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Seeking walkable urbanism Cleveland finds form based code to its liking

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/08/16 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

City leaders announced plans to update Cleveland’s zoning to a form-based system at a presentation held at Cleveland State University Levin College of Urban Affairs last week.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley kicked off the meeting, remarking that the Market District in Ohio City and East 4th Street downtown are where locals take visitors to impress them.

<br />Image from City of Cleveland presentation on form based code.<br />Snout town homes on West 58th and Bridge in Cleveland are not pedestrian friendly. A form based code would prevent this design from occurring.<br />East Fourth Street in Cleveland has the DNA of a walkable street. Image: City of Cleveland.

But, red tape in the zoning code prevents new developments from having the close geometries and design elements that produce a feeling of vibrancy in those postcard locales.

“We already know what a walkable street looks like,” City of Cleveland Planner, Kyle Reisz, said while standing in front of a picture of lower Euclid Avenue. “We need to understand what the DNA is and translate it.”

A form based code will translate pages of text into illustrations of good urban form, Reisz adds.

The idea is to remove barriers and encourage buildings that meet the street, place parking behind, and require a generous supply of windows and doors at the ground level.

The zero setback, mixed use building is currently illegal, he said. The award-winning Uptown development, for instance, required variances.

The city has evolved its thinking about zoning. When the current code was written in 1929, separating factories from residents was top priority. Most Clevelanders were pedestrians, so little was written into the code about preserving the walkable character of the city, said Reisz. Later amendments to the code discouraged walking while enhancing the street and built environment to aid motorists. Town homes at W. 58th Street and Bridge Avenue with parking garages at ground level create a big driveway instead of a sidewalk. An Aldi’s grocery store surrounded by a big parking lot versus the same store built under a form based code—built to the street with big windows, a front door and parking behind.

“The goal is, what you need to do is reachable by foot,” he explained. “It’s more sustainable because you don’t have to drive and put pollutants in the air. And its more equitable because you don’t need to own a car. It also allows RTA to operate more efficiently” (because less parking and more density usually results).

Cities of Buffalo, Cincinnati and Columbus have adopted form based zoning in a limited, overlay capacity. Denver and Miami have adopted it citywide. Cleveland would probably introduce form based code as an overlay / district first, says Cleveland Planning Director, Fred Collier, who mentioned Opportunity Corridor as a place the city would consider for a pilot project.

Cleveland needs to do this to promote a safer, cleaner and more equitable city, Collier said.

Good questions and comments about how, not why, to implement form based code were the order of the day at CSU. To whit:

How does form based code affect the current zoning?

“(Currently) uses, where they go, are important,” Reisz said. “This really talks about the form of the building. Look at the Dave’s Supermarket in Ohio City. The use is important, but not (necessarily) the first consideration. So, (FBC) asks the supermarket to redesign for the urban context.”

Transit -- how to get “nodal” development from FBC?

“Around fixed transit like the East 79th Street Rapid Station, the land use around it, we can set the zoning around it that supports additional supportive development,” said Collier. “Think of an area like Opportunity Corridor, where most of the land is dormant. We’re starting to figure out the intentions; we would apply the code where it makes sense to encourage density.”

Comment: Lorain Avenue has a Transportation for Livable Communities Plan and the city’s new Urban Form overlay. “We still had to fight two years to get a variance for a 2 foot amenity strip with street trees. It’s about getting it to trickle down to other departments. And it’s about funding to figure out how it aligns with the street project.”

How do you get planners and the Fire Department talking to each other so that objections to skinny streets don’t snuff out FBC before it gets going?

If someone violates zoning, the City Building and Housing Department enforces. Can Building and Housing be combined with Planning?

"Where zoning gets adjudicated is in a separate office," Reisz agreed. "In a form based code, zoning and planning become one."

Can you make affordable housing part of “up” zoning?

“The challenge of transit-oriented development is most of investments around transit is high end,” Collier said. “How do we deliver TOD affordability and partner with housing to create the same type of form.”

How would you handle non conforming structures?

Would the language that was introduced for buildings to not look like a parking garages dilute it and get to what we have now? (Steve Litt)

"When it was introduced, liner buildings were required, " Reisz said about the introduction a few weeks ago of Form based code to the Planning Commission. "There was discussion that it may be too aggressive. The negotiation of that was for economics and concern on ability to deliver. We wanted to make sure costs are in line with the market. We’ve heard from sister cities when requiring liner buildings, they got a lot of push back. But, as soon as developers could figure out how to do liner buildings, they did.”

Educating financial institutions about FBC is needed, said UCI Executive Director, Chris Ronayne.

“We have a developer of a building with 34 apartment units with zero parking on site. He goes to the Board of Zoning Appeals and gets it approved, and then he gets a notice from the finance partner," Ronayne commented. "They couldn’t get it financed because (the bank) doesn’t believe it can work without parking on site. We wrote a letter where we assured the financial institution that it can be tenanted; so they could get the financing.”

Do you have the resources to bring in the consultants to do the FBC? (Steve Litt)

“This is not going to be a code overhaul," Collier responded. "We identified a couple of areas where we can pilot this. The first cost estimate is $250-$400,000. We will strategically target a few areas. A funding source has not been identified.”

GCBL asked Reisz afterwards if the city will address parking minimums within the zoning code.

"Parking needs vary greatly across the city and a new code would need to respond appropriately to each neighborhood," he responded. "The current code lays a blanket requirement on every use without consideration for its context. I would fully expect that as part of developing the new code we would develop new requirements, but it would likely look very different from the way we regulate parking today."

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Marc
6 months ago

Kevin - I somehow doubt that form based code will receive the same attention as to become a political issue here. Most people could care less about zoning. I'm surprised that the Cranley Administration would be so reflexive when essentially it is about requiring good design and encouraging urban redevelopment. If some recent developments in Cincinnati have shown that form-based code makes it legal to redevelop large portions of the city that were built before the auto age, wouldn't that help?

Kevin LeMaster
6 months ago

Don't be surprised if a new administration tosses FBC. Cranley has done that here in Cincinnati, essentially. No funds are provided to City staff to work on the implementation.

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