Form-Based Zoning Vote Delayed

Today, the Council voted to delay consideration of the proposed form-based zoning ordinance. We will be briefed on the issue at the Council Housing Committee meeting on January 29. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a look at this great editorial by former Councilmember Sandy Greyson that explains form-based zoning and its impact on our community. Then come back.)

I support the neighborhood-developer compromise, rather than what some are calling the staff-Natinsky plan. The neighborhood-developer compromise resulted from two years of work of a diverse, city-appointed taskforce working in concert with a city-employed consultant. The City Plan Commission unanimously approved this version of the ordinance. The difference between the neighborhood-developer compromise and the staff-Natinsky plan is the extent of neighborhood protections. Representatives from the development and realtor community, as well as neighborhood advocates from across the city, are advocating for the inclusion of six specific neighborhood protections. The three most important protections are:

(1) Including a statement of intent (not a requirement) that form-based zoning districts be part of a larger area plan that is at least 25-40 acres in size. I’ve been reading a lot about how these types of zoning districts are used across the country, and no city does it lot-by-lot because that is antithetical to the primary purpose of FB districts (creating dense, self-contained, walkable mixed-use communities that reduce car usage).

More troubling, lot-by-lot FB zoning districts create scattered density, which is much worse than no density at all. There’s good density and bad density. Shoving a bunch of people into a small area, as lot-by-lot FB zoning would do, isn’t by itself good density. It doesn’t reduce or mitigate the additional traffic burden that that density places on a city’s infrastructure. Good, well-planned density requires a large area to provide all the convenient, neighborhood services that folks can walk to, reducing their dependence on cars. Doing lot-by-lot form-based zoning would also overburden neighborhoods: due to the parking reductions allowed in these FB districts, overflow parking would be pushed into our neighborhoods.

(2) Preserving residential proximity slope. All other “straight” zoning districts require a residential proximity slope (Multi-Family, Commercial Retail, etc.). When single-family homes are adjacent to a dense zoning district, current zoning prohibits a tall building from being built right beside a home; instead, the building’s height must be stair-stepped back based on its proximity to the home. This provides some breathing room for homes and preserves their light. We don’t need to move to “height maps” that must be negotiated with the developer and provides no certainty to a neighborhood.

(3) Create a 1/2 block residential transition zone. This would provide a buffer zone between neighborhoods and dense, FB districts. A similar buffer was created in the State Thomas Historic District in Uptown, and that buffer has worked well. I’ve seen the conflict that can come up when a dense district abuts single-family homes, and the transition zones will help mitigate this tension.