Williston Road / City Center Community Design Workshop Wraps Up

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Thursday November 03, 2011

Last week, a simple but important question resonated in South Burlington; “What do you want your city to look like?”  Residents responded wholeheartedly.  During four days of workshops and meetings, 160 people came out to voice their thoughts and concerns and to take part in shaping the future of South Burlington’s long awaited City Center.  While the City Center concept has been talked about for years, never has the vision felt more real, or more possible.

What is different about the ‘city center’ conversation this time around?   Starting with a fresh slate, Project Consultant Brian Wright, of Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative, invited all the stakeholders to the table.  He met with residents, the business and landowner community, City Councilors, Planning Commission members and city staff.  All were offered a voice early on in the process. 

Participants were asked to focus first on the desired end product.  How do we create a purposeful and memorable place that will withstand the test of time?  How do we want Williston Road and the City Center area to look, feel, and be used?  How can we create our identity as a city through smart planning?

By defining the needs and desires of the community at the outset, zoning and regulations can be structured to realize that vision.  Individual projects can then be successfully planned and executed when a predictable outcome is known.  This newer approach to planning, using ‘form based codes,” meant to facilitate well thought out and defined land use, is already underway in places all around the country and is currently being implemented in St Albans, Colchester and Burlington.
Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning, sees this as a tremendous opportunity for South Burlington to have regulations that implement the community’s vision.   In a recent article, Conner described form-based codes as follows:

A Form Based Code prioritizes the overall design of a property over the use within it. More importantly, perhaps, how a piece of land is to be developed is made clear up front. So if we’re looking for a building on a corner lot to abut the street on both sides, have a side or corner entry, and be 2-3 stories tall, then that’s what goes in the regulation. 

A Form Based Code is also clearer for everyone. This is one of the big keys. It often sets a high bar for what the community wants to see in an area. But, in exchange, there’s a lot more certainty for everyone involved about where the bar is. Ultimately, everyone can win because projects that are submitted for review by the city have very clear standards and much less grey-area.

With the creation of walkable, mixed use, pedestrian-friendly environments as the goal, the group examined ways to deveop a more ‘identifiable’ town center.   The difficulty of achieving the balance of a city center that provides a focal point for its residents as well as an economical draw and benefit was acknowledged. The added challenge is to stitch together what already exists, with what is desired as a final built outcome.   Uniting diverse aspects of already existing buildings, businesses, retail entities, and traffic patterns (such as Central School, University Mall and Williston Road) with the need for additional economic opportunity along with green space, municipal buildings, and diverse housing  in an incremental approach is a daunting task.

As the project moved through several phases over the course of the four days, participants and consultants worked interactively with maps, photos and designs.  On Friday, Wright presented a mid-point review featuring five separate draft maps for critique and discussion.   Audience members were quick to comment on the design elements they liked, identified  trouble spots, and weighed in on the general design with suggestions for the final draft. 

After more revisions, Saturday’s conclusion and presentation by Wright’s team included a cohesive practical design with some unique features and several draft options to be considered for the final phase.  Wright also offered new and appealing solutions to old problems.  Banks, restaurants, retail, and gas stations were positioned with pedestrian and automobile traffic flow in mind, and parking largely hidden behind buildings.  An example of a big retail business with a large footprint was disguised by ‘liner buildings’ along the perimeter which mask the blank walls of a traditional expansive exterior. Well planned infill which met the challenge of balancing the natural habitat with the human habitat and suburban retrofit designs used for reimaging existing areas were implemented as part of the overall plan. Near Market Street, a large Village Green was featured as the center point connecting various nearby municipal buildings.  This central area was highlighted by a unique feature such as a bell tower or carillon as a memorable focal point.  Also included was a transitional area that could be interchangeably used for winter ice skating and a warm weather plaza. A year round market space, unique dining cafés, pedestrian passages and community gardens added to the distinctive streetscapes which in turn led to single family homes and natural greenspaces. 

What’s next?  A new draft ‘form-based’ presentation will be made by Wright and his team early in 2012.  Then by early spring, Conner expects to see a final product.  If the South Burlington community is pleased with the result, the regulation adoption process could begin.  Conner says he is looking forward to the community’s continued participation in the next phase.  To see the presentations, go to www.otherpapervt.com and click on the video screen.  Or watch on cctv.org at  http://www.cctv.org/watch-tv/programs/south-burlington-development-and-interim-zoning-part-1.

SOURCE: Staff Writer, The Other Paper