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November 5, 2009

Duluth's draft Form-Based Codes

Duluth unveiled draft form-based codes (FBC's), intended to apply to specific commercial districts in the city, last week. As far as I can tell, only one other city in Minnesota has adopted FBC's.

Form-based codes are a departure from typical zoning, which largely tells you what you can't do, and focuses more on the use going on inside the building than what the structure looks like, and how it fits in with the neighborhood. FBC's flip this, in many ways, spelling out basically how a building will look and fit into the neighborhood, and focusing less on the specific uses. FBC's can be used for a number of different parts of a community, but are most commonly applied to commercial areas.

Form-Based Codes are not in and of themselves a "good" or "bad" thing, but are a good tool for a community to use to achieve specific goals in specific areas. Their usefulness depends entirely on what specifications are written in to the codes, so it is important to take a good look at any proposed FBC's, and consider how it helps the community achieve it's goals.

I attended the public presentation of the draft FBC's last week, and thought I'd share some comments on the draft.

Duluth intends to apply the FBC's to 5 areas around the city only: Central and Grand in W. Duluth, W. Superior in Lincoln Park, Downtown/Central Hillside/Canal Park, London Rd 12-21st Ave E, and E. Superior in Lakeside/Lester Park. These are not intended to apply to all commercial areas, and indeed, are being developed specifically for these areas, and so wouldn't be a good fit for other areas, necessarily.

The FBC's presentated are largely a result of neighborhood meetings in each of these areas, where visual preference surveys were given to participants, to gauge what folks wanted these areas to be like. There were clear results of folks not liking blank walls, parking in front of buildings, short, boxy buildings, and auto-oriented structures. Scoring high were generally buildings with lots of windows on the lower floor that were close to the street. Different areas had slightly difference preferences for some, and these were taken into account in the FBC. Lakeside, in particular, showed a preference for smaller-scaled buildings. The results are available online here for:

The stated focus of the FBC's is to "preserve and enhance existing, walkable commercial areas." These are not intended to be auto-oriented, big box commercial development. Other areas in Duluth exist for that style of development. The requirements laid out in the draft FBC do make some concessions to parking, providing more opportunities than exists now in many of these commercial districts, but I think these are modest concessions. The FBC does set strict limits on building setbacks, requiring they be built close to the sidewalk, prevents parkinglots in front of the building (street parking is still available), and makes sure the buildings are pedestrian friendly through requirements of windows and "transparency" on the lower levels as well as requiring commercial or service uses on the ground floor in most places, while allowing residential uses on upper floors.

Here's why I like this draft: It focuses on what residents like about these commercial districts, and tries to keep it that way. It restricts parking. It has a strong focus on walkability. It calls for mixed use, with residential uses on the upper floors.

There were some public comments made at the meeting worrying about the parking requirements, which basically restrict parking to on-street, in the back of the buildings, and a strip alongside the buildings. The commenters worried that these restrictions would:

  • Require businesses to maintain two entrances to their building, which could be a hardship.

  • Require elevators in the case where rear parking was at a different level than the front of the building

  • Make it more difficult for handicapped persons to access the buildings

These are clearly valid concerns, but I don't think these are critically important, for a few reasons. Many buildings in these areas already have both front and rear entrances. From the top of my head, I'm thinking of Marshall Hardware, Minnesota Surplus (both of them), Ace Hardware, The Duluth Pack Store, and others along Canal Park Drive. They've made it work. There's also a number of businesses without parkinglots in front that do not have a rear entrance, such as Global Village, Green Mill, Electric Fetus, Shel-Don, Marine General, Northern Lights Books and Gifts, Duluth Camera, London Road Cafe, etc. All these places ostensibly are accessible for folks with handicaps as well. Side-building and on-street parking will provide several spaces close to the doors, with the added advantage of not requiring visitors to walk across a driving lane through a parkinglot to reach the entrance. This, to me, seems safer for everyone. Regarding the elevator issue, yes, there's certainly elevation differences, particularly in the downtown/central hillside area, but again, these FBC's do not change what already exists in these areas that has been working. Perhaps a building with such an elevation difference will decide to not build a parkinglot in the back. These FBC's will only be applied to a select few commercial areas in the city, and if deciding to open an auto-oriented business, there may be better areas to locate than in areas where the community has decided to focus on walkability

The city is hosting neighborhood meetings to discuss these draft Form-Based codes for each of the regions. The City press release is here, but for those opposed to clicking, the schedule's below, as well.

  • Thursday, Nov 12, 6 pm, East High School Rm 275. Focus: Lakeside/Lester Park and London Rd from 12th to 21st E.

  • Monday, Nov 16, 6 pm, Harrison Community Center. Focus: Grand and Central in W. Duluth and West Superior St

  • Tuesday, Nov 17th, 6 pm, City Hall Rm 405. Focus: Downtown, Central Hillside, Canal Park