Form-based code seen as a tool to build urban Albemarle

Originally written in summer 2019

Can you imagine a future where the current shopping centers along U.S. 29 in Albemarle County have been replaced with mid-rise buildings where people are able to live, work and hang out in public? That’s the vision put forth in the Rio Road Small-Area Plan, a document adopted by the Board of Supervisors in December 2018. 

“The community [has] showed their vision for this area and said they felt that Rio/29 could be transformed into a walkable, mixed-use community,” said Nancy Hunt, the chair of the Places29-Rio Community Advisory Committee. “That would be a pretty wide-open vision for a big empty parking lot with a few empty stores.”

One planner from another Virginia locality said during a recent visit that she saw possibilities. 

“I think the benefit you have here is you’ve got four large quadrants and a good chunk of those are large properties that are already assembled,” said Ashby Moss, the strategic growth area planning and evaluation coordinator for the City of Virginia Beach. “It’s a lot easier once you got a large piece of land under one ownership to redesign it.’ 

Virginia Beach adopted a form-based code in 2012 to help guide redevelopment of land near the oceanfront that had been occupied by single-story buildings. This alternative form of zoning created incentives for property owners to build something that would create more space for residential or commercial use. 

However, many people in the community have expressed confusion about what form-based code is and some have expressed apprehension. Here’s the way it is defined in the Rio Road Small Area Plan. 

“A form-based code differs from a conventional (Euclidean) zoning code in that rather than focusing on the use of a property, a form-based code focuses on building form as its organizing principle,” reads the implementation chapter. “By prescribing detailed architectural and site design requirements, developments permitted under a form-based code produce a more consistent, connected, and predictable built environment while allowing greater flexibility of use.” 

What does that mean in practice? Here’s how a planner from Arlington County describes it. 

“With form-based code, you’re essentially designing every block and every series of blocks, but not actually looking at each parcel,” said Matt Mattauszek, a principal planner with Arlington County and the coordinator of the Columbia Pike Initiative.  

“Think of it as putting trace paper on top of the existing aerial plan of your community and working from the middle of the roadway into the property,” he said. “How many travel lanes do you want to have? Okay, that’s the edge of your curb. How wide do you want to have your sidewalks?”

For Albemarle, the work of putting together such a plan is just getting started. Mattauszek and Moss were both guests on an April 29 panel discussion put together by Albemarle County to help educate people about the zoning tool. 

Recent history and many eyes on the future 

Sprawling development on U.S. 29 began in the mid to late 20th century, with many farms and fields turned into single-family neighborhoods and single-story shopping centers. 

“As a primarily rural area, Albemarle County didn’t adopt zoning until 1969 at a time when suburban Charlottesville was starting to grow,” said Andrew Knuppel, a county planner. “The current code and zoning map were adopted in 1980 and set an expectation for continued and directed growth into our development areas and prioritized rural area and watershed protection.” 

However, Knuppel said the code from 1980 did not plan for an urban form in Albemarle. Instead, commercial shopping centers were built on those large parcels with surface parking up hundreds of acres. With the future of large retailers in question across the United States, planners everywhere are looking for solutions. 

“Civic leaders, planners and community members across the United States are beginning to recognize the challenges and limitations of single-use zoning,” said Michaela Accardi, a neighborhood planner with the county. “This type of zoning code may include regulations on building height, mass, set-backs, build-to lines, and building orientations. These regulations emphasize the qualities that affect site design and how our community experiences the space.”

The goal at Rio Road and 29 is to guide the redevelopment of properties as a more dense environment. The current conditions are geared for those in vehicles. 

“As this area transforms and redevelops, we can reorient and think about where we place the buildings on site so it’s more comfortable for people to walk around,” said Rachel Falkenstein, a senior planner with the county. “Right now the zoning in the area just allows for the commercial type of uses that are there, but with form-based code we can start to think about having residential or offices there.”

In some ways, a form-based code carries on the tradition of the county’s Neighborhood Model District zoning, which since 2001 has encouraged buildings to be closer to roadways and for parking to be relegated behind the structures. 

Form-based code could take that a step further by suggesting where future streets might go. Falkenstein said the area currently mainly consists of two busy roadways and travelways through private parking lots. The code could set up a future street grid and where public spaces would be located. 

“People have said this area lacks public amenities such as parks, trails and sidewalks,” Falkenstein said. “That’s something a lot of communities can regulate through form-based code.”

Form-based code in Arlington 

It’s one thing to talk about form-based code in theory. It’s another to hear concrete examples from other places where it has been implemented. In Arlington, much of the leg work of planning and community engagement was conducted by a nonprofit group that partnered with county planners. 

“It has to be complemented with a lot of other things, and vision for a place is the number one issue,” said Takis Karatonis, a former executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. That group was created to promote the redevelopment of a three and a half mile stretch of Route 244 in Arlington County. 

“Economic development for the place is the number two issue,” he said. “Housing, equity, all of it will be on your table. The form-based code discussion is a good introduction to the complexity and holistic approach to a new place that you are going to build.” 

Karatonis said that Columbia Pike was not included on the Metro system when it was built, and there was a lack of new development on the corridor for decades. The organization was formed to brainstorm ways to attract private capital for redevelopment. An economist by trade, Karatonis said his job was to get people around the table to talk about potential futures. 

“That included government, developers, shop-owners, property owners, civic-association presidents and others, including the schools,” Karatonis said. “The idea was to see how we could influence the process together.” 

Mattauszek said the form-based code has led to new street connections, mini-parks, plazas and a community center built through a public-private partnership. 

“Now with Amazon locating in Crystal City and Pentagon City with their second headquarters,  we’re already starting to see another wave of development coming in because of the close proximity,” Mattauszek said. 

Form-based code in Leesburg 

Leesburg is a town in Loudoun County with an estimated population in 2017 of 54,215 that dates back to 1740. 

“If any of you have been to Leesburg, you know that the core of our identity is the downtown, said Susan Berry Hill, the town’s planning and zoning director for the Town of Leesburg. “But it’s not just the history… it’s the actual design that has been preserved over the years.” 

Berry Hill said the compact, walkable nature of Leesburg makes the town attractive to employers and residents alike. As officials sought to expand the footprint of the downtown, they wanted to find a way to make sure future development matched.

“That area was identified through a master plan as the Crescent District,” Berry Hill said. “The master plan identified some goals that we wanted to achieve in the town, which was to extend the walkability of the downtown into areas that surround the development and to make sure the development happens in a predictable pattern that is respectful of the scale of the historic core.”

“At its most elemental level, form-based codes are proactive,” Berry Hill said. “They are really about deciding what is the public realm such as the sidewalks, the streets, the public places. What do we want that to be? We don’t wait for a developer to hopefully get us there. It’s deciding as a community what we want that to be and then putting that into the regulations.”

Berry Hill said Leesburg does not have a robust public transit system, so their code emphasizes walkability.

“We are focusing on pedestrian connections and making those as easy as possible so that people don’t feel the need to get in the car to do short trips,” Berry Hill said. 

Form-based code in Virginia Beach 

Moss said Virginia Beach’s form-based stemmed from a planning exercise known as the Resort Area Strategic Action Plan, a project not that different from the Rio Road Small Area Plan.  

“Fortunately we had the bones and the street structure that was able to accommodate [the form-based code],” Moss said. “It was a lot easier to infill that to try to carve out new streets which will be a challenge for RIo/29.” 

Moss said it took three years to write and adopt the code. 

“We’ve seen significant results since then but not immediately,” Moss said. “It takes some time.” 

Moss said Virginia Beach’s form-based code limits building heights to serve as a curb on density near the shore. 

“We can’t really handle the density that can some our way so we have to monitor that,” Moss said. 

Incentivizing redevelopment for the whole community

Mattauszek said the goal in Arlington was to create a mechanism that would incentivize development. Another was to find ways to ensure no one was displaced. 

“We wanted to make sure that all of the demographics and broad ranges that resided on the corridor could still continue to do that as redevelopment happened,” Mattauszek said. “We wanted to make sure that certain preservation tools emphasized affordable housing on every site with every new development.” 

Karatonis said that 45,000 people lived on a three-and-a-half mile stretch of Columbia Pike, but there was not a single public square. 

“Any recreational spaces were quasi-accidentally there,” Karatonis said. “There was not an urban design that was conducive to build community and to make the neighborhoods be proud and take ownership.”

Karatonis said form-based code can designate where public spaces will be in the future. For Leesburg, that has meant open places where people can congregate. 

“Form-based codes are first and foremost about placemaking,” Berry Hill said. “It’s locating the buildings in such a way that you’re really forming a good public area.”  

Mattauszek said it helped for staff in the Arlington planning department to have a nonprofit partner to assist with negotiations with property owners and interested citizens. 

“Being able to engage with them in a slightly different way allowed for us to get that additional layer of input,” Mattauszek said. “It’s because of the interactions we had with the community, with design charrettes and open studios where they could come in and help us draft some of the documents.” 

Karatonis said that for most parties, predictability is the most important outcome of the form-based code.

“You see at the end of the process on the map what kind of building you get, where you get it, and how it relates to the street and the neighborhood,” Karatonis said. “For the development community, this is invaluable.” 

Moss said the primary friction in Virginia Beach in the early days of writing the code was between the people who wanted to see change and those who wanted everything to stay the same.

“A lot that was just reassuring people that we weren’t going to come into their single-family neighborhoods with eminent domain and build a high-rise,” Moss said. “Some people jumped to that conclusion. A lot of it was educating people about looking for a balance and the need to keep the economy growing.”

Form-based codes change over time 

Berry Hill said that even with adoption of a form-based code, work will continue on revising it over time as conditions change. 

“We recognize that we need to go back and revisit some of the basic principles that we are looking at, such as in our district, the Town Council said there would not be any public money for capital projects to go into collaborating with the development community and the private sector,” Berry Hill said. “We found that that’s very difficult to do when you see development happening on a parcel by parcel basis.”

Leesburg invited the Form Based Code Institute to review the form-based ordinance for an additional review. A report has recently been made to the Council which could lead to changes.

“I’m hoping we can make it even better and see more redevelopment happen because of that,” Berry Hill said. 

Karatonis said there would always be revisions, especially as the need for parking requirements may shift as more people switch away from private vehicles. 

“Form-based codes create a consistent base and a theory of change for the next step,” he said. “They create an acquired capital of urban experience.”

In his case, Karatonis said the transformation of Columbia Pike is about getting to people to experience their communities better. 

“We would have had to take the car to go somewhere like three miles away to have fun, and now we can just walk out of our house,” Karatonis said. 

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