Form-based codes: What’s the deal?

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

Note: This is the fifth of a series of articles on the Form Ithaca design charrette.

Here’s a deal that could come with a form-based code: The community gets walkable neighborhoods with affordable housing—developers get a streamlined approval process.

Form Ithaca held a design charrette in early June to demonstrate how zoning reform could help the city and town of Ithaca. Conventional codes focus more on separation of use rather than the character of neighborhoods. Form-based codes (FBCs) allow communities to code, with more certainty, the character of place—while emphasizing separation of use less.

Building a new neighborhood like Ithaca’s Fall Creek, Northside, Southside, or Belle Sherman would require a drawn out, negotiated approval process with many uncertainties. Meanwhile, the market is growing for such neighborhoods.

“The market demand in Fall Creek and other neighborhoods exceeds supply, and we need to find alternatives,” notes Nels Bohn, director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. The rental vacancy rate is effectively zero—which contributes to an affordable housing shortage.

Form Ithaca convened local developers who discussed, among many topics, the idea of adopting “inclusionary zoning” with a FBC. Inclusionary zoning typically works this way: With projects of a certain size (e.g. 10 or more units) a percentage of units (e.g. 10 percent) must be affordable to households that earn 80 percent or less of the area median income. These numbers can be adjusted to suit a particular community. A higher percentage of affordability can be incentivized with a bonus.

Developers may meet inclusionary zoning requirements through: Design and construction (e.g. less expensive features without dramatically changing the building appearance); Smaller units or alternative types such as accessory units or cottages; Subsidy; Or a combination of those three. Requirements are clear and consistent. “Inclusionary zoning is something that people see as a tangible benefit,” notes Jeremy Thomas, senior director of Real Estate in Facility Services at Cornell University in Ithaca. “There’s a clear value to the public, which becomes more comfortable with development. It can be a very predictable process.” The known formula takes away project-by-project bargaining—which makes entitlement consistent and predictable. That’s important to developers.

Approximately 80 percent of building projects in the City of Ithaca go to the Board of Zoning Appeals, it was reported to Form Ithaca. That indicates the system needs fixing. The great majority of these requests are granted–but not before significant time and money is spent. “Uncertainty has a cost,” says Ithaca developer Frost Travis. “You can’t get financing until you know if you are going to be able to do 28 or 36 units, and that could make the difference in whether you get loan approval at all. I’m intrigued by the idea of taking a 1,000-page code into a much shorter, visual, user-friendly document.”

Form Ithaca is writing a FBC for the city and the town, and one goal will be user friendliness. A landowner should be able to tell, quickly and without aid of a consultant, generally what is permitted by right on any parcel. Ideally, a form-based code allows administrative, by-right approval if the code is met. The reasoning goes like this: The vision comes from the comprehensive plan, which is expressed in the code. If the project meets the code and therefore the community’s vision, a system that does not require too much negotiation is more efficient and fair.


A sample page of a graphic code for Ithaca

Through the city’s draft and the town’s adopted comprehensive plans, Ithaca citizens and leaders are calling for complete, compact neighborhoods. The only way to build these anew, now, is through obtaining a large number of variances or seeking a “planned unit development.” The PUD system is highly unpredictable, because it puts everything up for negotiation in a lengthy, costly, process.

Zoning appeals are so prevalent in Ithaca for two reasons. First, most properties in the city currently don’t conform to the existing zoning. The historic buildings mostly predate zoning, and the zoning imposes requirements such as lot sizes and setbacks that are inconsistent with the older neighborhoods. Noncomforming lots and buildings seeking substantial changes need variances.

Second, the zoning requires something other than what the market wants to build. A FBC could bring the code into alignment with the character of historic neighborhoods and with the current market.

The “missing middle” and the little guy

Conventional codes tend to favor single-family dwellings and substantial apartment buildings in specific areas. Other housing types—such as townhouses, accessory dwellings, multiplexes, small apartment buildings, cottage courts, and stacked flats—tend to be difficult to build in many areas. These types are called the “missing middle,” and they can provide more affordability, varied living arrangements, and density in a way that is compatible with the character of a diverse neighborhood. A system that requires variances for these types stacks the regulatory deck against variety, because the public sees these kinds of buildings as “breaking the rules.” Residents may associate density with larger buildings only. “We are trying to illustrate the missing middle in a way that is more palatable to the public by combining placemaking, neighborhood structure, and community building in a way that shows real benefits of compact development,” says urban designer Seth Harry, a leader of the Form Ithaca charrette.


The missing middle: Image by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design

These “missing middle” types—two, four, six-unit buildings or clusters—also enable small developers and builders. Missing middle housing types can be financed and built on small lots, incrementally. A growing number of off-the-shelf building plans meet the standards of a form-based code—but also cut costs and are designed for finance. This small-scale density is appropriate for infill sites and also can be incorporated into new villages or neighborhoods. With a FBC, any number of independent small developers can help to build a coherent neighborhood—that’s how cities and towns used to be built.

Small-scale retail also can be enabled through a FBC, because the process identifies centers where neighborhood-scale retail is appropriate. The code ensures that the physical form is compatible. A typical convenience mart with parking in front becomes a corner store. A commercial strip shopping center can be built as a village square. “Allowing small-scale retail in neighborhoods has real benefits,” Harry says. “It takes car trips off the network—it’s convenient for households.”

Build a better burb

Although Ithaca is a walkable small city, it also has drive-only suburbs, both in the city and town. Some of these single-use areas could be more diverse and walkable—this change is envisioned in Ithaca’s new comprehensive planning efforts. A FBC is essential for retrofit because it allows for a mix of uses and uses the urban-rural Transect as a tool to encourage development that is appropriately mixed at a fine grain. In cases where a community would like to see a commercial strip or car-oriented shopping center transition to a neighborhood, a FBC is the typical regulatory tool employed.

The Transect and calibration

A form-based code uses the urban-rural Transect. Unlike conventional zoning that may have 30 or 40 zones, the Transect has only six zones—four of which promote development at various intensities. These zones, in order of intensity, are: Core, Center, Neighborhood General, and Sub-Urban. The other zones are Rural, where development is allowed but not encouraged, and Natural, where no development can occur. Creating a FBC involves local calibration of the development zones. A neighborhood like Fall Creek in Ithaca is different in design and density than a residential street in Greenwich Village—both of which are examples of Neighborhood General in different places. Form Ithaca held a workshop during the charrette and produced images to determine local calibration. The following image shows  a mostly residential Ithaca neighborhood (Neighborhood General zone).


Calibration for General Urban zone: Massing and potential layout. Form Ithaca.

Parking requirements also emerged as an issue at the charrette. Parking requirements make infill development more costly and difficult and subsidize driving. The city currently has no parking requirements downtown, in the West End, and in the core area of Collegetown. Off-street parking is required in other areas of the city and town. A FBC is an opportunity to examine whether and how parking requirements could be reduced or eliminated with a new code.

Like a growing number of municipalities in the US, the city and town of Ithaca are looking to form-based tools to direct land-use and development to meet 21st Century markets and needs. Residents, home-seekers, and businesses are requesting walkable places, which have social, environmental, and economic advantages. Zoning reform could make that kind of development legal and efficient.

Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns. He is on the Form Ithaca team with STREAM Collaborative architects and landscape architects, and Randall+West urban planners. Seth Harry and Associates, BSB Design, and Alta Planning + Design also participated in the charrette.

Previous articles on the Form Ithaca charrette:

Turning a barrier into a boulevard
A new village for compact regional growth
A mixed-use waterfront for the city
Connecting people with jobs on the waterfront