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Airport Boulevard form-based code appears headed for implementation

Monday, September 27, 2010 by Michael Kanin

On Thursday City Council approved $478,000 to help facilitate an exploration of a new method of writing building code. The unanimous vote came despite some questions about the cost of the project and how it might fit in among other planning efforts currently under way.


The concept, called form-based code, will be tested along a 2.5-mile stretch of Airport Boulevard. According to a staff presentation, form-based code is “a means of regulating development to achieve a specific form.” It addresses “the relationship between building facades and the public realm” as well as “the relationship of buildings to one another, and the scale and character of streets.”


Should the practice prove successful, the city may expand it to include other sections of the city.


Before they gave their thumbs up to the Airport funding, Council members heard from the three finalists selected by city staff to compete for the right to run the project. The principal firms involved are Gateway Planning Group, Inc., Design Workshop, and Austin Collaborative Design Studio, which is more widely known as McCann Adams Studio.


Gateway has teamed up with well-known traffic consultant Kimley-Horn, which is are also currently involved in the planning for a Formula 1 racetrack in southeastern Travis County. Nelsen Partners, Esperanza Development, and Urban Design Group will handle other engineering duties. The last of these firms also handled the Bend at Onion Creek.


Cultural Strategies, Inc. would handle public outreach for the group.The designer of Austin City Hall’s green roof, Eleanor McKinney, has signed up to take on landscape architecture duties.


According to the firm’s president, Scott Polikov, “the core” of his team also served as consultants on the city’s Strategic Mobility Plan. “(W)e’re a team that has national experience in doing form-based coding … But we’re also a team that does understand, and lives in, Austin.”


Gateway itself is based in Fort Worth.


Design Workshop’s version of the project would include Berkeley, Ca.-based firm Opticos Design. Design Workshop CEO Kurt Culbertson, told the Council that Opticos’ principal Daniel Parolek “literally wrote the book on form-based code.”


Other key members of this group include Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, Inc., which, among other projects, worked on what Culbertson called the “parking district plan” at the Mueller development. Urban Design Group also managed to get itself included here, as did the local civil engineering consultants at Raymond Chan and Associates, and the Washington, D.C.-based real estate specialists at RCLCO. Jose Martinez would take care of outreach duties.


Parolek told the Council that the familiarity of the project would be a key factor. “The ultimate goal of the form-based code should be predictability for the residents of the community in terms of the types of projects that they’re seeing,” he said, “predictability for your staff, predictability for developers, and predictability for you as decision makers of knowing what the vision that the community has bought off on and writing a code to specifically implement that vision.”


Design Workshop is based in Denver.


The McCann Adams pitch includes Clarion Associates. That firm would handle the actual coding for the group, while HDR would take care of the engineering. Clarion’s history with Austin includes work on the city’s McMansion ordinance and its mixed-use design standards.


Fehr & Peers is also part of the McCann Adams group. That firm has worked locally on the Mueller project and the Crestview Station. Shuronda Robinson’s Adisa Communications, which also took part in the Mueller redevelopment, would be responsible for public outreach.


“We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to form-based code,” said Clarion’s Matthew Goebel. “We come to the project knowing that we need to work with you to think about an approach that makes sense for Austin.”


McCann is a locally based firm headed by former urban design officer Jana McCann. She and husband Jim Adams have the contract for the Downtown Austin plan.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked staff about the relatively high price tag associated with the project. “How did we arrive at this dollar figure?” he asked. “(It’s) almost half a million dollars. I mean, we’ve done so many studies over the last year or two, (and) my recollection is this is one of the priciest I’ve seen.”


Assistant Director of Planning George Adams told the mayor that the effort wasn’t simply a study. “We’re asking the consultants to actually come up with the code itself, which is a role that staff has taken on to one degree or another with a lot of the other projects,” he said. “That can be a fairly pricey item.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole seemed concerned with how the form-based code project might affect other planning department efforts. “In my mind, y’all have a lot of projects that we have charged you with,” she said.


“I want to make sure that we get you on the agenda for the comprehensive planning and transportation committee so that we give you more direction or recommendation to the full Council about our priority of projects,” she later added.


Council Member Chris Riley has been pushing for the form-based code experiment (see In Fact Daily, April 8). At a break in the Council’s proceedings he told In Fact Daily that he was impressed with what he had seen. “(We saw) three very qualified teams,” he said.


“It confirms my sense that we’ve got a lot of opportunity (along) this corridor.”


In reference to Cole’s concerns, Riley added that, with a plethora of recent projects, “a burden (has been put) on city staff.” However, he noted that consultants and members of the community would handle much of the form-based code work.

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