Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America

City Officials

Strategies For Project Review Under A Form-Based Code

Strategies For Project Review Under A Form-Based Code

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, November 2013.

Form-based codes (FBCs) allow communities to implement a plan for quality place- making with a by-right development code, instead of a complicated discretionary design review process. Communities are selecting form-based codes to replace conventional zoning in downtowns and neighborhood centers, not simply to regulate around form instead of use, but also to replace a system of uncertainty with one that offers predictability. By developing graphical standards and prescribing building form, the code can capture the intent of a community’s physical planning strategy.

Group Discussion

A community developing a form-based code must determine how it will be implemented and administered.

Still, the art and science of form-based codes continues to evolve to meet the political and design culture of communities. While many cities and towns have determined that they need not have additional project review for development that conforms with the code, others are establishing or streamlining project review systems. Deciding how far to take “by-right” approvals is more complicated than it might first appear. Implementing a form-based code (FBC) is not just a matter of desired form, but also a community’s expectations about the role of government officials, public input into development, and the necessity of architectural design and site plan review. The decision also requires an understanding of what might go wrong, and how unintended consequences and necessary deviations from the code will be addressed.

Many communities have implemented a FBC that requires simple review of projects by a town planner or code enforcement official. But other communities are deciding that, while it makes sense to use a FBC to prescribe the size, bulk, height, lot placement, fenestration, and pedestrian amenities, project review would benefit from an extra look by a staff architect or review board. Further, public meetings may still be required.

A community developing a form-based code must determine how it will be implemented and administered by asking:

  1. Do we want to review design? While a form-based code will typically regulate form and not design, the community must determine if design creativity should be left for developers and their designers, or reviewed and/or approved by a staff member, town consultant, or local review board.
  2. Does our community demand public meetings before development review? While the community should already have consensus about building form, height, and bulk (as the code was developed) sometimes neighbors will still expect to be involved in the process of individual project review.
  3. Can the local community of builders understand and design to the code? It may benefit both the community and the builders to have the assistance of a professional from within the review agency, especially with a code developed for an existing area where individual landowners will need help with both new and existing development on their property.
  4. Can the zoning reviewers understand the intent of the FBC? Sometimes, the individuals in government who review projects under conventional codes are not the right ones to review projects under a form-based code.
  5. What, if any, state enabling laws apply? Some state rules require certain levels of notice and/or review under zoning enabling or environmental regulations.

Five different strategies used by communities looking to review projects under a form-based code.


The Appleton Mill Renovation was granted a “certificate of consistency” after a quick review under the Hamilton Mill Canal District code. Courtesy of George Proakis.

The town architect

Employing a town architect is a common practice in implementing a form-based code, particularly in communities that do not otherwise have staff with the time or design skills to undertake the role. Both the town of Hercules and Redevelopment Authority in Contra Costa County (both in California) hired a firm on a contract basis to serve as Town Architect to do code compliance and design review. Other communities have hired a staff person to fill the role. Either way, a Town Architect serves to ensure that development under the code meets both the letter and the intent of the regulation. For a Town Architect strategy to be effective, a community must be willing to place trust in a professional designer to make decisions that will influence the results in the area under the code.

Consistency Review by an Interdepartmental Team

In the Hamilton Canal District in Lowell, Massachusetts (where the author was part of the FBC development team), the City deter- mined that projects should have a straightforward approval. But, zoning was typically approved by building inspectors (as required by state law in Massachusetts) without familiarity with the functional standards and building forms in a FBC. So, the City added a “certificate of consistency” to be provided by a three person board of city planning and building staff, to ensure that a project was compliant. Upon making that determination, a build- ing permit would be issued. The review takes less than 30 days and a permit can quickly be issued for a complying project.

Design review committee

Some communities, such as Ventura in California, have used their design review committee (DRC) to do review of projects under the code. The board does more than determine consistency; it ensures that the architecture of the building reflects the high standards expected by the com- munity. A process such as this can also allow for public comment on a project before construction. While the Board can demand improvements to project design, the project remains a by-right project. Unlike discretionary permit approvals, the DRC does not have jurisdiction over building envelope, site design, or use. The DRC may also grant warrants (minor deviations from the specific requirements of the code as long as they help further the code’s intent), but more significant exceptions require further review.


Penrose Square, above, includes 200 units, retail, and a supermarket. It was approved as a large project under the Columbia Pike code. Credit: Brent VA.

Two-tier Solutions

Arlington, Virginia, developed the Columbia Pike code with a two-tier process. Projects on small sites have a 30-day administrative review, similar to the strategy in Lowell. Larger projects have a 50-day review, with a design re- view and public meetings before the Planning Commission and County Board, similar to the process used in Ventura. Planners in Arlington caution that, despite these short timeframes, the actual steps to prepare a proposal that meets the code and also meets building and fire code and public access requirements is longer. So, an individual project must be ready to enter one of these two tiers before the clock starts ticking.

State-Mandated Solutions

New Hampshire, a state with a long tradition of direct democracy, has a state law requiring projects over a certain size to be reviewed with a public hearing. So, when the New Hampshire town of Dover developed a form- based code for its downtown, all but the smallest projects require public review. Nonetheless, hearings within the form-based code area are much more efficient because of the code. As these examples show, strategies for code implementation depend upon many factors, and selecting a strategy is fundamental to developing, securing and managing a successful code.

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Form-Based Codes, Flagstaff & Education

Form-Based Codes, Flagstaff & Education

Flagstaff adopted a form-based code for the city’s downtown and neighboring historic districts in November 2011. As the city’s Zoning Code Administrator, I’ve helped to guide the code making since its inception, and I’ve enjoyed the process. I could tell you a lot about what I’ve learned along the way. In this post, I’ll just begin with a very basic consideration, a key ingredient to our success in Flagstaff. It is the essential importance of education from the very beginning to help city officials and all residents gain understanding of Smart Growth principles and FBCs.

Flagstaff-T5In fact we began with our staff, going back to 2006 when a developer pushed for a Traditional Neighborhood Development project, and we knew we needed updated zoning in place to support it. About that time, FBCI was launching its 3-course training series where five of our senior planning staff and the City Attorney attended. A year or so later, all city planning staff attended the three classes, while a few from Engineering took the introductory class.

The courses provided the foundation we needed, while our knowledge continued to grow as we developed a TND ordinance based on the SmartCode. We eventually expanded our efforts into a form-based code covering large areas of the city’s core and historic neighborhoods, in what became a parallel (optional) code with incentives for its use by developers. And we did this knowing that we faced natural resistance to new planning tools that most people know little about. Yet we did it without public opposition.

How? From the very beginning, we made a persistent and focused effort to educate the city’s elected and appointed officials (City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission), senior city staff including the city manager, and interested residents and stakeholders who would be actively involved in these codes’ adoption. The approach taken was simple, cost-effective, and not especially time consuming, but it did mean that residents and city officials were informed early in the process about new coding techniques and tools that were unfamiliar to them.

Flagstaff Open HouseWe began simply giving out literature: articles were shared with city officials, all pertinent city staff (including engineering, public works, and city attorney staff), and interested residents. Information gleaned from websites, online forums, and blog posts was also shared via memo or e-mail. We made sure we were not infringing on copyright requirements, and at all times cited authors and sources of information. Also, by hosting frequent informal community meetings, staff made presentations that not only conveyed information but helped to build a rapport and relationship with the community.

To our delight, we found that discussion of one particular subject would lead to a stimulating discussion on another. Staff delivered similar presentations to local stakeholder groups (realtors, contractors, chamber of commerce, etc.) as well as to local civic organizations. All in all, this simple and low-cost outreach and educational strategy proved extremely effective in Flagstaff, as it helped to build trust. Indeed, many who came to the meetings eventually became our strong allies as we worked to advance Smart Growth principles and FBCs.

Over time, community members began to understand the benefits of Smart Growth, TND, and FBCs. Perhaps more importantly, many realized that these tools and techniques could be applied in Flagstaff without infringing on individual property rights or mandating one development type over another, and that choices in lifestyle, housing type, commuter patterns, etc. would still prevail. At the time of adoption both the SmartCode-based TND ordinance and the parallel Form-Based Code saw very little public opposition or concern. Indeed a majority of speakers in public hearings expressed their support for these new codes.

So that’s a plug for education. I’ll write more about our technical challenges in writing and implementing these codes, in future posts appearing on this page.


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Market-Responsive Form-Based Codes

Market-Responsive Form-Based Codes

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, April-May 2013.

Richardson, Texas, an affluent inner-ring suburb of Dallas, and home to many telecommunications corporations, wants to remain attractive to employers in coming decades.

Key to that goal is becoming more walkable and connected to transit, qualities that many of today’s young and talented professionals are seeking. There are five Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) stations in Richardson, and unfortunately not one is in a walkable neighborhood. Such areas are in short supply in Richardson, which grew up entirely after World War II.

But a 100-acre previously undeveloped parcel adjacent to one of the stations will establish a new pattern: The site was rezoned recently for 3,200 residential units and up to 6,000 jobs. State Farm Insurance Company, which could have located anywhere in the region but was looking for a walkable urban center, chose this site.

As long as builders adhere to a new form-based code (FBC), no further public hearings are required. “We eliminated the risk of NIMBYism for a theoretical maximum buildout within a wide range of uses,” says Scott Polikov of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company. “There’s nothing more market-responsive than that.”

A February report by real estate consultant Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo), called “Market Pitfalls of Form-Based or Smart Codes,” criticized some FBCs for market inflexibility. Although the report cited no specific codes — and so was difficult to refute —it stung some new urban practitioners who take market demand seriously.

Bush Central

Bush Central TOD plan. Plan courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

Developers who wanted to reduce political and business risk initiated the code for the Bush Central TOD, as the Richardson site is called. The city gained assurances that the public realm would be built out in a way that is walkable and mixed-use, while the developers got flexibility and “by-right” entitlements, Polikov says. The master developersBush/75 Partners sold all the land, at a premium, within a year and vertical construction is underway at a rapid pace. Zale Corson Group is developing an urban multifamily project designed by JHP Architects, and KDC Development Company has purchased the remaining land for a mixed use, live-work-play project.

“We made the argument that this kind of development is required to keep attracting corporate citizens,” he says. “They wouldn’t be able to bring in the cool, echo-boomer development without a form-based code.”

City entitlements allowed higher densities without micromanaging uses, he adds. Within the 18 urban blocks that make up the site, uses are mostly flexible. On some streets, buildings must have first floors that accommodate retail — but other uses can occupy these areas if the market for retail lags.

“The form-based code allowed us to get a richer building envelope and enabled development to evolve over time,” Polikov says. “That’s a big story that the RCLCo criticism misses.”

The Bush Central TOD — named after a nearby highway that is named after the first President Bush — is laid out on a simple grid to be built out intensely. Public spaces are plentiful and a large natural park with trails along a creek will provide a connection to nature. The project will create a regionally significant urban center for the north side of Dallas.

Trinity Lakes

Across the metro area on the East Side of Fort Worth — a far less affluent part of the region — a form-based code was approved in December 2012 for a 175-acre transit-oriented development called Trinity Lakes.

This project is in the middle of suburban sprawl with a diverse Latino/white/African-American population. An existing commuter rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth borders the site, but a station needs to be built. A high-speed thoroughfare, Trinity Boulevard, bisects the site and must be transformed into a complete street.

Trinity Blvd Proposed

Trinity Boulevard in East Fort Worth is currently a highway but will serve as a town center. Rendering courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

The city, having adopted a FBC for an area adjacent to downtown, has experience with this type of regulation. The Trinity Lakes FBC was the first proposed by a private developer in Fort Worth. Residents of a large adjacent development, who have nothing but commercial strip retail nearby, were all for it. “They are sick of driving out of East Fort Worth for amenities that other neighborhoods have,” Polikov says.

Fort Worth is an area that gets a lot of development: In 2013, more than 4,000 residential building permits were issued in the city, about a third of them for multifamily units. But nothing like this has been attempted outside of the downtown core, let alone in a working-class neighborhood.

The city agreed to tax-increment financing (TIF) for $75 million in infrastructure to build the rail station, convert the highway into a multiuse boulevard, and pay for street, stormwater, and other improvements. The city and county will get a portion of new taxes for 20 years and then 100 percent thereafter.

The site links into the Trinity River Trail system in addition to the regional rail network.

The FBC is similar to the Richardson project. As long as the form-based aspects are adhered to, the developer has by-right entitlement to build out the project. “Form-based coding provided the vocabulary to communicate the benefits to neighbors, and it was the analytical vehicle to estimate a much higher tax-base capture,” Polikov says. Planned development in Trinity Lakes is estimated at $750 million, and it could transform this part of East Fort Worth.

High desert Savannah

Affluent or working class, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area is a fast-growing region with 6.5 million people, and what works there may not work in other parts of the US. Clovis, New Mexico, with a population of 37,000 and located 90 miles from Lubbock, Texas, the nearest city of any size, could not be more different. Yet a market-based FBC could work there as well, Polikov says.

Cannon Air Force Base, a big part of the town’s economy, is expanding with a special operations command headquarters. Many officers and enlisted personnel have lived in Europe or big cities. A 640-acre project by local developers Jeff Watson and Sid Strebeck is designed to create the kind of environment that would appeal to the service men and women.

The project takes up an entire square mile section north of town, and the first neighborhood will be anchored by a middle school and park for which the developers are donating the land.

Saddlewood Plan Map

Saddlewood in Clovis, New Mexico, takes inspiration from Savannah, Georgia. Plan courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

Saddlewood is designed around 20 squares, much like Savannah, Georgia, and each square will be a module for development that includes a full range of housing types. The housing surrounding each square is, in effect, a phase of development that allows market flexibility, Polikov says. “We looked at historical places that allow variety but replication and we were influenced by Savannah,” he says. “There’s a predictable amount of infrastructure investment and we can build as much as we need,” he says.

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