What's Happening to Our Main Streets and How Can We Fix It?

Author: Ted Kolankowski, RLA, LEED AP

Hint: By rejecting conventional wisdom about Euclidian zoning

Municipalities across the country are recognizing that their current zoning codes may have inadvertently helped create main streets and downtown centers that lack vibrancy and a sense of community. They have become places to visit just for business and then leave. It seems like no one lives downtown any more. Once meant to protect public health, safety, and welfare by restricting and segregating property uses, conventional or “Euclidian” zoning has had the effect of driving people away from downtowns. Residents find they must drive everywhere – to work, to shop or to play. By separating uses related to daily activities such as home, school, and work, Euclidian zoning has often resulted in suburban sprawl and loss of urban centers. Streets are no longer part of the community; they have become, essentially, utility conduits.

Communities are nostalgic for the “way things were,” and looking for ways to bring activity and promise back to their main streets, maintain a sense of character and place, and reconnect the street to the community.

Some communities have turned toward the use of Form Based Codes (FBC) because it allows them to regulate form rather than function. Because it is more flexible and allows for an appropriate mix of uses within both neighborhoods and buildings, FBC can help create revitalized neighborhoods and community centers where people can live and work. FBC can be tailored to the desirable characteristics of the community so the resulting development is focused on what the community actually wants, rather than simply determining what is not allowed.  

Form Based Codes:

  • Create a sustainable community through future development formed by encouraging the encoding of the existing character and historic patterns of the community
  • Encourage mixed residential neighborhoods (single, two and three family homes; apartments; other multiple family units), even neighborhood commercial
  • Create opportunities for mixed-use buildings with retail and offices on the ground floor and residences on upper floors, infilling vacant and underused spaces within traditional hamlet and village centers
  • Reconnect the street to the private realm which can create more walkable streets with mixed land uses
  • Provide guidance for design professionals and local review boards with fewer zoning based restrictions
  • Can be tailored to smoothly transition through different community settings and land use intensity
 
   Graphic representation of Form Based Code courtesy of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's "     Form Based Codes: A Step By Step Guide for Communities     ".

Graphic representation of Form Based Code courtesy of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's "Form Based Codes: A Step By Step Guide for Communities".

 

Euclidian zoning tradition leaves communities at odds with what to do when iconic buildings are lost and voids are created in the downtown. Redevelopment within that space is very limited under Euclidean zoning – there is often no language within current zoning codes to encourage flexible development (or redevelopment) choices. As a result, infill development is required to be a particular land use which, in the case of most small towns, results in a one story structure. The bulk density and parking requirements often result in a new building that is pushed back into the site with a sea of parking near the street.

Re-forming with Form Based Code: Where to Start?

Employing FBC does not have to mean scrapping or rewriting the municipal code. It does involve taking a focused look at each town’s unique character to see where FBC will work to meet the goals and objectives of the municipal comprehensive plan. Each city, town, village, and hamlet is unique, and with some focused visioning the community will uncover hidden character and history on downtown streets, waiting to be preserved and enhanced. Beginning with the relationships of private development to streets and the existing placement of buildings and other site features, it is possible to more clearly understand the character of a community to create a truly community derived form-based code.  

Many municipalities prefer to employ a hybrid approach to adopting change by creating overlay zones, and dividing larger districts into smaller districts for a more focused street by street (or block by block) revitalization effort. This allows a community to adopt a specific set of regulations for downtown and hamlet settings created for specific streets or sections of streets, where it is important to preserve the character of the community and incorporate existing features and structures. This overlay district approach can also incorporate mixed-use zoning districts, which allow for office residential, neighborhood commercial, mixed industrial commercial, and highway commercial. Mixed-use buildings can also be incorporated in an overlay.  

If your community is looking to slow down or reverse the negative effects of years of Euclidean zoning constraints and reestablish a vibrant downtown, then a Form Based Codes approach could be right for you. The economic benefits of recapturing a downtown tax base as well as efficiently reusing previously developed land will pay off in the long run and make it easier to preserve and enhance the unique character of your community.