The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency has provided an update on the status of the development of a form-based code for Chattanooga.
Consultants at Code Studio in Austin, Texas are currently writing the Draft Code, which will include dimensional standards for buildings, allowed uses, and standards for signs and landscaping, as well as laying out the development approval process. “That’s a lot of work, so it will take a couple months,” said Karen Hundt, director of the Community Design Group.
Hundt said the Regional Planning Agency plans to release the Draft Code to the public the first week of October in order to obtain feedback. “We will also post the revised character area maps in October, along with the draft code, so you’ll be able to see everything together,” Hundt said.
Currently, Hundt is keeping a list of the requested changes to the character area maps, which will allow the agency to develop recommendations for each of those requested changes based on factors such as existing zoning, adopted plans for the area, topographic issues, traffic, and the character and height of nearby buildings. The agency will distribute those recommendations in August and September.
The Regional Planning Agency, on behalf of the City of Chattanooga, is working with Code Studio to develop a form-based code for five downtown neighborhoods: North Shore, Riverfront, City Center, M.L. King, and Southside.
Form-based code 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 in January. 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, “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, and 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 over 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 in January. “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 held a multi-day planning session in March. The sessions allowed citizens, planners, and other technical professionals to collaborate in the preparation of the code. Throughout the process, the public had a chance to provide input and react to concepts.
“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,” Einsweiler said in January. “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.
Einsweiler reiterated that a form-based code is not a guideline, but a regulation adopted into city law. “We hope your City Council will be working on adoption by winter,” he said in January. “This is a real thing that’s going to replace your existing code. We hope it will be a better thing for all of you.”