City Center Envisioned through Form Based Codes

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Thursday April 19, 2012

A long anticipated agenda awaited nearly 50 individuals as they milled into City Hall on Monday, April 9. Residents prepared for the second installment of the Community Design Workshop presented by South Burlington Planning & Zoning and the Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative, LLC (TPUDC) to review and further discuss the future of the new design of the proposed City Center.

TPUDC founder Brian Wright ran the first workshop from October 26–29. Discussion of what citizens and landowners would like the City Center to look like, as well as an introduction to form-based codes were what transpired during the first installment. April’s meeting served as an in-depth look at exactly what these form-based codes would entail. A form-based code, a type of land-use regulation that focuses more on the form of development more than the use of it, is the most common form of action for renovating an area or development, Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning, said. Burlington and Colchester are in the process of using this regulation.

Wright retraced his steps from the first workshop so that the new faces in the room could have an overall understanding of the process. Using a PowerPoint presentation, Mr. Wright first led residents through what a conventional suburban zoning diagram would look like. It would incorporate elements of walkability, mixed-use (daily needs, light retail), compactness (preservation of natural settings and developing other areas more densely), and diversity.

To make these elements become reality, the city can use Form Based Codes, Wright said. To ensure the public that South Burlington is not a tester for using this regulation, he listed five other New England states that have successfully adopted Form Based Codes: Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Wright outlined the functions of this regulation, the first being that it would create an area of the city that would be most loved. It would also create a more predictable outcome, simplify the process, and make the center a more “walkable place of character.”

He proceeded to explain how Form Based Codes are character-based; conventional zoning is use-based, and a Form Based Code is a paradigm shift that would allow residents to focus more on the shape and feel of South Burlington rather than what each zone would be used for in the plan.

“Besides the sign on a building or a smoke stack billowing dark, black smoke, you can’t tell what’s going on inside of a building,” he said. “The use is somewhat irrelevant.”

He then outlined verbally and visually the different transit zones (Zone 1 and 2: Natural and Rural being one end of the spectrum to Zone 6 and 7: Urban Core and Assigned District being the extreme opposites), and showed how varied housing types, attention to sustainability, and balance and harmony would play into the puzzle. Form Based Codes would demonstrate flexibility in having each zone finely overlap so there are no “hard edges” as residents move throughout the city.

Wright concluded with a “Master Plan,” a rough color-by-zone diagrammatic draft of what South Burlington might look like. There is a set up of a network of streets laid out in white, and there is a city commons in the center of the town. Areas of urban concentration (three shades in purple—darkest being most urban) are more in the center, and with the exception of purple shading on one entrance into South Burlington. This map may be viewed on the city web site: and can be viewed in conjunction with Google Maps.

The floor then opened up to the public, and Wright was met with an array of questions. One concerned citizen asked if there would be enough parking. Has he counted enough spaces?

Wright said that they are considering eliminating parking standards; he has not counted the square footage or spaces for parking because the Form Based Code is flexible and it should be left up to landowners who will consider parking in great detail. One vision is to have off-street parking so that the city is more pedestrian-friendly.

Echoing the parking concern, City Council Chair Rosanne Greco inquired about what a multi-story parking garage would look like in South Burlington. Wright did not have specifics of what they would look like, but that it wouldn’t be too much of a concern since they would not be in view.

Another woman expressed concern that the draft would compromise recreational field space for school athletics on the RM Central School grounds.

“We’re short on fields,” she said. “Everyone is playing some time of the year.”

Wright replied that with the rough draft there may be parts that are snipped, but that it is a rough draft and early in the process.

One gentleman voiced that the plan seemed “a little too fanciful,” and was unsure whether or not residents would see themselves in the same spot 30 years down the road again. Another point of conflict he brought up was the idea that some business and buildings owned by private landowners were already in place, and the map shows that some of these properties have been moved. How would the city communicate with private landowners, and have property owners talking with each other yet?

“Without the vision, it certainly wouldn’t happen,” Wright said. Property owners have been talking to one another, and the plan is in the early stages of production.

Susan Neill-Coolidge, a South Burlington resident, was determined to make sure that there would be minimal to no traffic noise near neighboring schools due to this plan.

A youngster in the crowd, Emily Coolidge, also wanted to make sure that paving Market Street would be a top priority in redeveloping the city. It would make for a much more enjoyable bus ride, she said.

Paul Conner assured young Coolidge and the rest of the audience that paving Market Street was most certainly high on the list of things to accomplish in the making of this new development. In doing so, it would also make it a more desirable place to walk, he said.

Among the numerous questions—both general and specific—answers were delivered in the most positive manner possible, but were not entirely addressed with great detail due to the progress of the process; it is still in the early stages, but if citizens show enough engagement in the making of South Burlington, more questions may be asked, answers to concerns may be met, and in the big picture, a finished, proud product of what citizens and landowners want City Center to look like.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent