Piedmont Public Policy Institute and UNC Charlotte Release Research Paper on Form-Based Zoning

Circle Morehead

Circle Morehead Apartments, a 296-unit multifamily project located being developed by Crescent Resources under the Form-Based PED Overlay in Dilworth.

A new research paper by an urban design scholar at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte provides some important insights on a controversial approach to zoning and land use, and how its use can help or hinder economic development.

The paper by UNC Charlotte Professor Emeritus David Walters, An Evaluation of Form-Based Zoning and its Potential to Stimulate Economic Development and Reduce Housing Costs, was unveiled recently at a Community Forum at the University’s Center City Building, which also featured presentations by Harvard University professor Peter J. Park and Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, who took the lead in the development and adoption of a Form-Based Zoning ordinance for the Mile High City in 2010.

In his presentation, Walters explained how, through clear and reliable design standards that can be approved administratively, a Form-Based Code or Overlay District can often serve to reduce the time required for a developer to obtain construction permits. The result can be new developments that integrate effectively with the character of the existing community, along with the delivery of housing and commercial space at a lower cost.

But when planners, elected officials and residents backtrack on what they agreed to in the community plan, Walters said quality development will instead migrate to neighboring jurisdictions with a more simplified entitlement process.

The true intent of the form-based approach is to reorient the planning process to regulate only the public realm – the scale and mass of the building, its setbacks, height, and integration with the pedestrian and automobile environments. A form-based code is NOT intended to regulate the private realm, which would be its use, aesthetics, colors, design, internal components, and so on.

— David Walters, UNC Charlotte

In describing the approach Denver took in adopting their citywide Form-Based Zoning Code four years ago, Peter Park and Councilwoman Robb reiterated the importance of crafting an ordinance that clearly articulates the vision agreed upon by community stakeholders. Unless the code clearly outlines what is expected of developers in the way of building design, they said, it will lose its value as a tool to stimulate economic growth. You can download Park’s PowerPoint presentation HERE.  Councilwoman Jeanne Robb’s presentation is available for download HERE.

Robb pointed out that, since adopting the new code, the City of Denver has seen its rezoning applications decline from nearly 200 a year to around 30. Development proposals that comply with the approved design standards are approved administratively, and the city has consequently seen an increase in high-density, walkable mixed-use development that complements its expanding light rail network.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission Chair Tony Lathrop leads a panel discussion on Form-Based Zoning at UNC Charlotte

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission Chairman Tony Lathrop leads a panel discussion on Form-Based Zoning November 19th at UNC Charlotte

During a panel discussion that followed the presentations, Charlotte developers Terrence Llewellyn, Lindsey McAlpine and Jim Merrifield talked about their experiences with Form-Based Code, which exist locally in two zoning districts: the Pedestrian-Oriented Overlay District (PED) and the Transit-Oriented Development District (TOD).

McAlpine’s company is currently developing a 296-unit multifamily project on Morehead St. that was approved administratively under the PED, while Llewellyn Development is completing a 209-unit apartment community under a similar form-based ordinance in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

“The (approval) process was completely depoliticized,” Llewellyn said of his project. “We had a low-risk regulatory environment, we had an expedited regulatory environment, and as a result of that our risk became substantially lower.”

The research paper was commissioned by the Piedmont Public Policy Institute, a 501 (c)(3) organization established to provide independent research, analysis, and education on economic development, the real estate and building industry, transportation, the environment, and related matters relevant to the Charlotte region. Funding for the study was provided through a grant from the Crosland Foundation.

Download a copy of the research paper HERE.

You can view a video of the UNC Charlotte event HERE.

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