as zoning styles, but I have always liked the notion of form based codes. To me, they are regulating the form instead of the use, which seems to be a more effective strategy.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    Cismontane, thanks for this info. I was meaning to look this up as a result of your input and didn't get around to a response. Looking at NYC's site, I like the concept of these specially designated infill zones. It's just funny to see how different the application of the details would be between our town and the Big Apple. An FAR of 1.35? Whoa.
    Remember to look at the low end of the NYC code too. R2A is a contextual zone for max FARs of 0.5! R-2X permits FARs up to 0.85 + 20% for an attic allowance. R-3A is a narrow-lot configuration for up to FAR 0.5+20% for attic, R-3X is 0.5+20% but with allowance for two-family detached residences as well as single family homes, R-4I is a townhouse infill typology that allows FARs up to 1.35, R-5I is a good infill typology up to FAR 1.66 at 55% coverage! etc etc

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