Land Use - Albemarle, Placemaking, Urban Design

Form-based code seen as a tool to build urban Albemarle

Originally written in summer 2019

Can you imagine a future where the current shopping centers along U.S. 29 in Albemarle County have been replaced with mid-rise buildings where people are able to live, work and hang out in public? That’s the vision put forth in the Rio Road Small-Area Plan, a document adopted by the Board of Supervisors in December 2018. 

“The community [has] showed their vision for this area and said they felt that Rio/29 could be transformed into a walkable, mixed-use community,” said Nancy Hunt, the chair of the Places29-Rio Community Advisory Committee. “That would be a pretty wide-open vision for a big empty parking lot with a few empty stores.”

One planner from another Virginia locality said during a recent visit that she saw possibilities. 

“I think the benefit you have here is you’ve got four large quadrants and a good chunk of those are large properties that are already assembled,” said Ashby Moss, the strategic growth area planning and evaluation coordinator for the City of Virginia Beach. “It’s a lot easier once you got a large piece of land under one ownership to redesign it.’ 

Virginia Beach adopted a form-based code in 2012 to help guide redevelopment of land near the oceanfront that had been occupied by single-story buildings. This alternative form of zoning created incentives for property owners to build something that would create more space for residential or commercial use. 

However, many people in the community have expressed confusion about what form-based code is and some have expressed apprehension. Here’s the way it is defined in the Rio Road Small Area Plan. 

“A form-based code differs from a conventional (Euclidean) zoning code in that rather than focusing on the use of a property, a form-based code focuses on building form as its organizing principle,” reads the implementation chapter. “By prescribing detailed architectural and site design requirements, developments permitted under a form-based code produce a more consistent, connected, and predictable built environment while allowing greater flexibility of use.” 

What does that mean in practice? Here’s how a planner from Arlington County describes it. 

“With form-based code, you’re essentially designing every block and every series of blocks, but not actually looking at each parcel,” said Matt Mattauszek, a principal planner with Arlington County and the coordinator of the Columbia Pike Initiative.  

“Think of it as putting trace paper on top of the existing aerial plan of your community and working from the middle of the roadway into the property,” he said. “How many travel lanes do you want to have? Okay, that’s the edge of your curb. How wide do you want to have your sidewalks?”

For Albemarle, the work of putting together such a plan is just getting started. Mattauszek and Moss were both guests on an April 29 panel discussion put together by Albemarle County to help educate people about the zoning tool. 

Recent history and many eyes on the future 

Sprawling development on U.S. 29 began in the mid to late 20th century, with many farms and fields turned into single-family neighborhoods and single-story shopping centers. 

“As a primarily rural area, Albemarle County didn’t adopt zoning until 1969 at a time when suburban Charlottesville was starting to grow,” said Andrew Knuppel, a county planner. “The current code and zoning map were adopted in 1980 and set an expectation for continued and directed growth into our development areas and prioritized rural area and watershed protection.” 

However, Knuppel said the code from 1980 did not plan for an urban form in Albemarle. Instead, commercial shopping centers were built on those large parcels with surface parking up hundreds of acres. With the future of large retailers in question across the United States, planners everywhere are looking for solutions. 

“Civic leaders, planners and community members across the United States are beginning to recognize the challenges and limitations of single-use zoning,” said Michaela Accardi, a neighborhood planner with the county. “This type of zoning code may include regulations on building height, mass, set-backs, build-to lines, and building orientations. These regulations emphasize the qualities that affect site design and how our community experiences the space.”

The goal at Rio Road and 29 is to guide the redevelopment of properties as a more dense environment. The current conditions are geared for those in vehicles. 

“As this area transforms and redevelops, we can reorient and think about where we place the buildings on site so it’s more comfortable for people to walk around,” said Rachel Falkenstein, a senior planner with the county. “Right now the zoning in the area just allows for the commercial type of uses that are there, but with form-based code we can start to think about having residential or offices there.”

In some ways, a form-based code carries on the tradition of the county’s Neighborhood Model District zoning, which since 2001 has encouraged buildings to be closer to roadways and for parking to be relegated behind the structures. 

Form-based code could take that a step further by suggesting where future streets might go. Falkenstein said the area currently mainly consists of two busy roadways and travelways through private parking lots. The code could set up a future street grid and where public spaces would be located. 

“People have said this area lacks public amenities such as parks, trails and sidewalks,” Falkenstein said. “That’s something a lot of communities can regulate through form-based code.”

Form-based code in Arlington 

It’s one thing to talk about form-based code in theory. It’s another to hear concrete examples from other places where it has been implemented. In Arlington, much of the leg work of planning and community engagement was conducted by a nonprofit group that partnered with county planners. 

“It has to be complemented with a lot of other things, and vision for a place is the number one issue,” said Takis Karatonis, a former executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. That group was created to promote the redevelopment of a three and a half mile stretch of Route 244 in Arlington County. 

“Economic development for the place is the number two issue,” he said. “Housing, equity, all of it will be on your table. The form-based code discussion is a good introduction to the complexity and holistic approach to a new place that you are going to build.” 

Karatonis said that Columbia Pike was not included on the Metro system when it was built, and there was a lack of new development on the corridor for decades. The organization was formed to brainstorm ways to attract private capital for redevelopment. An economist by trade, Karatonis said his job was to get people around the table to talk about potential futures. 

“That included government, developers, shop-owners, property owners, civic-association presidents and others, including the schools,” Karatonis said. “The idea was to see how we could influence the process together.” 

Mattauszek said the form-based code has led to new street connections, mini-parks, plazas and a community center built through a public-private partnership. 

“Now with Amazon locating in Crystal City and Pentagon City with their second headquarters,  we’re already starting to see another wave of development coming in because of the close proximity,” Mattauszek said. 

Form-based code in Leesburg 

Leesburg is a town in Loudoun County with an estimated population in 2017 of 54,215 that dates back to 1740. 

“If any of you have been to Leesburg, you know that the core of our identity is the downtown, said Susan Berry Hill, the town’s planning and zoning director for the Town of Leesburg. “But it’s not just the history… it’s the actual design that has been preserved over the years.” 

Berry Hill said the compact, walkable nature of Leesburg makes the town attractive to employers and residents alike. As officials sought to expand the footprint of the downtown, they wanted to find a way to make sure future development matched.

“That area was identified through a master plan as the Crescent District,” Berry Hill said. “The master plan identified some goals that we wanted to achieve in the town, which was to extend the walkability of the downtown into areas that surround the development and to make sure the development happens in a predictable pattern that is respectful of the scale of the historic core.”

“At its most elemental level, form-based codes are proactive,” Berry Hill said. “They are really about deciding what is the public realm such as the sidewalks, the streets, the public places. What do we want that to be? We don’t wait for a developer to hopefully get us there. It’s deciding as a community what we want that to be and then putting that into the regulations.”

Berry Hill said Leesburg does not have a robust public transit system, so their code emphasizes walkability.

“We are focusing on pedestrian connections and making those as easy as possible so that people don’t feel the need to get in the car to do short trips,” Berry Hill said. 

Form-based code in Virginia Beach 

Moss said Virginia Beach’s form-based stemmed from a planning exercise known as the Resort Area Strategic Action Plan, a project not that different from the Rio Road Small Area Plan.  

“Fortunately we had the bones and the street structure that was able to accommodate [the form-based code],” Moss said. “It was a lot easier to infill that to try to carve out new streets which will be a challenge for RIo/29.” 

Moss said it took three years to write and adopt the code. 

“We’ve seen significant results since then but not immediately,” Moss said. “It takes some time.” 

Moss said Virginia Beach’s form-based code limits building heights to serve as a curb on density near the shore. 

“We can’t really handle the density that can some our way so we have to monitor that,” Moss said. 

Incentivizing redevelopment for the whole community

Mattauszek said the goal in Arlington was to create a mechanism that would incentivize development. Another was to find ways to ensure no one was displaced. 

“We wanted to make sure that all of the demographics and broad ranges that resided on the corridor could still continue to do that as redevelopment happened,” Mattauszek said. “We wanted to make sure that certain preservation tools emphasized affordable housing on every site with every new development.” 

Karatonis said that 45,000 people lived on a three-and-a-half mile stretch of Columbia Pike, but there was not a single public square. 

“Any recreational spaces were quasi-accidentally there,” Karatonis said. “There was not an urban design that was conducive to build community and to make the neighborhoods be proud and take ownership.”

Karatonis said form-based code can designate where public spaces will be in the future. For Leesburg, that has meant open places where people can congregate. 

“Form-based codes are first and foremost about placemaking,” Berry Hill said. “It’s locating the buildings in such a way that you’re really forming a good public area.”  

Mattauszek said it helped for staff in the Arlington planning department to have a nonprofit partner to assist with negotiations with property owners and interested citizens. 

“Being able to engage with them in a slightly different way allowed for us to get that additional layer of input,” Mattauszek said. “It’s because of the interactions we had with the community, with design charrettes and open studios where they could come in and help us draft some of the documents.” 

Karatonis said that for most parties, predictability is the most important outcome of the form-based code.

“You see at the end of the process on the map what kind of building you get, where you get it, and how it relates to the street and the neighborhood,” Karatonis said. “For the development community, this is invaluable.” 

Moss said the primary friction in Virginia Beach in the early days of writing the code was between the people who wanted to see change and those who wanted everything to stay the same.

“A lot that was just reassuring people that we weren’t going to come into their single-family neighborhoods with eminent domain and build a high-rise,” Moss said. “Some people jumped to that conclusion. A lot of it was educating people about looking for a balance and the need to keep the economy growing.”

Form-based codes change over time 

Berry Hill said that even with adoption of a form-based code, work will continue on revising it over time as conditions change. 

“We recognize that we need to go back and revisit some of the basic principles that we are looking at, such as in our district, the Town Council said there would not be any public money for capital projects to go into collaborating with the development community and the private sector,” Berry Hill said. “We found that that’s very difficult to do when you see development happening on a parcel by parcel basis.”

Leesburg invited the Form Based Code Institute to review the form-based ordinance for an additional review. A report has recently been made to the Council which could lead to changes.

“I’m hoping we can make it even better and see more redevelopment happen because of that,” Berry Hill said. 

Karatonis said there would always be revisions, especially as the need for parking requirements may shift as more people switch away from private vehicles. 

“Form-based codes create a consistent base and a theory of change for the next step,” he said. “They create an acquired capital of urban experience.”

In his case, Karatonis said the transformation of Columbia Pike is about getting to people to experience their communities better. 

“We would have had to take the car to go somewhere like three miles away to have fun, and now we can just walk out of our house,” Karatonis said. 




Infrastructure updates, Placemaking, Urban Design

Cost reductions suggested for Belmont Bridge replacement

A value engineering report has been released to help reduce the cost to replace the Belmont Bridge in downtown Charlottesville. Such a study is required for any project with a budget over $15 million, according to a status report released by the city this week.

“A thorough, independent analysis was conducted for the overall project to identify risks, improve constructability, and reduce costs,” reads the email from Jeanette Janiczek, urban construction manager for the city.

The bridge replacement has been in the planning stages for nearly ten years. Now the details of those plans are being worked out, such as coordination with the Buckingham Branch Railroad about the fence that will be constructed to stop pedestrians from dropping items onto the tracks. The firm Kimley-Horn was hired to create the design for a project with a $23 million budget.

An aerial rendering of the future Belmont Bridge, the design of which continues to be refined before

Changes will include changing construction methods for the median and adjusting the spacing of the bridge beams.

The Board of Architectural Review will take a look at two proposals that require approval at their February meeting. One would be to replace “scored concrete crosswalks” with “high visibility crosswalks” at the two signalized intersections.

“This would maintain consistency with other crosswalks within the City which aids in matching driver expectations, increases visibility of pedestrians in the crosswalk, improves constructability due to the multiple shifts in travel lanes during construction, simplifies maintenance in the future and reduces initial expenses by approximately $88,500,” Janiczek said.

The other will be to change the materials in the parking lot underneath the bridge from “scored concrete” to “asphalt” for an additional $290,000 in savings.

Below is a list of details about the project. This information is straight from the city. 

The bridge replacement project is striving to address four specific needs:

  1. to improve safety for the traveling public;
  2. to provide pedestrian and bicyclist accommodations;
  3. to maintain connectivity with the surrounding community, neighborhoods and business activity centers; and
  4. to accommodate vehicular traffic volumes

The preferred concept proposes to address these needs with the following approved major design features:

A replacement bridge that is shortened to approximately 236 LF in length and maintains the existing 62’ width Roadway Section on Avon/9th Street between Levy Avenue and East Market Street intersections will consist of one travel lane in each direction, a protected 7’ wide bike lane in each direction and a 10’ wide pedestrian sidewalk in each direction. Turning lanes will be added/lengthened at each intersection to maximize efficiency of each signal while maintaining traffic flow.

“Old” Avon Street will be closed to vehicular traffic between Levy Avenue and East South Street to improve the function and safety of the Levy Avenue/9th Street intersection for all modes of travel while creating a pedestrian plaza within the former roadway.
Enhanced pedestrian lighting and landscaping will be provided along 9th Street between Levy Avenue and East Market Street.

New sidewalk will be constructed along neighboring streets to the project corridor and landscaping will be installed – on East South Street, Avon Street, Graves Street and Water Street.

  • Additional new proposed pedestrian features include:
  • a pedestrian passageway under 9th Street south of the railroad,
  • a reconstructed staircase connecting “Old” Avon Street to 9th Street,
  • new staircases from 9th Street to Water Street on either side of the bridge north of the railroad and a mezzanine to cross 9th Street under the bridge
Meeting Reports, Placemaking, Urban Design

Urban design group takes look at Emmet Streetscape plan

 

Conceptual design for streetscape between Ivy Road and the railroad bridge

A $12.1 million plan to update Emmet Street in Charlottesville could offer both the city and the University of Virginia the chance to turn a suburban thoroughfare into a place less dependent on motorized vehicles.

However the outcome of the project will depend on the totality of public comment from stakeholders.

“It’s hard to get 100 percent consensus and direction from the public because some people would say widen it and say increase the speeds to 45 miles per hour,” said Mike Callahan, a planner with the engineering firm EPR. “Most people are saying they want it more walkable and bikable and to slow the traffic, especially the University community.”

Callahan made his comments at the December 13, 2018 meeting of the PLACE Design Task Force, an advisory group formed in 2012 to advise City Council on urban design issues.

The scope of the project runs the roughly half mile between the Ivy Road and Arlington Boulevard. While most of the land along the corridor is owned by the University of Virginia or its real estate foundation, the public right of way is governed by the city. Over 25,000 vehicles a day passed through the corridor in 2017 according to traffic estimates from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In 2016, the city was successful in obtaining the funding for the project in the first round of the VDOT’s Smart Scale program. The community engagement process began in April.

“We’re really at an important stage of locking in on the preliminary design of what the best improvements we can fit into this that will function well,” said John Stewart, an engineer with Clark Nexsen, a firm hired by the city to design the project. EPR is working as a subcontractor.

The final design will be finished next year. In 2020, the firm will begin utility relocation and right of way acquisition to prepare for a construction start date the following year.

“In early 2023 we would like to have this constructed,” Stewart said.

Several changes have come to the area in the past year. The University of Virginia has demolished the Cavalier Inn. In October, granted a special use permit that will allow the eighty-foot-tall Gallery Court Hotel an eight-story hotel on the site of a smaller structure that burned down in May 2017.

The streetscape project gives a rare opportunity for the city to help inform the plans of the University of Virginia. Earlier this year, the Board of Visitors approved a new master plan for the athletic facilities centered around University Hall, a structure that is also slated to be demolished.

While of the land in the area is vacant, there are homes in the corridor. The eastern side is the location of both the 174-unit Lambeth Field Apartments and the 69-unit University Gardens complex.

Working out the details

The existing public right of way in the corridor is 64 feet. The draft streetscape shows that being extended to 79 feet.

One item that has yet to be determined is the location of a shared-use path that was specified in the Smart Scale application.

“Does that go on the east side or the west side of the corridor?” Callahan asked. “We started out on the east but as we got going and talked to the steering committee and the public, a lot of concerns were raised.”

One of those was that the new hotel will be built much closer to the street than the previous structure.

“It meant the trail and the tunnel would have to go behind it,” Callahan added.

During community engagement efforts, Callahan said participants were clear that they want a physical barrier of some sort between the vehicular lanes and the bike lanes.

Another concern raised by the public is amount of time it takes to cross the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road.

“We saw during our walking tour that it takes a lot of time to cross there,” Callahan said. “We want to make that a much safer intersection for bikes and pedestrians.”

UVA has plans to eliminate a lane that will allow motorists to turn into the Lewis Mountain Parking Garage from Emmet Street. That means the design team is considering adding new space for vehicles as a replacement.

“A lot of people use that according to our traffic analysis so adding a southbound right turn-lane that’s dedicated onto Ivy westbound was something people raised and we included,” Callahan said.

Another topic that has come up is whether there needs to be both bike lanes and a shared-use path in the project. The answer to this question will inform the amount of right of way that will need to be purchased or donated.

“A bike lane is going to be used by bicycle commuters going 20 miles an hour,” Callahan said. “A shared-use path is going to be better for those bicyclists that are more recreational and those who don’t feel that comfortable being that closer to [vehicular] traffic.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin, an ex officio member of PLACE, pointed out that the John Warner Parkway has bike lanes as well as a shared-use path.

“If I’m in a rush and in more of a contemplative mode, I’ll go on the multi-use trail,” Galvin said.

Can the road be slowed down?

While one stated goal of the project is to make Emmet Street safer and welcoming for non-vehicular traffic, Galvin expressed concern existing conditions would make that difficult.

“My concern is that it’s just going to be a very fast road no matter what you do because you don’t have buildings on the edge of the right of way,” Galvin said. “You have nothing but an open field. Eventually there will be buildings on the west side but on the east side it will be [mostly] empty.”

Frustrated by the apparent widening of the Ivy and Emmet Street, a PLACE member who is a assistant professor in the UVA School of Architecture suggested removing that turn lane from the concept and routing vehicles bound for the parking garage to turn left onto Massie Road and then Copeley Road instead.

“This then becomes a viable pedestrian and bicycle Complete Street from Massie Road down to Ivy,” said Andrew Mondschein.

However, the scope of the streetscape doesn’t cover that possibility.

“It may be outside the scope but it’s up to the city to decide on a turn lane,” said Mike Stoneking, chair of the PLACE Design Task Force and himself an urban designer.

The University of Virginia’s Office of the Architect is developing a long-term plan for the Ivy Road corridor. No representatives from the office were at the PLACE meeting, but Galvin remarked that the draft plan calls for the Cavalier Inn site to remain open space.

“When the University just wants to keep open space at its gateway, it is just going to be a fast road,” Galvin said. “You’re not going to get any notion of place until you get to the Barracks Road area.”

In contrast, Mondschein argued there are opportunities due to the future hotel and the fact that traffic has to slow down once it travels north on Emmet into Grounds, where the speed limit is already 25 mph.

In recent years, Council has made several land use decisions to allow autocentric uses on Emmet Street between U.S. 250 and Barracks Road, such as a car wash at 1300 Emmet and a drive-through for a restaurant at 1248 Emmet Street. Galvin said those decisions have limited the ability to turn the rest of the roadway into a place more befitting for pedestrians.

“That boat has sailed and the only thing I can see as probably creating an urban place is at the intersection of Barracks and Emmet,” Galvin said. In 2017, the city received $8 million funding through another Smart Scale project to address that intersection. That project has not yet begun.

A developer who serves on the PLACE group said there are market reasons for why autocentric uses are prominent in that section of the street.

“There is overwhelming private sector demand for that type of use,” Henry said. “When you have 30,000 cars on the street, it’s like flies to honey for fast food.”

However, PLACE members were adamant that this streetscape project help inform a future where fewer people drive.

“I believe that from the bypass down to [Ivy Road] it’s going to be a tight urban condition one day,” Stoneking said. “The sooner the infrastructure projects that, the better.”

Stoneking summarized that PLACE would like to see a design with shared-use paths on both sides of the road, want to minimize widening of the Emmet and Ivy intersection and wants to find a way to improve the design of the passageways that travel under the railway embankment.

The project went before the Charlottesville Planning Commission on December 18, 2018.