Form Based Codes Aim To Beautify NJ
Is there anything more exciting than zoning codes? The answer used to be “yes, James Joyce’s Ulysses is more exciting.” Now, however, I think the codes are pulling ahead because of the Form Based Code revolution. For anyone with exposure to the world of urban planning or anyone who studied any related fields in college, a Form Based Code (FBC) might seem pretty elusive. It’s out there. You have heard people talking about it. You know of some places that have them, but you have never really seen one.
If you are in New Jersey especially, FBCs might be nothing more than rumors and whispers, like holograms and jet packs; someone is using them, but it certainly isn’t you. I chalk this up to New Jersey’s unwillingness to change. Despite usually being on the cutting edge of technology and medical advances, New Jersey is quite legendary for its governmental stubbornness. While every other state in the union is regionalizing, New Jersey’s big move is combining two municipalities both named Princeton. That still leaves the state with 565 municipalities with 565 mayors and 565 residential bodies all dug in and willing to fight anyone who suggests change to their quaint neighborhoods or sidewalk-less streets. No merging. No splintering. No annexing. And most importantly NOT IN MY BACKYARD (better known as Nimby’s).
It is no surprise then that states from California to Ohio to Florida have embraced the concept of Form Based Codes for their major cities and small towns while in New Jersey some municipalities are still working off the same zoning ordinances they had in place in the 1970s. I can count on two hands the number of municipalities in New Jersey that are experimenting with FBCs. I can count on one hand the number of municipalities that are successfully utilizing them. Based on these small numbers, it stands to reason why there is a silent majority of people both in New Jersey and elsewhere that believe FBCs are nothing but a fad. Like zip-off pants, the DeLorean, and Snuggies. At first they seemed to fill a real need or fix a real problem, but it turns out they were just culturally-driven phenomena.
I, however, think FBCs are here to stay especially in New Jersey where congestion is forcing people to make damn sure their quiet little Main Streets and walkable downtowns are not overrun by apartment buildings and big box stores. For those reasons and more, everyone should understand the mission of FBCs and how they could greatly improve any municipality willing to change.
At the core of every Form Based Code is a staunch emphasis on the physical characteristics of buildings and streets. While conventional zoning worries about density requirements and what the specific building is being used for (whether it is a florist or a salon, etc.), FBCs worry about what that particular building looks like and more importantly how it fits in with the rest of the street around it. Although it might not seem like a big difference, it is a change in basic philosophy.
Zoning was made into law in the first place because city governments wanted to separate uses, or more specifically they wanted to make sure they did not put a factory next to a residential neighborhood. Back then, when this could be a major problem, traditional zoning made sense. Strike up some laws and make sure that the rubber factory is built nowhere near downtown Jersey City. Now, however, the factories are gone and the need to so starkly divide residential areas from office areas from commercial areas should die with them. Consider FBCs the pallbearers because instead of dividing uses, they are trying to bring them all together in one walkable, homogenous, and mixed-use zone. Therefore, their emphasis is no longer on what is going into the building, but instead how it looks on the outside of it because the uses will change with the passing of time, but the structures themselves will remain.
The main reason I think FBC zoning will replace the conventional way is because of this wider picture and greater appreciation for the whole zone. Conventional zoning is all about the particular building that someone wants to build and if it has an acceptable use at an acceptable size. FBC zoning realizes that the new building is only one piece in a much larger puzzle and makes sure it is the best fit for everything around it. It regulates the height of the building, the type of awning, the building’s setback, the building’s placement on the lot, the location of its parking, its distance from public transportation, and the building’s distance from the street.
The other reason I think Form Based Codes are here to stay is their user-friendliness. FBCs understand that reading through page after page of measurements and legalese would turn any potential developer away. Therefore, FBCs rely on pictures, charts, graphs, and other visual aids to simply express the municipality’s building requirements. The ease of use and extended vision will hopefully drive economic growth to the municipality.
When used correctly, Form Based Codes can have large impacts on downtown areas everywhere. In New Jersey, Hammonton, North Arlington, Haddonfield, Marlboro, Montclair, and Edison are either done with or still writing out their FBCs. The ball is rolling, albeit slowly and I am sure I will have more to share as it picks up momentum in the Garden State.
For more information on Form Based Codes visit the links below.
Form Based Codes Institute
Form Based Codes in New Jersey: Issues and Opportunities
Haddonfield Form Based Code