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Thread: Form based code criticism

  1. #1
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    Form based code criticism

    I am working for a (conservative) County government and am researching mixed use zone districts and form based codes. There are several highly urbanized but blighted commercial centers that could be good candidates for form based (or hybrid code) redevelopment.

    My question is I have read plenty of accolades regarding form based codes and hybrid codes. For those who are actually trying to use them, what criticisms do you have? How do DEVELOPERS like them? Are they really as much of a panacea as they are claimed to be? I have NO CHANCE of the idea being entertained unless the benefits to builders outweigh the drawbacks.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Form-based codes are only as good as the administrative process and due diligence that supports them. Too often, fbc's get thrown into the mix without doing enough market analysis to make sure that a)the local market will support the kinds of development the code calls for (eg: can you really support all that retail?) and that the general regulatory environment in which they're being applied will support them (is the admin/approval process clear, do other reg's reinforce the intended outcomes of the code, etc).

    So yes, IMO fbc's can be worth the hype, but they're typically the most visible piece of lots of moving parts. If you haven't already, check out the form-based codes institute, as they've covered lots of this.

  3. #3
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    FBC

    Yes, I have been reading through the Form Based Code Institute's website extensively. The missing piece is still - how do developer like them? Are they really easier than Euclidean, and have the built results lived up to expectations?

  4. #4
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    They fail when political will is weak and developer's prefer to do things their way rather than in a master planned fashion. Many FBCs specifically script each facet of the form based code from the dimensions of windows, to the depth of entries, height of floors, etc. On a positive note, the codes are written extremely flexible to allow a wide variety of uses to occupy the structures without use permits.

    Where Euclidean zoning can fail by being too prescriptive of uses, FBC can fail by being to prescription of form.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jenalan View post
    The missing piece is still - how do developer like them? Are they really easier than Euclidean, and have the built results lived up to expectations?
    My experience is only in the pre-passage phase - I wasn't there to get it passed. And in my discussions with the affected parties they were all for it, provided the review time was less than current (and at that time, that place had a glacial review process, so it was a legitimate concern).

    That is: giving a developer more flexibility and clarity of expectation is usually good, unless your developers can only do tilt-ups and McSuburbs. Providing them a code with clear expectations, consistency, surety and lesser review time is always good. If your place can't provide these, it won't get enacted no matter how much you wish it to be so. Alternatively, if your staff isn't up to it - inspectors need to know, planning staff needs to be able to handle it - it will be a waste of time.

  6. #6
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    The community where I worked previously to this job, which could safely be described as politically moderate but in the heart of a very conservative county in a red state. Here's what I wrote in a report to a comprehensive plan committee where I now work.

    The 71 acre site was originally zoned B-2 (a general business/commercial district), and there were previously conceptual plans for a PUD that included a conventional vehicle-oriented shopping center, elder care and housing, patio homes, and a mini-storage facility. After the City of **** adopted the SmartCode in 2009, the developer reimagined the site as a mixed use neighborhood. City officials, planning staff (including the author of this document), and the property owner conceived the new vision for the site at a weekend charrette; first outlining goals, visiting the site, identifying key attributes on the site, and breaking into two groups to begin the design process. The team worked with the property owner to create a traditional neighborhood design that will be economically viable, while meeting the requirements of the SmartCode.


    Since I left, that city approved another SmartCode-based development. Not too bad in a recession that otherwise bought development in the fastest growing city in that state to a halt.

    Where I work now, in one of the nation's most liberal communities, developers never really embraced the PUD over conventional zoning. I think it's because the PUD regulations are extremely vague; there's no set standards or approval criteria. Everything is left to negotiation, which in this area can take many months or even years. At least with the SmartCode, a developer knows the rules going in; they're not made up along the way as with the PUD process. Developers want to be on a fair playing field, and at least here, I think the SmartCode will create that environment.

    Form-based codes do have a steeper learning curve over traditional zoning.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  7. #7
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    In my city, we have FBC just for the downtown area, where there is a main-street type setting, and where frontages built up to the sidewalk are emphasized. If you want to enhance a particular corridor or main street, I encourage the use of FBC, drafted in a straight-forward and clear fashion. In exchange, ease up on the uses allowed. In essence, that is the trade-off. Ask for better form in exchange for flexibility in uses. At least, sell it that way. If not, the proposal for FBC may just come off as being onerous and another layer of bureaucracy.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian ThePinkPlanner's avatar
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    From what I've observed, implementing the FBC can be a little burdensome on developers in the beginning, with changes needed to building facades or new developments having to meet stricter standards. But once that is done, they are largely self-sustaining with little needed from the building owner/developer thereafter.

    One key of course it to make sure they are being used in the appropriate locations and markets. Another huge key is to get the business community involved from the start. Its tougher to sell them on something that was "done to them" as opposed to with them. Make a point to invite them at every step along the way.

  9. #9
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    I should have said this earlier: you may encounter more opposition from within certain government agencies than from among outside interests. The SmartCode or any FBC will be a very hard sell to a building department (steeper learning curve, claims of incompatibility with a building code, etc) and first responders ("Wide streets save lives!", claims that decreased spacing between buildings will cause fires to spread, and so on.). Engineers tend to be conservative, so they'll challenge such things as the effectiveness of light-imprint stormwater management systems over traditional brute-force methods. Also remember that building officials, first responders and engineers think in terms of avoiding worst-case scenarios; aesthetics, building real neighborhoods, sustainability, curbing urban sprawl and the like are moot issues with them. The state of the contemporary built environment is as much their fault as the planners of the 1950s.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Its harder to sell an FBC, with its promise of more admin review and more flexible use table, in a community that already has very fast review turnaround and a cumulative use table where residences are already allowed in the nonresidential zoning districts.

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