Can Form-Based Zoning Save Raleigh’s Growth?

I attended the educational workshop on Form-Based Zoning held in City Council chambers on February 3, 2010 hosted by Code Studio. The workshop provided an overview of the uses of form-based zoning, but left many more questions. Is Raleigh ready for form-based zoning? Can it help us plan for and accommodate growth? Can this type of zoning help us have predictable growth, infill, and development? Here are my notes and insight on the subject.

Special thanks to Betsy Kane for her review of this before posting to ensure it was technically accurate with all the planning and zoning jargon.

Example Zoning

Example Zoning

I haven’t had a chance to review the Diagnostic and Approach Report submitted by the Code Studio team, but plan on doing so very soon. “The report provides an analysis of the existing development code and outlines possible approaches to writing a new Unified Development Ordinance.”

It might be helpful to backup a moment and figure out why we are even talking about updating our zoning. In January 2010, we posted Q&A from Raleigh’s planning department. Then we followed up with some insight provided at the January meeting of District D Neighborhood Alliance (DDNA) with special guest Mitch Silver and Christine Darges.

Raleigh’s New Development Code is one of the biggest projects happening in the city right now. The site has been launched to help keep us informed of what’s going on with the project. The New Development Code will take the form of a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO):

“The goal of the New Code is to prepare development regulations that both address contemporary development and zoning practices and are easily understood by administrators, the public and the development community. The New Code will support goals and policies expressed in the new Comprehensive Plan, recently approved by City Council…address all elements of the City’s zoning and subdivision ordinance in addition to other regulations cross referenced in the entire development ordinance and applicable policies.” Source:

Drafting the new code is part of implementing the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, passed by City Council in November 2009. The UDO provides the opportunity to rehash and rethink the current approach to development and will remove barriers to infill development.

What did the 2030 plan give us?

The 2030 plan gave Raleigh the 20,000 foot view for planning and updating the zoning will take us to the next step. If we look at other municipalities that take planning to a more in-depth level than the Raleigh plan did–you might call it the “10,000 foot” view–that level is the level needed for applying a tailored, form-based code. Characteristics of this level of planning include detailed site maps and detailed designs based on a public vision (developed at a public process called a charrette) and a block-by-block, lot-by-lot analysis in a neighborhood plan or small-area plan. Attendees of the session were told that form-based zoning will not be applied throughout Raleigh, but rather that the code to be created by the Code Studio consulting team will be a hybrid model.

So what is form-based zoning?

“It’s not the use of the land or building, it’s the set of standards on how the implementation shows up on the ground,” Lee Einsweiler, Principal-in-Charge, Code Studio told the audience. He proceeded to show pictures of service stations and big box retail and showed us how they had been implemented in different parts of the country. Their form and layout are built by the same companies but take better or worse shape depending on what the community requires. For example, a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Cary was shown as an application of this kind of design management through conventional use-based zoning–making big-box sites look better from the road.

The consulting team stated that form-based zoning harnesses market forces, protects the public interest, and protects private property owners.

We talked for a moment about customized conventional zoning, one of the primary ways that Raleigh uses to zone land right now. You might be familiar with neighborhood overlay districts, planned developments districts, etc. where zoning is trying to balance the neighborhood’s interest and the perceived character with the need for reinvestment and intensification. The problem that Code Studio highlighted is that this is a negotiated process which forces every neighborhood to defend itself every time a rezoning occurs. But any victories that are won are unique to that site–the overall zoning plan for the city doesn’t gain at all from the hard-won concessions of a particular zoning battle. Also, some neighborhoods have less political power or ability to fight these battles, so this type of negotiated zoning is not equitable to citizens. Moreover, certain applicants may have more political power to get what they want through the zoning process, so it is also not equitable to developers.

In contrast, form-based zoning includes planning and public involvement, but scales much better than customized zoning because it applies the same expectations to all properties in a category. The expectations and requirements for quality are specified up front, based on the community’s expectations as defined by a public visioning process that created the basis for the form-based zoning to begin with. Site improvements are not left up to a negotiated, dickered process every time, but established as a baseline and made part of the regulations.

Einsweiler helped us understand some terminology that can be useful when talking about different code approaches.

  • Euclidean zoning – is based on the separation of unlike uses from one another
  • Performance zoning – says you can have almost any use, if you mitigate its external impacts
  • Form-based zoning – is focused on mixed use, place making and an emphasis on the public realm
  • Architectural design guidelines – are not strictly zoning, but may be applied through historical design guidelines that protect historic districts (such as Oakwood), or pattern books established by a developer for a master-planned site (such as North Hills)

What does zoning do for us then?

Zoning can handle basic things like height, setbacks, lot coverage, floor to area ration (FAR), etc. Zoning typically stops at the property line. Form-based coding is another type of zoning that can include a focus on the public realm, detailed form standards, and reduced focus on use. If we get the building form right, the use doesn’t matter too much, meaning the use of the building can change without a zoning change.

Einsweiler showed an example of how the space between buildings–the public realm–can be impacted. A picture of a downtown area started with a two-story building and a small sidewalk. The public realm was improved by extending the sidewalk, adding on-street parking, removing overhead utilities, added street lights, and adding street trees. Consequently, the area around the improvements changed. And the building uses are able to change without too much impact, because what we care about is what the building form will be, not necessarily if it’s a barber shop, coffee shop, or retail.

“Place making is about more than the zoning. The market should respond and become a more stable place in the future. Are the public realm improvements the job of the city? The developers?” said Einsweiler. These are the tough questions that Raleigh will have to answer over the next few months.

Important elements of form-based zoning:

  • height regulations: uniform versus variable heights vs extremes
  • placement of building on the lot: up to the sidewalk (zero lot line) vs. a parking lot separating the building from the street
  • windows and doors: blank walls vs. a pedestrian orientation
  • use: more interested in the ground floor (the first 30 feet, where people’s focus is) than upper floors
  • street space: wide sidewalks and street improvements such as trees, benches, and the like
  • public space (and how it interacts with the private space)

When you code for these elements, you get clear, predictable results. To establish form, it starts with the current regulations (i.e., how Raleigh measures height), modeling what is allowed, and then refining models to set appropriate form.

Elements of conventional code:

  1. zoning ordinance
  2. zoning map
  3. subdivision ordinance
  4. thoroughfare plan
  5. technical manuals & building codes

The new code will allow us to integrate form standards so that you have everything (1 through 4) in one place, while keeping the technical manuals (5) separate. Form-based codes considers what the public realm is going to be like first, then building placement and other elements.

Is Raleigh getting form-based zoning?

Raleigh’s approach has not been decided. There are consultant ideas on the table, followed by a series of public meetings. Additional elements of form will be addressed in the new UDO. Some recommendations include maintaining and preserving the existing character of neighborhoods, streamlining development review, and amending parking regulations. But if you want form-based zoning, you need to participate in this process and provide feedback to the planning department and consultants on the project. Deciding the direction for Raleigh is the most critical and costly part of developing the new code.

Pedestrian-oriented and mixed-use developments will see the most dramatic changes in Raleigh. Growth centers and corridors will have an emphasis on form and character. It’s also key to remember that the code is NOT just for the lawyers. The plain English approach will help describe the code for designers, neighbors, and anyone using the code.

Lastly, Einsweiler talked about sustainability (water conservation, storm water management, promoting local food). He said that greening our city needs to be considered as part of this code project.

What were your thoughts on the form-based zoning session? I’d like to hear what you thought about it. Was it worthwhile? Did you learn something? Can form-based zoning save Raleigh’s growth?

The Q&A part of this session will be in a separate post. The session was recorded on Raleigh Television Network for future playbacks.

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2 Responses to “Can Form-Based Zoning Save Raleigh’s Growth?”

  1. […] like height, density, placement of windows, etc.  For more details on form-based zoning, see Can Form-Based Zoning Save Raleigh’s Growth? and Form-Based Zoning […]