Form-based zoning discussed at Columbia public forum

Thursday, May 19, 2011 | 10:11 p.m. CDT; updated 9:49 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 20, 2011

COLUMBIA — A public forum on form-based code, a method of zoning, brought together city officials, representatives from planning and development groups and members of the public Monday at The Blue Note.

The forum was presented by the City of Columbia, the Central Missouri Development Council and mid-Missouri chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Speakers included Mary Madden, vice president of the Form-Based Codes Institute, Tim Teddy, director of the city Planning and Development Department and Leslie Karr, current planning manager of the Planning and Development Services Department for Overland Park, Kan.

Below is a summary of the day's discussion.

What is form-based code?

Form-based code regulates development to consider aesthetics and usability of spaces during the zoning process. The focus of form-based code is on the form of buildings and urban spaces, rather than on land use or management. This includes elements such as building materials, the situation of buildings on lots, landscaping and areas for walking and leisure activities.

Madden said citywide form-based code is unusual, and most form-based code is used for specific areas within cities. Form-based code can also be called form-based planning or form-based zoning.

Why do some people support form-based code?

Columbia architect Nick Peckham, who helped introduce the forum, discussed the ways form-based code could benefit a community.

“Form-based codes … give us a much stronger sense of place, a sense that we’re in a community that works, that has the mixture of responses to walkability and security and beauty and recreation,” Peckham said.

Local architect and forum attendee Shahnaz Talukder and several presenters echoed Peckham's sentiments about the incorporation of form-based code.

“It will help us to develop a sense of place," Talukder said.

Several presenters further emphasized the importance of creating form-based code to serve as a standard for development, ensuring that city spaces will be planned according to the desires of the public. Teddy and others emphasized the importance of planning before zoning is enacted.

What does form-based code have to do with sustainability?

Another local architect and forum attendee, Bill Howell, said form-based coding facilitates walking between office, retail and residential spaces because of their close proximity, an idea echoed by speakers Madden and Karr.

“You walk more, drive less,” Howell said.

Where else is form-based code being utilized?

One example is the Metcalf corridor in Overland Park, Kan. Karr explained the steps the city has taken since 2007 to develop and implement form-based code.

Karr said that because the Metcalf corridor covers a large geographic area, the focus of form-based code was on redeveloping the downtown area over the course of 20 to 30 years.

She said the strategy includes “taking the existing fabric and adding additional streets” with a focus on “five-minute walks and 300-foot blocks,” that “start to create more of a vibrant community for the city.”

“Once you put those streets in place, then you create more opportunities for building, you create locations for buildings to go and you start to transform your environment from what we have currently to something that can be more walkable, more urban, more vibrant,” Karr said.

She said the process of educating the public about form-based code and gaining the support of the city council took two to two-and-a-half years. 

What are some concerns about form-based code?

Karr said critics of form-based code have voiced social engineering as a concern.

“People (are) saying you’re trying to force everybody to live in an urban environment, instead of allowing the market to decide what’s right,” she said.

But Karr said Overland Park’s downtown area makes up only a small section of the city, and form-based code provides housing options.

“Some people may not want to live in that kind of environment, but there are people out there who would like to have that opportunity, and we would like to make them feel welcome in our community,” Karr said.

What steps must take place to incorporate form-based planning in Columbia?

“The only way it could possibly be successful is with a very informed public and involved public,” Peckham said.

"It’s hard for people to meaningfully participate in things if … there’s not some awareness,” said local attorney John Clark about the importance of such public forums.

The importance of public involvement was also reflected in Karr’s explanation of the time it took Overland Park to increase public understanding about form-based code.

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