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Riley, commission push concept of form-based codes

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Council Member Chris Riley has spent the last month meeting informally with various groups, such as the Austin chapter of the AIA, to start to gather stakeholders for “test project” on the concept of form-based codes. He hopes to take part of a local street — possibly some stretch of Airport Boulevard — and overlay its corridor planning with the design standards.

“Form-based codes” has been the buzzword for city planners for years – even further back than the Congress for New Urbanism’s convention in Austin two years ago – but it was only recently that the concept finally appeared to gain some permanent traction with Council.

But the concept tends to draw blank stares from most people when it’s mentioned. At last night’s Design Commission meeting, long-time Commissioner Juan Cotera admitted supporters of the form-based code approach needed new selling points.

“One of the things that needs to be done is that we need to find a good language to explain all these things that you can mean when you say form-based code,” Cotera said. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea what form-based code means.”

When planners and architects like those on the Design Commission talk about form-based code, they are referring to set of regulations that talk more to the appearance of buildings rather than the use or purpose of that building. For instance, urban design standards would have been a step in the direction of form-based codes. It’s more a matter of how the building functions in relation to others, rather than whether your next-door neighborhood is a single-family home or a duplex.

A form-based code, as outlined on the website of the Form-Based Codes Institute, consists of a regulating plan for an area (neighborhood plans have regulating plans) that provide prescribed standards for the configuration, features and functions of buildings, as well as the configuration of public space. The plan also could bring together architectural, landscape, signage and environmental standards.

In essence, it would bring together much of the work toward planning that has gone on in the prior decade and apply it to an individual property. So, not only would you know that a particular vertical mixed-use property would offer certain height and use configurations, it also would have a prescribed pattern for commercial design standards, landscaping standards and signage treatment.

If it worked well, it would cut down on the guessing game about what a developer might or might not do on a property. It would provide a unified street front with predictable development and a pre-determined look and feel for a block. It’s every ordinance the city has created into the last decade, rolling into one code.

At last night’s Design Commission meeting, Chair Richard Weiss, with Riley’s assistance, went through a basic proposal to jumpstart the process that Riley presented to an AIA subcommittee in late July.

This is planning progress on a shoestring budget, Weiss said. The city had budgeted nothing for looking at the form-based code process, and Riley had brought forward the idea that stakeholders could come together to road test the process, starting with some portion of the Airport Boulevard corridor between Interstate 35 and Lamar. At Lamar, Airport Boulevard dead-ends into the Crestview station.

“We are at the very earliest stages of this,” Riley said. “Airport is one potential corridor. We’re not talking about the whole stretch. Some sections in there are more problematic than others, such as bringing Highland Mall to the table. But there are other opportunities along that corridor where the property owners and the surrounding neighborhoods share a common interest in the revitalization.”

Form-based planning could start with that shared interest in revitalization and work together toward a shared vision. The idea would be appealing, walkable destinations, ones that property owners could support, Riley said.

Now is the time to start looking at the smart ways for the city to expand, Weiss said. With an expectation that the population will double in 16 years, the new Austin likely will be some combination of sprawl and density, Weiss said. The only way to alleviate those pressures and preserve the integrity of neighborhoods is an effort like corridor planning, which encourages density along high-travel corridors.

Form-based planning has the flexibility of being both specific and general, Weiss said. The code would be a natural component of other planning efforts in the city, such as the new city comprehensive plan, the downtown plan, CAMPO’s long-range plan and the ongoing corridor planning for the city. Form-based planning allows all those efforts to be knit together into one plan for a property.

In one way, this is a way for the Design Commission to reap the fruits of its labor on issues such as commercial and urban design guidelines. Even if the test area was only a few blocks, it could be a demonstration of what could be done, Weiss said.

The Design Commission, of course, is a natural ally in the form-based movement. No one had to be convinced this was a move in the right direction, although Commissioner Eleanor McKinney suggested that 3-D visual models would make it easier to explain the planning concept to property owners.

Commissioner James Shieh asked about the support for the movement from other members of Council. Riley said the reception from Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee – the renamed Land Use and Transportation Committee – had been positive.

Weiss said the funding for the form-based project was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Since the effort was not budgeted, Riley had suggested a grassroots approach. The goal is to try something fast and cheap, with the buy-in of various groups, in the hopes of getting traction and future funding for the effort.

The Design Commission agreed to a committee to determine its own role in the effort. Weiss, Shieh and Commissioner Bart Whatley will serve on the committee, which will meet before the Design Commission’s September meeting. The commission’s interest appeared widespread enough to suggest that subcommittee meetings on the subject would lead to a quorum of Design Commission members.

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