Form Based Code: Boon or Boondoggle for East Lansing?
Above: Townhouses in East Lansing’s “West Village,” which have the basic style City planning staff want to see for near-downtown residential neighborhoods.
Would a new kind of zoning code – one that prescribes particular architectural requirements – be a boon or a boondoggle for East Lansing?
East Lansing’s Planning Commission and City Council are currently mulling that question. At issue is whether to institute “form based code” for parts of East Lansing, including all of downtown plus parts of the Chesterfield Hills, Oakwood, Bailey, and Brookfield Heritage neighborhoods.
If ultimately adopted by City Council, this code would limit architecturally what could be built on properties in the special zone, including in terms of new structures and additions.
Because the City has not notified property owners in these areas of the proposal, many are unaware – including those in owner-occupied homes in the designated zones.
This special report from ELi is designed to explain the general and specific issues, and to explain why some people are for, and others against, the draft plan.
What is “form based code”?
Form based code is a term for a special kind of zoning which aims to specify how buildings in a given area will look and how they will function where they meet public spaces.
Typically a form based code specifies design elements of buildings – like what percentage of the exterior walls will be consumed by windows, whether there will be balconies, what roof pitches will be – and also specifies how a building will work in relation to sidewalks and roads.
It may specify, for example, how close a building must be to the sidewalk, where parking will be located (usually in back), and whether exterior doors are to be set flush with the front or inset along a building’s face.
Below: A drawing from East Lansing’s draft report showing residential structure requirements.
The original idea of form based code was to simplify zoning. Design rules would tell developers what buildings should look like from the outside. In exchange, developers could put in just about whatever uses they wanted – light industrial, office, student-focused housing, and so on.
The idea was that it would make it easier to redevelop properties because of fewer use restrictions, that it would lead to good design that did not clash from one property to the next, and that it would create much better public spaces in terms of look and function.
Is that what East Lansing is considering when it considers form based code?
It doesn't look like it. City planning staff, City leaders, and consultants hired to advise on this are suggesting easing up significantly on use restrictions. They’re interested in adding form based code to use rules in order to require specific types of design.
The idea is to create a set of specific types of designs for different uses. So, for example, residentially-zoned properties in targeted neighborhoods (parts of Bailey, Oakwood, Chesterfield Hills, and Brookfield Heritage) would see redevelopment limited to specific “townhouse,” “cottage,” and "small apartment" (1-6 story) designs, similar to those shown in the draft report as below:
Commercially-zoned properties would see development limited to particular types of commercial designs.
What area are we talking about?
The draft recommendations for East Lansing include a map that suggests form based code be instituted throughout the downtown and in parts of four residential neighborhoods:
(For the full report and map, click here.)
What’s the impetus?
The immediate impetus is a grant obtained via the “Shaping the Avenue” project. This is a joint project of the Cities of Lansing and East Lansing and the Charter Township of Meridian to create a better design for “The Avenue” going from the State Capitol building to the Meridian Mall. That starts with Michigan Avenue and, going east, continues with Grand River Avenue.
The Capitol Area Transit Authority (CATA) spearheaded the project, using federal grant money, to develop consistent zoning between the Capitol building and the mall, which is also the route of CATA’s #1 bus route. In addition to the municipalities involved, the effort has included staff from six different consulting firms specializing in form based code and transit oriented development.
This has involved a two-year-long community outreach project. A draft of the proposed changes for the East Lansing section has been under review by East Lansing’s Planning Commission and was presented to the City Council at its work session on October 23.
Presentation to East Lansing’s Council by the consultants:
The October 23 meeting included a presentation from the external consultants hired on the grant, including Mary Madden from Farrow Madden a firm specializing in urban design and town planning, and Kathleen Duffy from the Smith Group.
Madden’s presentation focused on the details that make form based zoning different from the current “use” centered code, which East Lansing uses. She explained that frequently with use-based codes you end up with “buildings in the middle of parking lots.” Council Member Shanna Draheim pointed out the Whole Foods building (which is in Meridian Township) as a recent example of this type of development.
With a form based model, Madden explained, “you still have the same uses, but the building is oriented towards the street, parking is handled differently, typically not between the building and the street.”
She described the difference by saying “instead of the building sitting in space, with the form based codes buildings are used to shape the space, or the public realm.”
The draft report for East Lansing shows, for example, proposed requirements for storefronts:
Madden said that East Lansing’s current zoning does not support the vision of its recently-passed comprehensive plan, but suggested that this form based code could be the tool needed to provide that support.
One aspect of the comprehensive plan that is spelled out more clearly in this draft is the notion of transition neighborhoods where intense development along "The Avenue" would “step down,” reducing building height and mass as it moved away from the avenue into districts with single family homes.
The idea would be to take streets where residential neighborhoods meet commercial areas and promote replacement of houses with near-sidewalk, multi-story "small apartment" buildings (1-6 stories), “townhouses” and “cottages” with “raised dooryards” – stairs leading to front doors.
Madden stated that a primary goal in instituting Avenue corridor codes was to create a more pedestrian-friendly, walkable area along the Avenue that is “transit supportive,” and to have consistent zoning across all of the municipalities that border on “The Avenue.”
Both Lansing and Meridian Township’s ordinances regarding the “Avenue Form District” are on the verge of being adopted, according to Madden.
Madden explained that another goal was to create predictability for all stakeholders as new developments are proposed, predictability “in the review process, in the build outcomes, for the neighbors, for the business owners, for the developers. Can people have a clearer sense of what exactly the expectations are, as a baseline before the development proposals even start coming through?”
Madden suggested that East Lansing could ease up on how much it restricts use of a property, for example, backing off on the idea that commercial properties must have office or retail space on the ground floor. But so far, East Lansing’s planners and leaders have not shown a lot of interest in relinquishing control of uses in exchange for wanting specific architectural designs.
Why would the City pursue this?
City Planning staff is interested in instituting form based code because they believe it allows the City to require what they see as better design. The design would say, for example, what should and should not be visible from the street.
Planning staff also suggests that, through the use of form based code, fewer projects would have to come for review to Planning Commission and City Council, because staff could make more decisions about projects.
Tim Dempsey, East Lansing Director of Planning and Development, said at the October 23 meeting that a more streamlined process could be beneficial.
“A lot of the projects that come through the City, in fact the vast majority, are through special use permits,” Dempsey explained. A code that provides more direction to developers could pave the way for allowing more administrative approvals for new projects, rather than the system of public hearings that is required to obtain City Council’s approval.
A chart on page 9 of the Avenue Form District code draft outlines which types of projects could be approved by city administration and which types would require Council approval.
At the October 23 meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann asked if form based code could be used to spur redevelopment. He named the area along Grand River between Hagadorn Road and Bogue Street as an area that “isn’t working.”
Replied Madden, “If you make the process easier and more certain, time is money, that makes a huge difference.”
She also explained that allowing denser development, both in terms of mixed use and building height could encourage new projects for developers who incur expenses purchasing property.
Are there problems with this approach?
Attorney David Pierson has represented a number of developers on recent East Lansing projects and is the past and current Chair of the Zoning and Land Use Committee of the State Bar of Michigan Real Property Law Section. We asked him if there are downsides to the approach under consideration.
Pierson sums up form based code this way: “In truth, it isn’t zoning at all. It is an architecture code.”
And that, he says, is the problem.
As noted above, the original idea behind form based code was to simplify zoning to promote good redevelopment. But in practice, municipalities like East Lansing are often adding architectural requirements on top of use restrictions.
That can make redevelopment more difficult in a city that is already said by developers to be extraordinarily difficult to work in. (Pierson spoke to ELi about the specific challenges in the East Village from form based code; read that case-study companion report here.)
Other problems Pierson sees with form based code as East Lansing is considering using it include:
- that it “bakes in” an aesthetic of a particular era, which can lead to regret and the forced use of outdated styles;
- that it restricts property rights, thereby very possibly driving down property values and property taxes;
- that it discourages property investment, including redevelopment, because it creates extra layers of difficulty;
- and that because many property owners will ask for exceptions, it leads to yet more layers of work and delay for all involved.
If the East Lansing draft were carried out as envisioned, thousands of properties in East Lansing would automatically become nonconforming. That means the people who own those properties would be significantly restricted in what kinds of changes they could make in terms of exteriors and additions, unless they were willing to change their structures to meet the requirements.
In many cases, that would require tearing down and starting over, including for houses in the zoned districts.
What are some other potential problems?
Form based code can also “bake in” requirements that may later be understood to be environmentally irresponsible, as when very high ceilings or very large windows are required. The Hub, now under construction, is being built partly under a 2006 form based code; read our special report on that here.
Additionally, in areas zoned using form based code, redevelopment according to the new codes would happen only if property owners wanted to undertake redevelopment.
So, for areas currently occupied by houses, houses set far back from the sidewalk might be interspersed with townhouses close to the sidewalk in a hodge-podge fashion, unless a developer bought up an entire street of properties and redeveloped according to the new code. Where the design guidelines imagine a pleasant uniformity, there might be a strange lack of uniformity for many years.
The idea is, however, to use this code to allow for enough predictability that people feel confident building new structures according to the code – confident that others will do the same – creating great spaces with higher property values, better uses, and ultimately more property tax revenue.
The draft is going back to Planning Commission for more discussion, and ultimately will come back to City Council for a final decision.
Planning Commission has had many questions about the draft, and some concerns, including, for example, what the residential design calling for raised front doors would mean for people with mobility disabilities. A letter from Planning Commission Chair Dan Bollman to Council recommended more work on the draft plan by the Planning Commission.
“Further,” Bollman wrote,” we expect that it will receive opposition, both for the lack of familiarity with its methods and for the perceived over-reach of its requirements. At the same time, we believe it would be unfortunate to dismiss this undertaking before it receives proper consideration.”
Right now, there appears to be no plan on the part of the City to specifically inform property owners in the areas under consideration that a draft plan is being considered. Sign up for ELi’s mailers if you want to stay informed on this and other governmental issues.
Read our special companion report on the East Village, East Lansing’s only experience with form based code.
Correction: When this article was published, we did not note that the residential use concept includes 1-6 story apartment buildings, so that was added to discussion of the residential neighborhood form under consideration for the four residential neighborhoods in the zone. Additionally, there is some question about whether the intent here is to replace existing use classifications with the form code (eliminating use restrictions), or to effectively add it on, so we amended references to that to indicate that it is a point of discussion.
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