Monday, December 17, 2007

Form-Based Code and Other Planning Ponderings

Mikaela says:
If you haven't been following the under-the-radar "debate" about adding Form-Based Code to the City's bag of planning tricks, you can read a great summary of the public information meeting December 8 by Ben Roberts, with whom, it turns out, I think I shared an English Lit class way back ago. (Such. A. Small. Town.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't go to the meeting because the County scheduled the summary session of the design charrette for the Ditches-with-Trails prototype for the same day.

Here are a few off-the-cuff reactions to the proposed Form-Based Code thing:

  • Ben's main question, of who's pushing for this and why (who pays? who benefits?) is still unanswered.
  • In general, the Form-Based Code movement is brought to you by the same folks that brought you picket-fence communities, as though the only thing developers want to build anymore is sea-side condos connected by sidewalks to a public square with a post office. All the hubbub about giving more freedom for different neighborhoods to look different is a bunch of hooha. They'll try to make one design code fit all, you just wait. And it won't be one that fits most. The folks who seem to be advocating this thing are for higher-density, mixed-use development, which is great for some, not great for others. In some sense, Euclidean Zoning provides more flexibility, because it doesn't tell you how to design, it just says you can't house one use near a use that conflicts with another. Is there an opportunity to relax those strict lines between uses for C-1 and O-1? Sure. But let's talk about that, versus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and the regulations protecting them both!
  • Which brings me to my biggest question about how to protect nearby residents from uses that could fit themselves into a generic design-code place but that shouldn't really be there. There are many uses that can be adapted to have minimal daily impact on their neighbors that still pose safety risks if all hell breaks loose. If the Form-Based Code erases the public notice process, or constricts the public process to talk through what risks uses pose and how each company is addressing them to the satisfaction of the City and their neighbors, I think we lose a powerful opportunity for oversight and safety. The developers of a Solid Waste Transfer Station may believe they pose absolutely no risk and have no impact on their neighbors, whereas the neighbors might disagree and like some discussion of what's safe, what level of impact is really acceptable, etc. Same for most businesses and the ratio of acceptable traffic impact, for example. While standard Euclidean Zoning is not the best or most flexible solution for many things, it's basic intention to protect the public safety and welfare is vital, and in my mind, Form-Based Code not only doesn't do better -- it eliminates protection. What do you want ultimate control over? How the building next to you looks, or whether it contains a business that poses a safety hazard for your family? I mean, really.