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The Look and Feel of a New Downtown

If you’ve been following the Reclaiming Downtown efforts in Santa Clara, you may have heard the phrase Form Based [zoning] Codes (FBC).

In the simplest terms FBCs are based on how things look and how the whole environment is experienced rather than how real estate is used.

Think about what makes a pleasing urban environment. You might think of Palo Alto’s downtown: tree-lined, walkable streets: interesting streetscape with retail shops, restaurants and a movie theater — a variety of architecture. It’s a human-sale, cohesive environment where you can walk to the movie theater from a restaurant and stop for ice cream on your walk back.

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This isn’t accidental. Palo Alto’s downtown planning since the 1980s has been guided by a comprehensive plan based on form, community objectives and historical preservation.

Now, think about what you don’t like. El Camino might come to mind: stranded islands of housing, strip malls, big box stores and pedestrian-hostile acres of parking lots. Going from a restaurant to a movie to an ice cream shop requires getting in the car for each stop — even if these things are a block away.

Like downtown Palo Alto, El Camino isn’t an accident. But El Camino’s patchwork sprawlscape is a result of conventional zoning codes, not a comprehensive plan.

Earlier this month, the Santa Clara City Council, the Planning Commission and the Reclaiming Downtown community group discussed FBCs, which is going to guide the redevelopment of Santa Clara’s historical downtown.

“Conventional zoning is designed to build a project, put a wall around it, and [identify] where people drive in and out of it,” urban planner David Sargent, founder of Sargent Town Planning told the group. “There’s no consideration of how different spaces interact with each other, how people experience the space.

“When you’re trying to build a downtown, with a bunch of uses, Euclidian* [conventional] zoning doesn’t work very well,” Sargent continued. “Conventional zoning yields unpredictable results. Entitlement by density yields ‘surprise us’ site plans.”

Sargent was speaking of the common measure of site density, Floor Area Ratio (FAR) —the ratio of a building’s footprint to its square feet.

This metric yields unpredictable landscapes because a 1-story building that covers 50 percent of a lot and a 5-story building covering 10 percent of the lot both have a FAR of 50. But no one thinks a 1-story building with no setback and a 5-story building surrounded by parking lots are the same in their impact.

In either of these cases there’s little flexibility for changing use. “We want to build an environment where you don’t have to knock down the buildings when you want to change uses,” Sargent explained.

For developers FBCs can reduce their headaches. “It’s an external and uniform benchmark that’s knowable by both the development applicant and public official prior to submittal,” Sargent said.

“People are saying they would like the zoning code [for the new downtown] to give priority to quality of architecture and urban design,” Santa Clara Director of Community Development Andrew Crabtree told the Weekly in an interview.

“FBC is a way to bring attention back to architectural detail,” he said. “Height limits, minimum and maximum setbacks. It’s flexible on uses, which is the traditional downtown model.”

Planned developments and master planned communities such as Rivermark have much in common with FBC; especially the focus on architecture that distinguishes Rivermark, Crabtree explained. But Rivermark is still self-contained.

Crabtree cautions that FBCs need to be specific to ensure “that the code will achieve what you want to achieve. In California every year laws change, taking away local discretion. So having things in the code can be valuable.”

You can watch the Sept. 8 joint City Council and Planning Commission study session at

http://santaclara.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=1&clip_id=1586,

Santa Clara’s YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/n0HthKuouUc, and the City’s Facebook page.

For more information about FBC visit FormBasedCodes.org, and SergentTownPlanning.com.

 

*What we know as ‘conventional’ zoning by use and density is called ‘Euclidian’ zoning after the Ohio city that established zoning codes as a legitimate power of local government in 1926.

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