MRSC has joined with Phil Olbrechts, Attorney, Ogden Murphy Wallace, Pat Dugan, Dugan Consulting Services, Anindita Mitra, founder of CREÄ Affiliates, LLC, and Bob Bengford, Partner, MAKERS, to bring you the "Planning Advisor" article series on planning and growth management issue affecting Washington Local Governments. The "Planning Advisor" will feature a new article each month with timely information and advice you can use.*
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A Hybrid Approach to Form-Based Codes in the Northwest
By Bob Bengford, Partner, MAKERS
Can form-based codes
be applied to Northwest communities? Of course.
Are they appropriate
for your community? It depends.
Below are some
things to think about if you are considering updating your land
use/design codes using a form-based approach.
About Form Based
Established first in
Florida in 1982 as an alternative to conventional zoning, form-based
codes (FBC’s) regulate development to achieve a specific
physical form. Form-based codes include prescriptive requirements on
the location and form of buildings along street frontages and on the
design of streets and sidewalks. Permitted use lists are minimal to
non-existent. The Form-Based Code Institute’s website
(formbasedcode.org) provides a wealth of information on the topic.
codes have been applied to historic downtowns, neighborhood centers
with well established character and/or a well-defined vision, or
master planned sites under consolidated ownership. By their nature,
they are often very detailed and prescriptive in terms of streetscape
design and development frontages. This makes them well suited to
smaller targeted areas. These same features, however, make their
application on a citywide basis or for areas with sloping terrain,
irregular street patterns, and dispersed land ownership patterns much
more challenging. Over time, various hybrid codes have been developed
for unique local conditions that combine form-based code elements
with traditional zoning.
Form Based Codes: Slow to Come to the Northwest
codes have been used successfully in other parts of the Country for
three decades, they have only recently been applied in the Northwest.
One possible explanation is the perceived difficulty in adapting
form-based codes to the unique local contexts (both physical and
political). The Northwest’s diverse physical terrain, lack of
established desirable development patterns, a desire for a broad
range of architectural styles, and the fear of giving up permitted
use lists are all real and perceived challenges in applying
form-based codes. Perhaps another barrier is the lack of first-hand
experience in drafting, adopting and implementing form-based codes.
extensive use of design standards and guidelines over the past twenty
years may be another reason that local communities have been
reluctant to try form-based codes. With design standards or
guidelines, communities can keep their permitted use lists and craft
site and building design provisions that help to achieve their
specific design goals.
interest and curiosity about form-based codes is growing. As their
application is spreading across the country, there are a great number
of examples to learn from. Notable form-based or hybrid form-based
codes within Washington include:
Terrace – Town Center Regulations and Design Standards
- Bothell –
Downtown Subarea Regulations (adopted 2009);
- Spokane Valley
– Sprague & Appleway Corridor Subarea Plan Development
Regulations (adopted 2009);
- Langley –
Wharf Street Overlay District Code (adopted 2009);
- Tukwila –
Southcenter Plan Development Code (currently in draft);
- King County –
Form-Based Code Pilot Project (currently in draft); and
- Clark County –
Highway 99 Overlay District Standards (currently in draft).
Case Study: Clark
County’s Highway 99 Subarea
form-based code was one of the primary goals and implementation
measures of Clark County’s Highway 99 Subarea Plan. The subarea
covered a 4 mile strip of old U.S. Highway 99 (now simply called
Highway 99) and adjacent commercial and residential areas. The area
is approximately 5 miles north of downtown Vancouver, WA. The
corridor’s mix of auto-oriented businesses, big box retail,
light industrial, and multi-family are not unlike other portions of
Highway 99 and other aging commercial highway strips throughout the
- Little or no
bicycle, pedestrian facilities or amenities;
of large signs, overhead wires, and plenty of asphalt;
architecture (save for a few funky old signs);
- Plenty of fast
- Public safety
- Lack of focal
point or real sense of community.
Clark County hired
my firm (MAKERS) in late-2008 to help craft a form-based code for the
entire subarea. An extensive research on form-based codes was
conducted at the outset of the project to compare approaches taken by
other communities – to ultimately aid in crafting an approach
that fit Highway 99’s unique situation.
Highway 99 a Difficult Test Case
We quickly realized
that this project required a unique and pioneering approach that
combined elements of form-based codes, traditional zoning, and design
guidelines. First of all, one of the requirements set forth by the
County was that the underlying zoning districts would remain (thus
implying that this FBC would become an overlay). Second – this
subarea is much larger than most areas used for form-based codes.
Third – large and irregular lot sizes along the Highway 99
corridor required much greater attention to the design of side and
rear yards and internal connectivity than found in most form-based
codes. Fourth – large established residential neighborhoods
isolated from the corridor needed to be addressed.
zoning is “district” based and many FBC’s are
“street” based, the Highway 99 code employs both. The
Overlay District map looks much like a zoning map – with
designations like Activity Center, Transitional Area, and three types
of residential districts. The districts dictate permitted uses
(though more flexible than current zoning) and building heights.
The three different
street types include:
Streets, where commercial storefronts adjacent to the sidewalk are
Streets, where both storefronts or landscaped setbacks (with
commercial and/or residential uses OK) are permitted.
Streets, where landscaped setbacks are required (all streets in the
three residential overlays are Landscaped Streets).
The combination of
applicable overlay districts and street types dictates the front
setbacks, ground floor use, façade transparency, and parking
lot location along street frontages.
This code also
includes detailed site planning, building design, landscaping,
signage, and street and trail design standards. Given the broad mix
of uses permitted and the diversity of lot sizes and environmental
conditions in the Activity Centers and Transitional Areas, the site
planning standards helped to identify appropriate side and rear yard
treatments and internal pedestrian and automobile connectivity
solutions. Building design standards frequently employ toolbox
methods whereby applicants can choose from a number of options to
meet standards related to architectural scale and façade
Approach and Assumptions in Crafting the Code
Below are some
important assumptions and key elements in our approach in developing
the Highway 99 code:
& Autos: The
subarea is now strictly auto focused and automobiles are likely to
remain the dominant transportation mode within the area in the near
future. The standards promote an environment that accommodates both
pedestrians and automobiles in a safe & attractive manner.
- Change Won’t
Come Overnight: The
standards acknowledge this and provide for incremental change over
time rather than forcing development forms that aren’t
envisioned to become the most compact pedestrian-friendly areas that
accommodate (but don’t require) a mix of uses. Some centers
will redevelop faster than others. More detailed master planning for
each Activity Center is ideal and would be more useful in
facilitating desirable and coordinated private development.
intended to be more flexible – in terms of site
design/frontage standards. They will have lower height limits (2-3
- Promote More
& Better Housing: The
proposed standards promote more housing than under current code by
removing barriers (housing now only allowed in mixed-use buildings
in commercial areas) and providing more emphasis on good design.
The code is written in
a way that can easily be amended to apply in other neighborhoods and
subareas around the County.
and Flexibility: While
the code emphasizes clear minimum requirements for most provisions,
it often includes departure opportunities whereby applicants can
propose alternative designs if they can successfully demonstrate how
such designs meet the intent of the code.
of the standards provide a toolbox of optional ways to meet the
requirements. This provides more choices for the applicant and
offers more diversity in design.
- More Work to
be Done: These
codes are perhaps the most important tool in implementing the
subarea plan’s goals, more actions are likely needed to truly
transform the corridor. Ongoing coordination with property owners,
particularly in Activity Centers, is essential. Targeted
infrastructure projects including street/transit improvement and/or
regional stormwater management improvements would obviously help.
More detailed master planning for key centers is also recommended.
As part of the
process of developing this code, a site plan EXAMPLE was crafted
illustrating how a portion of the subarea could be redeveloped over
time consistent with the proposed standards and one notable but
acceptable departure (large parking area fronting 78th allows new
storefront street to the north). This example assumes that the
development would occur in several phases over a period of about 20
years. Most mixed-use buildings shown in the example would likely be
built in the later phases. One of the keys to facilitating a
pedestrian-oriented mix of uses here will be the enhancement and
restoration of Cougar Creek as a major site amenity.
Stakeholder Involvement & Ownership is Critical
corralled a diverse group of stakeholders to act as the Technical
Advisory Committee (TAC) for the project. This worked extremely well.
The group included property and business owners, residents, design
professionals, and even health professionals.
While most TAC
members agreed that the current land use regulations weren’t
producing acceptable results, there were strong concerns that this
code would over-regulate the corridor and stifle development as a
result. Keys to the success in getting to consensus with the TAC
members included: 1) A heavy emphasis on photos and graphics to
effectively illustrate the impacts of various options; 2) Keeping the
focusing on the issues; 3) County’s flexibility in providing
for enough meetings to allow the TAC to effectively review and refine
the draft (we planned four meetings, ultimately needing three more);
and 4) giving the TAC a sense of ownership by acknowledging their
contribution and giving them plenty of credit for their work.
Despite the TAC’s
consensus and ultimately, the Planning Commission’s recommended
approval, the Board of Commissioners greeted the project with healthy
concern and skepticism. While a significant “kill the code”
contingent of latecomers made a strong impression on the board,
continued TAC member involvement and a focus on the details and
problem solving helped to keep the project moving forward.
Where is it at Now?
On December 15, 2009
the Board of County Commissioners adopted the code, but with an
effective date in May, 2010. This unusual move allows the
commissioners some time to review and consider amendments on key
topics. If no amendments are approved by then, the code as written
will be adopted.
A Proposal for a
As the Clark County
study illustrates, most urban situations require the regulation of
uses, height and bulk, street orientation/site configuration, and
design elements (including landscaping, building design, signage,
street improvements, etc.) to achieve the desired results. But even
in these cases, a form-based approach can be useful in considering
community development more holistically and organizing disparate
development regulations into an easy to use package.
hybrid combines the graphic orientation and street frontage/site
configuration provisions from form-based models with use provisions
and development standards/design guidelines. One key is that all of
these regulatory elements can be depicted on a map that illustrates
the land use/height districts, street frontage standards and
applicability of special design guidelines.
Generally, the use
provisions address only those considerations that are important to
the community. Maximum residential density and intensity are
typically not addressed (except in low density residential areas), as
they are handled through the form-based provisions. However, there
may be issues associated with height and parking that vary from
district to district.
standards generally address building and parking lot location with
respect to the street, building entry location, and façade
transparency in a clear format. Planners can designate any number of
street types with different standards for each type. For example,
there are often a very limited number of streets where storefronts
directly on the sidewalk are required. Some streets, such as major
arterials may warrant a unique approach to frontage standards.
standards/guidelines can be tied to particular districts, street
types, or applied universally to larger areas depending on the level
of specificity involved. In our experience helping communities review
projects, we have found that it is often most effective to establish
strict standards, but then offer the opportunity to permit applicants
to propose alternative solutions that meet the standards’
intent. This approach provides both predictability for those who want
administrative review, and greater flexibility for those that are
willing to undertake a more sophisticated review process in order to
achieve departures from strict standards.
Other Hybrid Code
Two other notable
hybrid code/design guideline examples are Sammamish Town Center and
Downtown Chelan. Both codes are in various stages of development and
follow subarea or master plan processes. Like Clark County’s
Highway 99 code, both feature the combination of land use districts,
street based frontage standards, and design standards/guidelines.
well-established development patterns, a traditional street grid,
consistent lot sizes, and flat terrain, Downtown Chelan is a good
candidate for a form-based code. The current draft proposes a
consolidation of land use districts (two mixed-use and two
residential districts), designation of three street types
(storefront, secondary, and landscaped), and design standards with a
special emphasis on reducing the perceived architectural scale of
buildings. While the proposed code reduces the maximum building
height in many areas, it removes density limits and provides greater
flexibility to permitted housing types.
Sammamish Town Center
Chelan, this will be a completely new 200+ acre town center built on
lightly or undeveloped land in the middle of the city. Per the
adopted subarea plan, it includes three primary land use districts
(one mixed-use district and two residential districts) and five
street types. Since most of the streets don’t yet exist, their
designation to one of the five street types will occur at the master
planning phase. Considering the infrastructure needs, town center
design goals, and dispersed land ownership, special master planning
provisions have been crafted to encourage coordinated development.
And, with hilly terrain with extensive critical areas, special
emphasis is placed on low impact development and a connected network
As with the Highway
99 code, both of these codes will emphasize required standards over
softer guidelines, while including departure provisions for
flexibility. They also employ the toolbox approach often, where
applicants can choose from a number of ways to meet the standards.
The chart below
examines the applicability and considerations of four regulatory
Benefits of the
Hybrid Code Approach
traditional zoning with form-based code provisions and design
standards/guidelines as discussed above for Clark County’s
Highway 99 Subarea, Downtown Chelan, and Sammamish Town Center,
brings several noteworthy benefits:
- Takes into
account varying objectives – whether it might be compatibility
between uses, better internal circulation, a diversity of open
spaces, or all of the above.
- Allows varying
degrees of flexibility or specificity. The approach using minimum
required standards/departures allows communities to tailor the code
to appropriately fit the topic given design goals, staff resources
and expertise, and market conditions.
- Can be applied
to sites large and small, flat or hilly, traditional or irregular
street grid, infill development and undeveloped areas, etc.
- Is defensible
and specific since they include clear minimum requirements.
- Easy to
administer (staff) and use (applicants, community members).
Summary - Lessons
- First –
regardless of what format the code is or should be in - determine
what’s most important in terms of the community’s
planning, design, and economic development objectives….and
don’t lose sight of those objectives.
- Choose a
“workable” regulatory approach with special attention to
the review process and staff requirements. “Workable”
refers to both to the code’s economic feasibility (are codes
too ambitious given local market conditions?) and the code’s
usability by staff, applicants, and the community. Consider the
community’s resources available for the project (a transition
to form-based codes can be complicated, time consuming, and thus
communities’ intent on switching to a form-based code, you’ll
obviously want to review plenty of other examples to see what
formats and organizational techniques might work well locally.
Consider the benefits and drawbacks of various options
- Involve the
full range of community stakeholders……and help them
foster a sense of ownership in the codes.
- Help the
participants understand the implications of various regulatory
options/alternatives. Provide plenty of examples and illustrations –
both in the process of crafting the code and in the final code
- Stay focused on
the issues. When disagreements arise, identify the problem and work
on solutions. This may seem overly simplistic, but it will help keep
the project on track.
Pat Dugan has a unique combination of experience in both planning and public finance, spanning 35 years. As a planner, he has been a planning director in two cities (Auburn and Burien), and two regional planning agencies in Oregon and Washington; and was a planning manager in Goleta, California. In public finance, Pat has served as the chief financial officer in four public agencies including the Cities of Auburn and Lynnwood, and the Snohomish County Public Works Department. He has written extensively on financing capital facility programs and on public finance for planners. Pat now offers planning and public finance consulting services and in his own firm, Dugan Consulting Services in Everett and can be reached at email@example.com.
Anindita Mitra, AICP is the Founder of CREÄ Affiliates, LLC a planning and urban design consultancy that focuses on creating awareness of unsustainable practices, and offers a platform for affected parties to openly communicate and collaborate to arrive at creative sustainable solutions. She is also one of the Co-Chairs of the Climate and Sustainability Initiative of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association.
Anindita's current interests include the development of sustainable master plans and streetscape designs; establishing sustainable community indicators and their integration into comprehensive plans and governance; identifying creative solutions directing communities towards energy-independence; preparing communities for the challenges potentially brought upon by the Climate Change phenomenon; and advancing the integration of transit and non-motorized travel solutions into community land use planning. She has worked throughout the United States for both the public and private sectors.
Phil Olbrechts is a member (similar to partner) and elected member of the board of directors of Ogden, Murphy, Wallace, LLC. Phil focuses his practice on land use law and currently represents seven municipalities as either City Attorney or Hearing Examiner. He has taught over a dozen credits of land use law at the University of Washington, has taught numerous land use continuing legal education courses and has made over 200 land use presentations to elected and appointed officials throughout Washington State. Phil has served on the Seattle Planning Commission and in the past served as the Planning Director for two municipalities.
Bob Bengford, AICP, is a Partner with MAKERS architecture, planning and urban design firm. Bob's community design work encompasses all transects, from urban downtowns and transit-oriented development to rural area planning. Since joining MAKERS 13 years ago, Bob's specialty has been helping communities craft usable development regulations and design guidelines. The combination of growing up in a sprawling Orange County (CA) track home subdivision, reviewing development plans against antiquated and inconsistent codes in rural Bonner County (ID), and working with a great mentor at MAKERS (John Owen) have helped Bob recognize the critical importance of good development regulations and design guidelines in shaping vital and healthy communities. As a resident of Bellevue, Bob has been active in various community planning issues. He's also an active four-season bicycle commuter, hiker, gardener, and urban explorer.
*The Articles appearing in the "Planning Advisor" column represent the opinions of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect those of the Municipal Research and Services Center.
Jan. 26th - Les
I did not see much discussion of dropping acceptable use tables in these examples. The code will achieve the "look" desired for the communities, but did any of them actually embrace more flexibility in what happens in the buildings?
Jan. 26th - Author Comment: Bob Bengford
Clark County - Hwy 99: While the County's early direction on the project was to keep the underlying zoning, the overlay standards provide greater flexibility on uses(notably on allowing residential uses in the commercial areas and making most conditional uses permitted outright).
Chelan - We are in the process of drafting the permitted use lists for downtown. The form-based standards certainly provide an opportunity for consolidating uses and providing greater flexibility. Thus - we're tailoring the use charts to provide desired flexibility and meeting the community's objectives in the Downtown Master Plan. Donald Elliott's new book "A better way to zone" provides some good advice on use charts - including consolidating service uses into two simple categories: personal and general services. We're looking at consolidating all retail uses, but differentiating by size/floor area, including small (<2,000sf), medium (2,000-20,000), large (>20,000), and regional (>50,000)..
Sammamish Town Center - Despite the form-based elements, the Planning Commission was very particular about uses - notably in some of the mixed-use designated areas. Policies in the Plan emphasized office and "supporting small scale retail" in some mixed-use areas - and there was considerable debate on what precisely that meant. In the end, there was some consolidation of uses and greater specification on the acceptable size of retail uses.