Recent development debacles and near-debacles in Minneapolis have made me wonder if form-based codes could help the development process here. I’ve been researching form-based codes around the country lately, and I believe they may well have a role in my hometown. At a minimum, they can provide developers, city staff and elected officials, and neighbors with more certainty when a new development is proposed. There are other benefits, but certainty alone would be very valuable.
What is a form-based code? It is a land use regulatory tool that is based on the allowable/preferred form of buildings versus allowable uses on the site. The perceived value is to help guide good urbanism in a more effective and efficient manner than traditional zoning. They can be especially helpful in a corridor or district that seeks unified building heights, scale and/or frontages, and help overcome the hodgepodge that occurs from normal zoning schemes. Mind you, form-based codes are relatively young in practice and they are not a panacea, but they show some very promising results. Allow me to explain.
Several recent developments in Minneapolis have provided some solid evidence that our planning/zoning/approvals system needs some adjustment. The first is Linden Corners, a proposed project in the lovely and charming Linden Hills neighborhood that was recently approved by the Planning Commission but then appealed by neighbors and the appeal upheld by the City Council. The zoning allows three stories, but the proposal is for a five-story, mixed-use building. Under normal city processes, a conditional use permit can be granted to allow the additional height, among other things like setbacks and parking issues. Even though conditional use permits are granted all the time, the height was too tall for the neighborhood, and was the one thing NIMBYs could hang on to successfully get the approval appealed. This may have killed the project.
So who is right about the height? Based on the current system, everyone is. But would the outcome have been different with a form-based code? Perhaps. I think five stories is acceptable there, but that is my opinion, and five stories is 66% taller than three, a big difference. For agrument’s sake, let’s say a form-based code, tied to a visioning plan for the neighborhood and adopted by the city, provided specific guidance as to height. If three stories was the actual maximum height allowed, the developer may never have proposed his five-story building, knowing it wouldn’t go anywhere, and saving us all time, angst and tax dollars. The flip side is only allowing three stories may preclude any possible redevelopment from occurring, even with a form-based code, due to the economics of redevelopment and density. (The present use on the site is perhaps the best no-development scenario ever. Far from a blighted site, a restaurant, Famous Dave’s, currently occpuies the site, providing a delicious dining option and a fine-smelling presense in the neighborhood. Albeit fronted by a surface parking lot, said parking lot is shrouded by a row of healthy evergreens and there is a little public plaza at the corner.) So the verdict? Perhaps a form-based code would have provided a better guide for development, but at least provided more clarity to the developer and neighbors alike.
The second development in question is in the booming Lyn-Lake neighborhood is a proposed six-story mixed-use building called 2900 Lyndale. Here the issue gets pretty murky. The developer may very well be within the zoning for the site, but needs a conditional use permit for various pieces of the design, including height. The Midtown Greenway Coalition opposes the proposed development, citing excessive shadowing on the adjacent Midtown Greenway bike path. The Midtown Greenway plan asks that buildings on the south side of the corridor be stepped back to reduce shadowing. To me, simply “asking” for that is not enough, particularly when we’re talking about millions of dollars of development and potential tax revenue for the city – or not. The plan should be more clear and tied to specific zoning in order to better guide development (if it were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, right?). The plan is way too open to interpretation, since you can reduce shadowing anywhere from 1% to 100%. Not good enough. Would a form-based code help? Yes, if specific guuidelines were put in place that dictated the setback and stepping up and back of the design of any proposed building. Again, this would have created more certainty for the developer and public alike. But just as with Linden Corners, the City Council has upheld an appeal of the project, and the project is in limbo as a result. And who is right? Everyone. Not good enough, and very costly to the developer and city in terms of time and resources spent on fighting and revising this.
The third case in Minneapolis is last year’s approvals process for the Oaks Station Place development, a really promising TOD currently under construction adjacent to the 46th Street Station. The development follows by 10 years the plan for the 46th Street Station area, and is an interesting contrast to the plan and development adjacent to the Pleasant Hill BART station in the Bay Area, which uses a form-based code. At the time of the Pleasant Hill planning charrette (also 10 years ago, around the time the 46th Street Station Plan was adopted by Minneapolis), the county commissioner in Contra Costa County said of the plan “what you see is what you will get.” Amazingly, she was right. The developer and planners marvel that the form-based code was strong enough that the resulting mixed-use project, which opened in 2010, was almost exactly as it appeared in the plan (a plan that was created before the developer came forward with a project). The process provided certainty, and the public had their say in it. Not so at the Oaks Station Place at the 46th Street Station in Minneapolis, where developer Norm Bjorness had to spend consdierable time with an approvals process that could have derailed the project had the City Council made that determination (as they did with Linden Corners and 2900 Lyndale). The plan called for three stories at the station and two-stories along the fence behind the existing residential homes, so when the proposal came from the developer for more height (four and three stories, respectively), one could argue the neighbors had a legitimate beef with the process. The plan and the zoning didn’t agree.
A form-based code in place for almost a decade in the Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia has helped guide better development along that corridor. What is amazing to me is that while the old code has remained in place, not one developer has chosen to use it, because the clarity of the code and the sped up approvals process in the form-based code are preferred for obvious reasons.
In the Pleasant Hill example, after all was said and done, Contra Costa County spent $700,000 on the planning charrette and the writing, implementation and policing of the form-based code. A sizable amount to be sure, but it was a big project. What was jarring to me was the conclusion that the sum of $700,000 was a major savings versus the alternative – having to deal with NIMBYs, lawsuits, ongoing planning and revisioning, and lost tax revenue from development being delayed or simply not occurring.
For all of the good work of the Minneapolis Planning Department and talented developers in the Twin Cities, I can’t help but think there is room for improvement in Minneapolis, as is evidenced by the fallout from the Linden Corner, 2900 Lyndale and Oaks Station Place process. Form-based codes aren’t a silver bullet, and you’ll never make everyone 100% happy, but when coupled with a good vision and plan, they have proven to provide clarity to the approvals process, which satisfies neighbors and developers, and perhaps saves cities money. All of these are results I can strongly endorse. Oh, and the built result is better quality urbanism. Something for everyone.