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Questions linger about new form of zoning

Friday, June 22, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Austin planners hope to use a relatively new zoning tactic to improve roughly two miles of development along Airport Boulevard from I-35 to Lamar Boulevard in northeast Austin. However, questions linger about the approach – known as form-based code.


During a briefing at Thursday’s Council meeting, a handful of issues surfaced as Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo questioned city staff and consultant Scott Polikov about the process.


Morrison and Tovo offered specific concerns, including what effect form-based coding might have on neighborhood affordability and public space. But the wider question that flavored the proceedings was just what is form-based coding?


Form-based code is considered an alternative to conventional zoning. The process looks at how structures in an area interact with each other and attempts to provide zoning to complement that interaction. In contrast to traditional zoning, which is concerned with separating types of uses (such as retail, residential, office, etc.), form-based codes use the physical size and form of buildings and streets “as the organizing principle for the code,” according to the Form-Based Codes Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit professional organization.


The prospect of using form-based code along Airport Boulevard first surfaced as early as 2009 (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 9, 2009). It was associated with Council Member Chris Riley, whose staff continued to push the approach and the funding of a study in fall 2010 (see In Fact Daily, October 5, 2010).


Throughout the process, questions have continued to come up about how form-based coding works and how it might be specifically employed along Airport Boulevard.


On Thursday, Morrison focused on affordability. She pointed to contributions from a University of Texas class directed by Associate Professor Elizabeth Mueller, which suggested that the city should incorporate “the goal of equitable and sustainable affordability for residents.”


“What is that going to look like?” Morrison asked the consultant, Polikov.


After something of a preamble, Polikov said: “This is the question that people are asking themselves all over the United States. If we can figure out some partial answer to that it would be a big deal.”


Polikov continued to illustrate problems his team had encountered as it tried to implement affordable solutions for long-time residents. “I think what happened was we started to fracture the coalition that emerged around the form-based approach … because there is not unanimity in the neighborhood as to how that particular issue (affordability) cuts,” he said.


The version of form-based code that would be implemented along Airport Boulevard would be flexible enough to incorporate whatever future affordability measures might come for the area, according to Polikov.


Tovo wondered about the interplay of public and private space in the corridor.  “How (will) civic space … play into … the other areas that aren’t identified as civic open space?” she asked.


Polikov responded that form-based code would “be as nuanced as possible.”


“Just the whole notion of reinventing Airport Boulevard itself … as a people-oriented corridor with great street elements, that alone is a civic opportunity,” he began, before going into specifics.


“We would want to require more creativity in how you actually deal with your site itself,” Polikov continued. “For example, we would give you the opportunity – but you have to pick – on certain things like balconies, if you’re doing a multi-story building, … publicly accessible rooftops for restaurants.”


City staff will start drafting the code based on input received from the community, Council members and the Planning Commission. If all proceeds as planned, the new zoning along Airport Boulevard will be ready for implementation in early 2013.

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