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Panel discusses zoning option: Form-based codes presented as city mulls changes

RezoningAs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department prepares to begin rewriting its zoning ordinance, the Piedmont Public Policy Institute held a forum at UNC Charlotte’s Center City Campus on Wednesday to discuss the pros and cons of form-based zoning codes.

“It’s a place-making mechanism,” said David Walters, who, as the previous director of the master of urban design program at UNC Charlotte, co-authored a recent study for the institute on which the forum focused.

Walters said form-based zoning considers the “character” of a neighborhood, which creates more consistent public space.

The underlining principle of form-based zoning codes is that strict control of the external form and scale of buildings creates greater development predictability and streamlines planning processes by clearly defining what’s expected of developers.

Walters, as well as Peter Park, professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and Denver, Colo., Councilwoman Jeanne Robb gave presentations at the event, followed by a panel discussion including three Charlotte developers.

Walters presented the results of his study, “An Evaluation of Form-Based Zoning and its Potential to Stimulate Economic Development and Reduce Housing Costs,” which he co-authored with Dustin Read, assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management at Virginia Tech University.

Park, who formerly was the planning director in Denver, helped the city implement form-based codes in 2010.

Terrance Llewellyn of Llewellyn Development in Charlotte discussed his company’s experience working in Nashville, Tenn., which uses form-based zoning codes.

“The process was completely depoliticized,” he said. “We had a low-risk regulatory environment, we had an expedited regulatory environment, and as a result of that our risk became substantially lower.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department will soon begin rewriting its zoning ordinance, and plans to seek community input before deciding what form it will take.

“Regardless which type of ordinance we move forward with, the entire process will require a significant amount of community involvement,” said Bridget Dixon, planning coordinator for the department, on Thursday. Form-based zoning “is one of many factors we will consider.”

“Less attention is on the use and more attention is on the physical form,” Dixon said. “It might allow retail spaces to transition to office spaces, and for us that would typically require a rezoning.”

The planning department will hire a consultant to help with the rewriting process, and Oct. 24 was the deadline for applications. Dixon said the Planning Department hopes to give its recommendation to the Charlotte City Council on which team should be hired in the first quarter of 2015.

But during the panel discussion, Jim Merrifield, managing partner at MPV Properties, said now may not be the best time for such a drastic change.

“From a developer standpoint, we’ve been through six years of not doing much, we finally have projects and opportunities to work on things again with the economy, and to dedicate the time and the resources to work on a new code, it really isn’t very desirable,” he said.

But Robb said that in order for form-based zoning to work properly, the codes must be enforced at all costs. She said making exceptions for particular projects defeats the purpose because it’s meant to limit the amount of negotiation between developers and cities, which also reduces the cost of the planning process.

Developers on the panel expressed concerns that form-based zoning may be too restrictive, could limit how they develop, and could dictate building styles.

Walters addressed their concerns by explaining the difference between design and aesthetics. He said design focuses on the functions of buildings, and how buildings interact with public spaces, whereas aesthetics have only to do with how buildings look.

Park pointed out also that form-based codes rely on visuals more than words, which he said made it easier for Denver residents to understand what developments would look like prior to gaining approval.

Llewellyn said this was evident in Nashville, too, and that form-based zoning had helped provide the city’s residents with the type of development they wanted. Robb said community engagement was essential to form-based zoning communities.

Dixon said some cities have only particular neighborhoods or districts that use form-based zoning codes instead of the whole city, but she did not say if she thought this would work in Charlotte.

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