Zoning consultant Paul Crawford seemed to succeed in selling Evanston residents on the merits of form-based zoning codes during a three-hour seminar at the Civic Center last night.

Zoning consultant Paul Crawford seemed to succeed in selling Evanston residents on the merits of form-based zoning codes during a three-hour seminar at the Civic Center last night.

An illustration of different zoning areas from a form-based code template called the SmartCode.
About 100 people, including aldermen, plan commissioners and neighbors concerned about zoning issues heard Mr. Crawford describe conventional zoning as “obsessed with land use.”

He said form-based zoning still considers land uses but places much more emphasis than traditional zoning on regulating the shape of buildings and how they relate to each other.

Form-based codes also tend to place great emphasis on including drawings to illustrate the rules and photos to show examples of what a community seeks to have built in an area.

Mr. Crawford, the chairman of the Form-Based Codes Institute, illustrated his presentation mostly with examples from California, where he’s spent his professional career, but he said he was born in Chicago and grew up in Rogers Park and Skokie so he said he found the values and concerns of Evanston residents very familiar.

He said zoning developed in America largely as a response to the industrial revolution, which for the first time separated people’s homes from their place of work. Given the need to house workers within reasonable commuting distance of factories, that led to the creation of instant slums in many cities.

That, in turn, Mr. Crawford said, led to profound dissatisfaction with high-density housing. “Our first experience was terrible, unhealthful and dangerous,” he said, and its led to suburban sprawl that only now is beginning to yield to a preference for more compact, walkable neighborhoods.

New urban neighborhoods frequently combine commercial and residential uses, and they can be difficult to design in the context of conventional zoning, he added.

He said that frequently a key part of developing a form-based zoning code is holding a charrette — “the most fun you can have doing work.”

He described it as a workshop for planners and officials that lasts five to seven days and includes daily meetings with community residents to show what’s been done and exchange ideas on the community’s goals and issues that arise in the design process.

“It’s not the classic consultant-driven planning process, where weeks go by as proposals circulate and simple logistics cause the work to extend over months or years,” Mr. Crawford said, “It has a way of engaging the public to a greater level of depth and interest than most planning processes I’ve been involved with.”

He said the planning process often focuses on neighborhoods that have about a quarter mile radius, and tries to locate some center of community interest in each such area. That’s based on studies that suggest people tend to only consider walking to a destination if it will take them five minutes or less to get there on foot.

In response to a question from Diane Williams, of EvMark, about the impact of form-based zoning on property values, Mr. Crawford said, “The good news and bad news is gentrification.”

“Form-based zoning is often about trying to make less-than-attractive neighborhoods into attractive ones, and that has a way of increasing values,” he said.

“It tends to accellerate redevelopment and revitalization of downtown areas because it offers greater certainty to developers that, if they do what the city says it wants in the code, they’ll get their projects approved quickly. That makes developers more confident from an investment standpoint.” But he added that the changes tend to be much more gradual in residential areas and are always dependent on the local real estate market and economy.

He also suggested that form-based zoning can increase the supply of affordable housing by including regulations that encourage development of attractive smaller houses that can be built at higher densities.

“Part of the problem with affordability is that a lot of new housing construction is big. By simply providing sites that can accommodate smaller unit sizes, that’s one way in which you can get more diverse housing stock,” he said.

Asked about teardowns, Mr. Crawford said form-based codes can be used to require that new constrction match the height and setback of neighboring homes, and where yards are deep it can often also accomodate the desire to have a larger house, by letting the developer expand to the rear.

Plan Commissioner Dave Galloway said he’s found traditional zoning codes to be “a sure cure for insomnia,” and he praised the form-based approach for looking at things visually, which, he said, makes it easier for everyone involved — from residents to developers — to understand what the code’s goals are.

The city has hired consultants who specialize in form-based codes to review zoning in the Mayfair industrial corridor on the west side and is considering using a form-based approach to a planned update of downtown zoning.

Related Links

Placemakers – SmartCode
Form-based Codes Institute
Crawford Multari & Clark Associates

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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