Form-Based Code a Tool for Successful TOD

When it opened in 2010, Walnut Creek Apartments provided 422 apartment units and 35,000 square feet of street-facing retail immediately adjacent to the Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre Station of the BART system, located in Walnut Creek, California, in the bay area east of San Francisco. What isn’t immediately evident when visiting this attractive transit-oriented development is that it is the culmination of a decade of planning that followed several proposed projects that were rejected by the public prior to that.

The key to achieving this successful transit-oriented development (TOD) was the facilitation of an intensive charrette process, followed by the drafting of a form-based code to guide development. The six-day charrette, a planning process that brought together the county, developer, general public and planners and architects, yielded a community preference for a mixed-use project including residential, retail, office and public space at the core of the transit-oriented village. That guiding vision led to the form-based code, which takes the place of conventional use-based zoning and created a physical framework for the developer to follow, dictating the appearance and size of both buildings and public space on the site.

The result is Walnut Creek Apartments, which was developed jointly by Arlington, Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities and New York-based Millennium Partners in a public/private partnership agreement with the Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency. At 12 acres overall, the project also includes a public square and a 6,000-vehicle parking structure, which replaced a surface parking lot for the adjacent BART station. A future phase will add office development.

Mark Farrar, who was with Millennium Partners at the time, believes the process was very helpful to the development. “The charrette and form-based code gave structure to the process and certainty to the outcome,” he says.  “Absolutely, the key element of getting the project done was the consensus of how it could be developed from the community,” says Jeff White senior development director at the Bay Area office of AvalonBay Communities, and who was the project manager for the existing development.

Walnut Creek Apartments is at the heart of a larger 125-acre district, called the Contra Costa Centre, which presently contains 6,000 residences and 7,000 jobs, and 6,000 transit rides beginning or ending at the BART station per day. BART owned the 12-acre site at the core of the district, and together with the county, sought a signature development there. “The BART property was always viewed as the most critical piece,” explains Jim Kennedy, the recently retired redevelopment director of Contra Costa County who oversaw the development of Walnut Creek Apartments and a substantial portion of the Contra Costa Centre over the past three decades.

In 2001, Donna Gerber, a county commissioner at the time, heard Peter Katz speak at a conference and the county retained his advisory services to help craft a solution for the site. Katz recommended a charrette and form-based code. Jim Kennedy did not have prior experience with either, but following past futility to get approvals for the site, he thought they made sense intuitively. “Why the heck not?” he said. Kennedy notes that the charrette process and facilitation was “sound.” He emphasizes that the individual professionals were every bit as important as the process. “They were not puppets of the county.”

Peter Katz, a prominent and long-time new urbanist, persuaded the county to bring in some big guns from the new urbanism world, including Bill Lennertz, who now runs the National Charrette Institute in Portland, Oregon, to lead the multi-day charrette. The charrette led to the writing of a form-based code by Geoff Ferrell, an urban planner now with Ferrell Madden in Washington D.C. Also retained was Dan Parolek of Berkeley-based Opticos Design, who to this day serves as town architect, ensuring the form-based code is properly understood and being followed.

Following the charrette and writing of the form-based code, a complicated public/private partnership agreement was negotiated between the Contra Costa County Redevelopment Agency, BART and Millennium Partners. The County issued $135 million in tax exempt housing bonds for the project, and built the 6,000-space parking garage. The county has retained ownership of the entire site, having negotiated a land lease for the AvalonBay/Millennium development. Only after the agreement was in place was AvalonBay brought to the table to propose an actual project.

The form-based code outlined specific parameters for future building height, siting, use, and facades, as well as designs for public spaces, including streets, sidewalks and the public square. This created an element of certainty for AvalonBay. “We’re not in the business of entitling, we’re in the business of developing,” says Jeff White “They [form-based codes] can be a little restrictive, but we’re willing to that up for certainty. It takes a lot of risk out of it.” White indicates he takes note of charrettes and form-based codes when looking for new projects for AvalonBay, and would work with this type of process again.

Dan Parolek of Opticos emphasizes that that overall the project was designed very well, as guided by the form-based code, but a give and take was required to achieve the proper urban context. Parolek worked with AvalonBay and the architect, Irvine, California-based MVE & Partners Architecture, to create a more inviting experience overall.  Issues addressed include the shops along the interior main street, which required a redesign to be more friendly and invite window shopping. Also created was a more consistent pattern of stoops along the street where residential units have direct access from the sidewalk. At the direction of Parolek, the overall number of colors in the buildings were reduced and the types and sizes of windows were increased to create a more consistent horizontal base to the building. What is the result of all this attention to fine-grained detail? “Walking down the street is a good experience,” says Dan Parolek. Peter Katz agrees. “When you are there, it feels more like a normal place than a development,” he says.

Jeff White reports the apartments are a success, with vacancy at less than 5% since stabilized occupancy was achieved, and a healthy apartment market has led to rent increases as well. Jim Kennedy points to studies that show up to 50% of work trips among residents in the greater Contra Costa station area are captured by transit, and 30% of employees in the district walk, bike or take transit to work. The retail space still has some vacancy, but Starbucks occupies a key corner space on the site, and the marketing team is targeting restaurants as well as more local and smaller shops for the main street that will create a more unique experience. “The challenge is marketing new urbanism in the suburbs,” says Jeff White.

While it wasn’t easy, most involved agree the charrette process and resulting form-based code were worthwhile for the resulting development. “Peter kind of led us out of the wilderness,” explains Jeff White, noting the Parolek’s work was also integral to the success of the project.

Kennedy notes that Donna Gerber said at the time of the charrette, “What you see is what you will get.” The result was just that. “It is kind of incredible how similar the outcome is to the vision,” says Jeff White, “That’s where the form-based code comes in.”

“Donna Gerber is the real hero here,” explains Geoff Ferrell. Gerber took a political risk to bring in Peter Katz and the other design professionals after so many failed attempts at development, but it paid off because the process led to public buy-in and political support for the plan. “It was their plan” says Ferrell, referring to the public.

“What really resonated was the county was committed to the form-based code,” explains Kennedy, who also makes the valuable point that while Contra Costa County put considerable resources in to the charrette and form-based code process, spending approximately $700,000, the alternative would likely have been considerably more due to development delays and money spent fighting court battles over more controversial proposals.

Walnut Creek Apartments represents a successful public/private partnership that created a walkable, urban core to a larger transit village area that, although it experienced substantial development in previous decades, was still relatively suburban in nature. It now has a true sense of place. This high-quality urban core is thanks largely to the political will to take a chance on a charrette process and form-based code, which led to community support, good design guidelines and an increased level of certainty for both the developer and area residents.

Th use of a form-based code yielded good results in the Bay Area. Could it work at TODs in the Twin Cities?

This article is cross-posted at Joe Urban.

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