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Urban Planning

CNU 21: The Pros and Cons of Form-Based Zoning Codes

Spencer Agnew attended the 21st annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City. He will do a series of short blog posts highlighting ideas and trends from this national gathering of urban planners, architects, and real estate professionals.

Day one at CNU 21 featured a lively discussion by a panel of experts on form-based codes. Form-based codes are a form of land-use regulation that “address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.” Form-based code ordinances often include diagrams and visuals that display specific architectural design elements that are allowed. This approach to land-use regulation differs with conventional Euclidean zoning, which focuses on the micromanagement of land uses and the regulation of development intensity through abstract metrics such as floor area ratio, setback distances, and parking ratios.

Form-based codes have become popular with advocates of New Urbanism because they focus on the quality of the built environment rather than on the location of different types of land uses. Conventional zoning is often associated with suburban-style land use and development, due to the tendency of use-based zoning to separate land uses and minimize density while ignoring urban design. However, they have been slow to take hold among municipal governments; there are currently about 280 adopted form-based code ordinances in the U.S., impacting just 3% of the national population. Many of the adopted codes are optional, meaning that developers may choose whether to seek entitlements through the form-based code or through the pre-existing use-based zoning.

Form-based codes were intended to simplify land use entitlements and clarify expectations. If a developer proposed a project that met the form-based criteria, they would not need to apply for the various variances for parking, setbacks, and FAR which are commonly necessary with use-based zoning. Theoretically, the regulations would be simpler and easier to understand, and review processes would be faster. That hasn’t always turned out to be the case however. Despite the original intent to keep codes short and simple, many adopted form-based codes have been lengthier and more complex than the previous use-based zoning codes. Sandy Sorlien of the Transect Codes Council pointed out that many codes become bloated through the creation of too many zoning sub-districts or through the inclusion of explanatory language that is non-regulatory.

To date, there are no adopted form-based codes in Minnesota. The most prominent example of a large-scale adoption of form-based zoning is the Miami, which implemented its Miami 21 form-based zoning initative in 2010.

Affordable Housing, Real Estate Trends, Residential Real Estate

Micro-Apartments: A More Affordable (But Controversial) Housing Option

Micro-aparments are an increasingly popular trend in large cities with high housing costs, such as San Francisco, D.C., and Seattle. At just 300 square feet or less (some in Seattle are as small as 140 sf), micro-apartments are very small, but offer more affordable rent. A typical micro-apartment minimizes space through features such as fold-down beds and tables. Some have small kitchens, while others have kitchens and common areas which are shared among several apartments. By accepting less living space, residents are able to live more cheaply in high-demand areas.

A concept plan for three micro-apartments by R2L Architects (photo credit: Urban Turf)

The trend is not without controversy, however. In Seattle, where as many as 10 micro-apartment projects are currently proposed, neighboring single-family home residents have complained about the effect of added population density on street-parking, transit, and public space. Some have also complained that existing zoning regulations which regulate density through the number of kitchens in a building rather than the number of separate living units create an unfair loophole. Developers are able to build as many as six to eight separate micro-units sharing the same kitchen; from the perspective of the Seattle zoning code, these are considered just one residential unit despite being separate dwellings. Critics argue that this gets around the intent, if not the letter, of existing zoning regulations.

San Francisco is considering changing its building code to reduce the minimum required apartment size from 290 sf to 220 so as to allow smaller micro-units. Planning officials expect Continue Reading