Monday, May 3, 2010

Preferred alternative for Cincinnati form-based codes discussed

A consultant team from Opticos Design, Inc. and Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc. updated the Cincinnati City Planning Commission on the preferred alternative for implementing form-based codes during a special public meeting Friday morning.

Since a December 2008 motion introduced by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Councilmember Laketa Coke, the Department of City Planning and Buildings, a working group composed of staff from multiple City departments, and a steering committee composed of interested neighborhood stakeholders have been working with the consultants on ways in which form-based codes can be incorporated into the City's zoning code and applied to its various neighborhoods.

Unlike conventional zoning, form-based codes emphasize building form over land use. Aspects of form-based codes include building height and bulk, fa├žade treatments, the location of parking, and the relationship of buildings to the street and to each other.

What results are mixed-use, compact, and walkable neighborhoods.

"Your current zoning code, even though it has elements of form, the overall framework is still land use," said Dan Parolek of Opticos Design. "Form-based code steps back and says, 'What kind of place do you want?'"


Form-based codes are established through a charrette design process that includes residents, business and property owners, community leaders, and other neighborhood stakeholders.

Because the visioning process is community-driven and results in predictable outcomes, it allows neighborhoods to develop a larger strategy for how they want their neighborhoods to look.

It is ultimately up to them to decide whether they desire to preserve and maintain what they already have, to develop a few key catalyst projects, or to undergo a wholesale transformation, Parolek said.

So far, Avondale, Clifton, College Hill, Hyde Park East, Hyde Park Square, Madisonville, Northside, Oakley Square, O'Bryonville, Pleasant Ridge, Roselawn, Walnut Hills, and Westwood have expressed interest in having form-based codes implemented.

A city of neighborhoods

Parolek said that the thing that most struck him during his early tours of Cincinnati was that it's "a city of neighborhoods".

Because of that, he said, neighborhood business districts, or "main streets", should be the focus of Cincinnati's form-based code implementation.

But he noted that many of those main streets have completely lost their character over the years, citing Roselawn as an example. Along Reading Road, the neighborhood transforms from a traditional main street to an auto-oriented, "placeless" sea of outbuildings and asphalt over the course of just a block and a half.

"One of the big detriments to a large majority of main streets is that the thoroughfares are built to move people through quickly," Parolek said.

These places will only survive through such efforts as traffic calming and on-street parking, he said.

"A compromise in walkability causes these small shops to lose their competitive advantage [to larger big box developments and power centers]," Parolek said.

Parolek also took issue with some of the City's current business district zoning practices, which tend to dictate similar uses in a district-wide, linear fashion.

Form-based codes would allow each community to create more focal points, making the redevelopment of the "in between" spaces much more flexible.

"An important part of this is removing barriers and regulations that have led to the erosion of main streets," Parolek said. "What can we do to maintain them or get stores to move back into these neighborhood main streets?"


To implement and encourage the use of form-based codes within Cincinnati, the City would likely have to create an urban design studio within its Department of City Planning.

Prior to the first charrette, a market-wide analysis would help consultants produce a draft form-based code.

The charrette itself is envisioned as a four- or five-day, intensive public visioning process composed of meetings, presentations, studios, and open houses.

What would result is not only a summary report of the charrette, but a more tailored draft of the code that would be subject to administrative and public review.

Parolek said that the estimated cost to the City for consultants and team members could be between $193,000 and $265,000 for the first neighborhood's charrette process.

But because much of the pre-charrette work has already been done for the first visioning session, future sessions are estimated to cost between $88,000 and $113,000. And as the City's urban studio becomes more familiar with the process, it may be able to save money by conducting those charrettes in-house, Parolek said.

Upon completion, zoning text and map amendments make their way to the City Planning Commission and City Council for approval. In neighborhoods that adopt form-based codes, they would override all other zoning regulations except for hillside and historic preservation overlays.

City Planning staff will continue to work with City departments and neighborhood leaders. Input received will lead to a final strategy, which is expected to be presented to the City Planning Commission and City Council this fall.

"Form-based codes are not the solution to every societal ill," Qualls said. "Rather, what it is, is it's saying that if you have these great neighborhoods and these great neighborhood main streets, that instead of having policies and practices in place that tear them apart or erode them over time, at least put in place policies that give neighborhoods a fighting chance."


This Thursday and Friday, Qualls will lead City staff, developers, and neighborhood leaders on a trip to Nashville to further explore its successful implementation of form-based codes.

On May 6, attendees will get to observe the community visioning process for Community Character Policies as part of the North Nashville Community Plan.

On May 7, the tour will visit three of Nashville's most successful residential, retail and commercial developments:

  • Lenox Village: An award-winning Traditional Neighborhood Development, this suburban lifestyle center features single-family homes, townhomes, and a community town center packed with neighborhood amenities;
  • Hill Center: A 220,000-square-foot upscale retail development anchored by a Whole Foods grocery store, restaurant, and office space with a focus on pedestrian-friendliness and sustainability; and
  • The Gulch: A neighborhood created from a former rail yard, now the site of restaurants, retail, live music venues, and the 22-story upscale condominium called the Icon.
Those interested in attending are asked to contact Jennifer O'Donnell by the end of Tuesday, May 4, at jennifer.o’ Carpooling opportunities are available.

Accommodations are available at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel in North Nashville.

Previous reading on BC:
Cincinnati form-based code initiative moves forward (2/5/09)
Cincinnati may appropriate $50,000 to hire form-based code consultant (12/3/08)
Report on form-based code overlays due in November (10/23/08)