The March 2011 issue of Zoning Practice (American Planning Association) was authored by HLA Senior Associate Doug Hammel, and describes some key considerations in drafting effective design guidelines or form-based regulations. This blog posting is a “cheat sheet” version of that article. To obtain a copy of the full article, visit the American Planning Association.
What are design guidelines…or what AREN’T they?
It is important to remember that design guidelines should articulate an attainable product within the given local context. Creating standards based on “ideals” or models imported from other communities can often lead to incongruity with lot conditions, market realities, or the local vision. Within that framework, they can range from adopted regulations (i.e. form-based code), binding based on certain conditions (i.e. incentive-based) or simply advisory but non-binding.
Understand the users and administrators.
Too often, stakeholders want to start the process by debating over the minutia of design. But it is necessary to first think about who will be administering and interpreting the design standards. This will also help determine what kind of end document is necessary and how the standards should be written and illustrated. Will the guidelines be regulatory, incentivized, or advisory? Will municipal planning staff, the Planning Commission, or a Design Review Board determine conformance? To what degree will standards be negotiable? The answers to these and other questions create the nuances necessary to locally implementable standards.
Determine what the guidelines should address.
Guidelines can cover a broad range of topics; private development to public realm, general site planning to architectural details and materials, sustainability, etc. An understanding of local priorities and shortcomings of existing policies can help determine the most appropriate role for design standards. This comes from previous plans, focused visioning, and a “compatibility test” of how zoning regulations align with development goals for a specific area.
Test, test, test!
Block sizes, parcel dimensions, traffic patterns, and several other factors vary between neighborhoods and communities. Design concepts must be tested on actual parcels in order to ensure that 1) what is being asked is possible, and 2) the proposed standards and metrics result in the desired outcome. As many scenarios as possible should be considered; mid-block versus corner lots, alley versus street access, single-story retail versus mixed-use, etc. The result will be standards that are calibrated to local conditions, rather than those inappropriately imposed on existing lots.
Make an engaging and informative document.
Design guidelines can come in different packages, and packaging should be determined by how they are used. If they are advisory, they may use few specific metrics and more illustrations to convey an anticipated outcome of development. If they are regulatory and administered as part of zoning entitlement, they must express clear measures of conformance and be defensible against litigation. If the administrators have no formal training in design, they must clearly convey design elements and metrics and remove undue interpretation. Whatever the case, the balanced use of carefully crafted language, metrics, and graphics is essential. The intent may be sound, but if it is not clearly communicated, the guidelines will go unimplemented.
Coordinate other development regulations and policies.
It is shocking how many communities will undertake the process of drafting design guidelines only to leave in place development regulations that contradict their intent. Something’s gotta give. Either the design guidelines must stop short of trying to “fix” characteristics not permitted by zoning, or the zoning regulations must be amended to enable the desired design condition as expressed in the guidelines. Either way, ending up with contradictory policies results in ineffective guidelines.
To be successful, plans need to inspire and create excitement within a community. To do that, they must be more than just a hundred pages of text with a few obligatory maps.
In the past, a plan would sit on bookshelves in the back offices of City Hall. Today, they are highly visible and accessible, posted online for everyone to see and use. As such, they must be inspirational, easy to use, and easy to understand by everyone in the community.
Our PAS Memo for the Amercian Planning Association presents an overview of some of the trends and issues that are affecting plan making; provides considerations to draft better text; and reviews tips for producing better graphics to help planners improve the maps, charts, illustrations, plans, and documents they produce.
We have been asked by the APA to embargo our article for one month from publication. So for now, the article is only available to PAS subscribers.
Gas stations. They’re everywhere. They are as critical a component of infrastructure as schools, parks, and sewer treatment facilities. Their functional and design elements – signage, lighting, site access, etc. – have a profound impact on the character of our most visible corridors. So how can this necessary piece of the puzzle complement, or at least not deter from, local character? Let’s look at a few examples.
This example is from East Lansing, MI. It demonstrates several site and building design characteristics that help it blend in with the commercial corridor, rather than being an eyesore competing for attention:
- The pumping stations are located to the rear of the site with the primary building toward the front corner, bringing vehicular access away from the intersection.
- The public sidewalk that is less disrupted by curb cuts (about one-quarter to one-third of the total lot frontage).
- Cross-access is provided to the lot to the east, removing the need to enter back into traffic to go next door.
- Signage is very low, and the building and front yard landscaping screen the pumping canopy and light.
And despite this design approach, people still find the pumps!
This is an example of a typical Chicago corner gas station. In this instance, the character of the development is more compromised for the sake of the automobile, although the urban setting dictates that the surrounding pedestrian network is maintained.
- The primary building is at the back corner of the site, and the pumps and canopy are front and center.
- Curb cuts occupy about two-thirds of the lot frontage, creating several vehicular/pedestrian conflict points (including at the location of a bus stop).
- A prominent monument sign is located at the primary corner, with another sign located at the southeast corner of the site.
- Alley access is completely unutilized and the glowing lights of the canopy impact adjacent residential development.
- Property edge landscaping and fencing provide at least some delineation between vehicular areas and the public sidewalk.
As a whole, this development model does the minimum required in terms of the overall functionality and character of the corridor.
This gas station (location removed to protect the guilty) demonstrates perhaps the worst practices in gas station development:
- The canopy is located almost to the front lot line. This results in one continuous curb cut along the entire front yard.
- Site access is both unclear and unsafe, as newly filled vehicles pull into traffic and arriving vehicles seek an open bay.
- The canopy is so prominent that, from the southern approach to the site, the large monument sign is not even visible.
- Though there is access to the side street to the north of the site, it is unused because access from the primary arterial is uncontrolled.
In this case, there is no consideration for the pedestrian network or the overall character of the corridor.
As planners, we must remain realistic about what can be expected of development. It is probably unreasonable to think that gas stations will ever recreate the character of our intimate town centers. However, a better product can be realized with relatively simple standards for site planning and access, signage, lighting, and landscaping. I mean, if we’re going to be paying $5 a gallon, we at least deserve that much!