Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 6, 2015

Realtors engage in form-based code discussions

Mayor Berke discusses the genesis of the form-based code project in Chattanooga during the kickoff event Jan. 28 at Bessie Smith Cultural Center. - (Photo provided)

As the citizens of Chattanooga take a fresh look at their vision for downtown, and work to en-sure the city’s zoning code is in line with what they want, Realtors have an unprecedented opportunity to have a hand in shaping the communities in which they do business.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, on behalf of the City of Chattanooga, is working with a consultant team led by Code Studio of Austin, Texas to develop a form-based code for five downtown neighborhoods: North Shore, Riverfront, City Center, M.L. King, and Southside.

Form-based code is being used in communities around the U.S. It is “a land development regulation that fosters predictable results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form, rather than separation of uses, as the organizing principle for the code” (formbasedcodes.org).

The form-based code initiative in Chattanooga kicked off with a public meeting at Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Wednesday, Jan. 28. Lee Einsweiler, the principal and founding partner of Code Austin, introduced the project and explained the importance of the effort.

“Having a walkable, high quality, urban downtown are all embedded in your planning,” Einsweiler said to a crowd of about 250, “but they are not yet embedded in your code. We want to tune your existing regulations so they help you do what your plans say you should be doing.”

Travis Close, president of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors, attended the event. Afterward, he spoke favorably about the use of a form-based code in portions of Chattanooga. “The idea of creating a form-based code is exciting to us,” he said. “I think it will present some new and unique opportunities regarding how we look at current and future development throughout the extended downtown area.”

The city’s form-based code initiative has its roots in task forces Mayor Andy Berke put together a year ago as part of Chattanooga Forward, an effort to envision the future of the city. Task force members from a variety of backgrounds spent several months investigating and discussing a variety of topics, and then made their recommendations to the mayor.

One of their suggestions was to do form-based codes. Berke liked the idea because he wants the people of Chattanooga to have input into where the city is headed. “Form-based codes are people-centric,” he said. “They’re about getting people who care about their city involved, asking them what they want to see, and then making it happen.”

To allow the Chattanooga community to help shape its form-based code, Code Studio and the Regional Planning Agency have scheduled a multi-day charrette in March. A charrette is a planning session in which citizens, planners, and other technical professionals collaborate in the preparation of a new form-based code. Throughout the process, the public will have a chance to provide input and react to concepts.

Charrettes are inclusive by nature, Einsweiler said, and designed to build consensus from the outset. “We could go into a dark room, read your plans, and come back and tell you what to do. But that would go over like a lead balloon,” he said. “We want to talk with you, understand your concerns, and work with you to develop a collaborative answer.”

Code Austin has 30 years of planning and zoning experience around the country, including in Denver, Colo., Los Angeles, Calif., Buffalo, N.Y., and more. But Einsweiler said they won’t be replacing the planning Chattanooga has done over the years. “We’re not bringing in a preconceived model to apply to your city,” he said. “I didn’t grab something from California or South Florida to stamp on top of you. We have enough time and energy to do something that fits Chattanooga.”

As an example of how the form-based code will be tailored to Chattanooga, Einsweiler mentioned street design. “We’ve seen some awful intrusions into neighborhoods like speed humps, which suggest your streets aren’t working,” he said. “We need to be thinking about more natural calming mechanisms, like getting the streets right.”

Starting Saturday, March 7 and ending Thursday, March 12, a team of 12 consultants from a variety of disciplines ranging from design, to transportation and parking, to historical preservation will work with citizens to discuss the new form-based code. Every event will be held at Bessie Smith, and will be open to the public.

Highlights will include:

Hands-on neighborhood design workshop

Saturday, March 7 from 8:30 a.m. until noon

Open design studio

Sunday, March 8 through Wednesday, March 11 from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Lunch and learns

Monday, March 9; Tuesday, March 10; and Wednesday, March 11 from noon to 1 p.m.

Drop-in open house

Monday, March 9 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Work-in progress presentation

Thursday, March 12 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Close said he’s looking forward to the Association and its members providing input. “Our leadership plans to fully engage in this process, starting with the charrette that will begin on March 7,” he said. “I believe our many talented and experienced Realtors can make some lasting and significant contributions to the process.”

Einsweiler said form-based code is not a “Hail Mary” pass - a big play to save a city (like the Tennessee Aquarium). Rather, he compared it to a running game. “Form-based code is about making incremental improvements all over the downtown area,” he said.

Before closing, Einsweiler reiterated that a form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city law. “We hope your City Council will be working on adoption by fall or winter,” he said. “This is a real thing, and it’s going to replace your existing code. We hope it will be a better thing for all of you.”

Additional details are available on the project website at www.CHA-FBC.com.