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With form-based code, cities hope to keep all sides happy

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/07/19 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

At last night’s Cleveland Heights Architectural Board of Review, a roomful of residents showed up to lodge complaint against the Top of the Hill development as currently proposed. While local business owners, like Cedar-Fairmount Special Improvement District President, Sal Russo, also appeared, to speak in support, the mainstay of comments seemed to focus on the mass and height of the building. Neighbors worried that a 10 to 12-story residential tower, with its ground-floor retail, will cast a long shadow. Some seemed generally opposed to its looming presence. Most acknowledged “improvements” the developer made to the facade, while a second group opposed it on grounds of being “too modernist” for the Craftsman style that dominates the Cedar-Fairmount District. As one local put it, “it’s not that we don’t want to see (the surface parking lot) developed, or that we’re opposed to modernism per se. It’s really the height that concerns us.”

<br />The Top of the Hill development rendering.

What planners and developers call NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), New Urbanists around the turn of (this) century started to anticipate and attempt to thread the needle between traditional and modern, especially, for urban “infill” sites. There are real fears that suburban “pod” design—devoid of historic context, often on undeveloped land, and not adhering to any style or cohesive plan—has leaked into urban and older “classically designed” places. The local unease over Top of the Hill is another opportunity to revisit the goals of New Urbanism and their main tool for threading the needle between old and new, the wonky sounding but well intentioned form-based code.

At the heart of form-based code is a desire to put into pictures the legal arcana of zoning, and make questions of design, mass, and function more accessible during public input sessions. New Urbanists have goals like defusing the fight over infill developments and separating legitimate concerns from NIMBYism. The most common argument against the Top of the Hill is a dislike of glass-and-steel materiality of modernism, and the height of the structure.

An underlying cause, New Urbanists like Peter Katz write, of a one-size fits all approach to zoning — whether its small urban, traditional suburban, or highway interchange. If they are right, even a city that has a professional planner, elected officials and citizens who understand that, absent a plan and a means of communicating the goals of the plan, such as, integrating a new development with the existing fabric of a district while enhancing the environment for walking, biking, taking transit and shopping, the important details of designing public spaces and improving the function of private property is too often hazy and unsatisfactory to all parties.

In Cleveland Heights, they have all three. And still there were NIMBYs and an unsatisfactory means of separating the nuanced from the broader concerns. When a resident stood at the podium and quoted Winston Churchill, “Governments create nothing and have nothing to give but what they have first taken away” he followed that with an underlying fear of modernism’s perceived weakness—that it is not built to last. If this development cannot stand the test of time, is it worth doing? he asked.

Likely, a New Urbanist answer is to provide a context for why NIMBYism exists while offering a menu of building options that residents can see in visual form that is adaptable to the conditions of the individual site, the goals of the district and somehow expresses the values of the community. The latter is hard to do if the community hasn’t taken the steps to translate important visioning documents like its Master Plan and Branding survey into actionable items like a form-based code.

Would a form-based code work better than the patchwork approach of current zoning in Cleveland’s booming West Side Market District, Shaker Heights’ Van Aken redevelopment, or Cleveland Heights? All admirably have attempted to overhaul their zoning with overlay districts emphasizing the pedestrian, with an eye toward New Urbanism, that is, preserving the historic character of its commercial districts, or included a deep, public input process in the case of Shaker. But, New Urbanist founder Andres Duany would have those patchworks thrown out in favor of “The preference for more physically based, visually expressed regulatory approaches,” Katz writes. “While they don’t diminish the need for solid, clearly structured written materials, they believe that effective visuals are key to galvanizing consensus around a development plan or proposal.”

Take the very legitimate question raised by one resident last night about the green space that Top of the Hill anticipates providing between building, parking deck and Cedar Road. Private buildings shape the public realm, and that is especially powerful when it comes to a “public” green or square.

“In their quest to achieve a high quality public realm, New Urbanist planners seek an appropriate relationship between public and private interests. They know that well-configured public streets, parks, buildings and open spaces enhance the value of private property,” Katz writes, adding that cities have little say with current zoning over this interaction between development and public realm.

The answer, Katz says, is to shape future development with details of a site that express the values that most align with the community’s vision. This gets a little technical, so, if that’s not your thing, skip to the conclusion…

A regulating plan is needed for future development sites that details new streets that will come into existence, he advises. Such information includes property lines that define each building lot, a “required building line,” a “street tree alignment line,” and other building envelope and setback lines. They also indicate location of parks and squares. “This allows one to see and evaluate all the critical elements of a proposed plan in whole cloth.”

In conclusion, Cleveland was hot on the trail of a form-based code a few years ago. On the homepage of its Planning Commission is the following notice: "The Planning Commission is about to begin the process of creating a new Form Based Zoning Code. To stay informed about the process or participate sign up here."

Developers have advocated that it can only help foster a new era of understanding between them, citizens and cities all seeking to maximize the often arduous task of putting small urban sites back into economically viable, connected, and human-scale uses.

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