Form Based Code Public Meeting - A Summary and My Take

I've been meaning to write a follow up post to this one about the public meeting on December 8th regarding the new Form Based Code which Albuquerque City Councillor Isaac Benton is trying to get enacted.

Below are my observations and concerns about what I heard at the meeting.

Public Involvement

First off let me start by saying that one of my major gripes about the process of enacting the new code is that there is not enough time for public input. Councilor Benton said at least 4 times during the December 8th meeting that there would be a "lengthy public comment process" yet so far there have been no announcements of further public meetings as part of the process.

Councilor Benton has claimed that the hearing process itself should be sufficient for public input, but I disagree. The biggest problem with Environmental Planning Commission hearings is that they take place during the work week. When a large number of community members are, well, working. And since agenda items are in order, but without specific times, you essentially have to take at least a half day off work to attend a hearing.

Additionally, the hearing itself isn't a question & answer session, and people really are expected to go into the hearing knowing where they stand on an issue and be prepared to speak in under 2 minutes to get their points across.

Such is life, I know. Hearings have to happen sometime, and everything and I am not griping about the hearing itself here, just explaining it for those who may not be familiar.

My point is that the EPC hearing, even if there is more than one, is hardly sufficient from the standpoint of accessibility for public discussion, Q&A, and comment. Luckily a couple of steps in that direction have been made, and I will get to those now.

To be fair, the EPC hearing has been pushed back from December 20th to January. But I still don't think that is enough time for true community involvement.

Especially given that most of us are wrapped up in December and January in the holidays, end of year work deadlines, kids' Christmas plays, and other such personal minutiae. Its hard to get people organized and interested in government at the end of the year.

What, you say? Personal lives getting in the way of community involvment? Sad but true. :)

At the December 8th meeting several people, including Jonathan Siegel, Environmental Planning Commission member for City Council District 2, explicitly requested that there be more community involvement, and expressed doubts that even waiting until January for the hearing would not be sufficient time.

Siegel's comments to this effect were met with the loudest and most unanimous applause of any comment from those at the meeting. Which in addition to the others who made the same request seems to indicate a lot of people other than me think there needs to be more public involvement and transparency.

Have Your Say - Post A Comment on the City Website

As evidence that Councilor Benton heard some of these complaints, there is now a Comments and Suggestions form on the City of Albuquerque website. Here you can write in and tell the City Council your thoughts. If you haven't heard anything about the Form Based Code other than this blog post, I encourage you to write in, tell the Council where you live, and request a public meeting in your area.

I'd suggest you read the code first, but then maybe even reading it makes your head want to explode? All the more reason to ask for a public meeting to get a discursive version.

If you already have an opinion about the code, good or bad, then write it in.

Don't take my opinions about the process as gospel.

But if it's news to you, ask for another meeting and attend that meeting whenever it comes. Be informed. Ask questions. Have your say.

For a change like this to ordinances which have the potential to affect zoning in the entire city, I think no less than 4 public meetings, one in each quadrant of the city (NW, NE, SE, SW) would really show the commitment to involving the public which Councillor Benton claims to have.

If everyone loves the Form Based Code and thinks its the best thing since sliced bread, then awesome. But I don't think there's been enough public input yet.

Again, as acknowledged, zoning codes are horribly boring.

So try to think of the following not so much about zoning codes, as about how changes to city ordinances are made, who makes them, and what the motivations for the changes are. Who wins?

What claims are being made to get people to sign on? And what's really going on underneath all the shiny feel good rhetoric or doom and gloomery?

Now on to my thoughts on the December 8th public meeting.

My Take on the December 8th Public Meeting
about the Form Based Code - Summary

In summary, the meeting was a success in that it was standing room only at the start, what I would estimate to be close to 100 people, if not more. These trickled out as the presentations wore on, but that's not unusual.

Mark White, the consultant who has been working on the current FBC apparently has extensive experience in drafting similar codes elsewhere. That, on the face of it is probably a good thing.

Mr. White and Councillor Benton both spoke about the benefits of the code, and presented a "visualization" of how a form based code could be implemented in other cities around the country to move from stagnant urban or suburban areas to vibrant living, shopping and working spaces. Essentially a series of "before and after" style slides showing a parking lot or boring intersection turned into an interesting building or tree-lined boulevard of shops and restaurants filled with happy shoppers. The visualization was theoretical of course, not actual cities that had used a Form Based Code to achieve their goals, or what those goals were.

Mr. White presented a real sample photo of an area in another city which had shops and businesses on one side, and a blank building wall on the other. And all the pedestrians in the shot were clustered along the side with the shop fronts rather than the blank wall. The point of this being a valid one, that an interesting and dynamic streetscape leads to a vibrant pedestrian community on that streetscape. I'd buy into that. I just didn't get how the Form Based Code allowed for this in ways that an appropriate zoning within the current code wouldn't. Again, I'm talking about the right zoning, not just any random Commercial zoning.

Following the visualization presentation were a series of slides with examples of the kinds of building forms that could be described under a Form Based Code, and how they would be beneficial. Claims were made that certain building designs would be emphasized under a Form Based Code which would be precluded under a regular Euclidean zoning code such as we currently have. But the link again wasn't made for me. While the idea that a form based code allows for building forms that make everyone happy and encourage development in community friendly ways was repeated over and over again, I didn't see examples which clearly tied a FBC to those benefits.

When pressed on the matter both Councilor Benton and Mr. White emphasized that they didn't want to be too specific because the specifics of how these heavily touted benefits would be realized were up to the communities themselves.

So the new code, if people choose to adopt it for their neighborhoods, is going to help make Albuquerque a better place, foster good growth etc...

But we can't really say how it's going to do that because:
How the fostering of goodness happens will depend on how the FBC is implemented which will depend on a coalition of development and community groups defining the form based code for their area to benefit everyone?

There's a lot of dependencies there. Including people agreeing on what's beneficial, which is currently the biggest sticking point in most community vs. development debates.

Pretty much all those dependencies currently exist in the current code too. So what's new?

Public Comment at the Meeting

Following the presentations was a public comment period. Commenters ranged from developers, community members, property owners and the like. There was a wide range of support for and concern about the new code, with people from both the development and community camps speaking iin concern or opposition, as well as folks from similar groups speaking in support.

In what is an oversimplification given the number and nature of the comments, to my mind there was no clear concensus within the group that I could see other than on two issues.

1) There needs to be more public input. Even this may not be a matter of consensus, but I do think the majority of folks at the meeting felt this way based on applause for the commenters who asked for more public input.

2) Anything that will really foster controlled growth in ways that benefits communities and balances the needs of communities and development and growth is probably a good thing. There was, however, considerable variation on what the perceived needs and benefits were and how they could be balanced.

Initially the Form Based Code was due to be heard at the Environmental Planning Commission on December 10th. This has been pushed to at least January, which to my mind is a good thing. Ostensibly, according to Councillor Benton, to allow for more community input. This is, on the face of it, a good thing.

However a cynical observer might suspect that as of today, December 17, since there are currently no announcements of future public meetings about the Form Based Code that the annual changing of the guard at the EPC is the real motivation for delaying. You don't want the hearing committee changing in the middle of what may be a protracted hearing process.

My Concerns Revisited

I had several other reservations going into the meeting, some of which were dealt with, some of which weren't.

1) According to Councilor Benton the Form Based Code (from now one known FBC to save space) is intended to be a supplementary code to the current zoning ordinances. So neighborhoods or developers/property owners could have properties re-zoned to use the FBC. But the City would not force the FBC on properties without someone requesting the change.

This to me is a good thing, and means I was dead wrong about the change being a sweeping one forced on the entire city in blanket fashion. Assuming that the implementation goes as Councilor Benton describes, I think that's good.

2) Another claim made by Benton is that the FBC would be easier than the current "contentious" process of requesting a zone change which has to go through the EPC and is fraught with argument from neighborhood groups.

This still doesn't make sense to me, or a few of the other public commenters at the December 8th meeting.

Since the change to use the FBC supposedly isn't mandatory, and re-zoning to use the FBC would require EPC approval and a lengthy, probably contentious hearing, it's hard to see how this is any different than changing a particular property or area to an SU1/SU2 (special use) zoning which had the same criteria as the FBC.

3) Benton portrayed the FBC as an opportunity for neighborhoods to encourage development in a way that would be beneficial to them, for example by changing zoning to encourage certain kinds of building in certain parts of the neighborhood. Say density and height on the Central corridor, with a structured transition zone between the high density development and the residential neighborhoods that border the Central corridor along most of its length.

In theory, this is great, and something the neighborhood I live in might be happy to try and do. Since right now neighborhoods have little choice but be reactive to development, rather than proactive by shaping future development.

Yet councillor Benton was very vague as to how, say, a neighborhood group would actually get the FBC enacted in an area without first convincing all the property owners in that area to sign on, and then to agree to the configuration of the FBC that the neighborhood group wanted. Talk about contentious?

Honestly I think the ability for a community to make changes to its zoning to encourage certain kinds of development in some areas, and limit development in other areas, is a good thing. More than a good thing, it's vital to the future of Albuquerque. I think we need more proactive action like this within the city if there's to be any useful, sustainable growth.

But I'm not sure how the Form Based Code is terribly different in this regard to a Sector Plan revision. Sure in theory moving to the FBC would be much easier, and take less time than the lengthy and contentious process of formulating, drafting, and passing a new Sector Plan.

In theory the FBC is a short cut, but in practice I don't see a lot of developer/community partnerships springing up. And these partnerships would be a pre-requisite to the successful implementation of the FBC in an area, rather than the FBC magically facilitating community/development partnerships.

If councilor Benton wants to convince me that the FBC will encourage community friendly growth, I'll need to see at least a few theoretical examples of how the process would work from start to finish. Which were left as "That would be up to the neighborhood and the developer to work out between themselves." at the most recent meeting.

In Closing - Have Your Say

Again, as I've said before I am not opposed to the form based code. I think Albuquerque as a whole needs to do something to control development and channel it into avenues that benefit everyone - both those who have money to spend and stand to make a profit in developing the city, and the citizens who will use the product of that development.

I am not anti-development. But I do believe that developers can build things and make money while producing developments that make the surrounding communities happy. I don't believe this always happens, and it certainly doesn't happen without collaboration and hard work. Usually that means more than 2 months of effort. Sorry. There are always trade offs, and the price of these is hard work on the part of all parties involved.

The redevelopment of the Bricklight District on Harvard is an example of an SU (Special Use) zoning under the current code that was formulated under extensive collaboration between the local neighborhood association and the Bricklight developers over a period of a couple of years. It wasn't a perfect process. When it's done we'll see if it works as well as everyone hoped, but in theory it seems to be doing a lot of things the form based code seems intended to do, but under the current zoning code.

And therein lies the rub. How does the Form Based Code balance the priorities of development, profit and growth against community, sustainability and livability any better than the current zoning code, assuming someone tries to implement zoning under the current code with those goals in mind?

If you don't see it either, have a go at reading the Form Based Code and then go post a comment on the Comments and Suggestions form on the City website.

Or if you do see the light and think it's a great idea, let the city know too. Like I said, I just want there to be more public comment. People don't have to share my reservations.

But maybe you do you share my reservations? Or conversely maybe you see something I don't see, or have some experience with Zoning, Planning or otherwise? Please share!

Post a comment here on this discussion in addition to the comment you're going to send to the City Council. Let there be dialog!

Views: 88

Comment by Chris on December 17, 2007 at 1:13pm
The notices for these meetings are sent to the neighborhood associations for them to distribute to their members. If they do not see fit to email the notices no one knows about the meeting so no one but the associations get to comment. I suggest that everyone check to see who is speaking for you and what they are saying.
Comment by Ben Roberts on December 17, 2007 at 1:21pm
Chris, I totally agree. As I discussed on my previous post the only notification that went out directly to the NA I am part of, University Heights, was sent 3 days before the meeting.

As far as I know it was forwarded to all the NA members who list their email. But 3 days isn't long enough to distribute fliers etc.

There was notice in the ONC newsletter about 10 days or so before the meeting, but that really shouldn't be considered direct notice to the NAs.

Like I said though, I agree with your point - everyone should take an interest in their local neighborhood association, and what the association is saying you their behalf.
Comment by Ben Roberts on December 17, 2007 at 1:29pm
That should read "what the association is saying on your behalf."
Comment by Chris on December 17, 2007 at 1:42pm
Victory Hills Neighborhood Association did not send out anything about the Form Base Code meeting. Nor did they send out anything about the Zone Code Enforcement Town Hall in August or the Great Street Facility Plan. I got a postcard from the city about the last Great Street meeting because Iam on the list for the South Yale Sector plan or I wouldn't have know about that.
Comment by Ben Roberts on December 17, 2007 at 2:13pm
That's a bummer.

Given that they only had 3 days to get to it they just might not have read the email in time. But I can't speculate.

Again going back to my point for the need for a longer public process on the Form Based Code issue.

Whatever the cause it sounds like you, Chris, didn't know about the meeting, so one or more additional meetings would give you a chance to participate.
Comment by Chris on December 17, 2007 at 3:35pm
Another meeting would be good and a better way for us to find out about them would also be good. I have requested that I be added to the cities list for e-mail notifacation we'll see what happens. Maybe the city could put together a one web page where we could check on upcoming meetings. As you can tell I am at the moment rather down on neighborhood associations but I am sure some of them are very good. Just not mine. I'm sure my attitude will mellow soon.
Comment by Ben Roberts on December 17, 2007 at 4:54pm

I had meant to make it clear that yes, assuming it passes, the FBC is intended to be implemented as an alternative zoning. Another layer of zoning code which could optionally be implemented on a specific area/property instead of the current codes. Councilor Benton was explicit about this. I'll reread my post and try to clarify that, as Isaac did say it several times, both in answer to questions and in general explanation.

So as you state, if the FBC is added to the zoning codes, property owners who wanted to use it would be required to go through an EPC hearing to change from the Euclidean code to the Form Based Code for their property.

Again, not sure where this is saving anyone any time or making anything any easier? Or if those things should be made easier in the first place.

I'll be interested to see how the AIA members take his presentation. Cynically I'd say that anything which encourages development and therefore more clients for architects will be seen as a good thing.

But optimistically I hope there are at least a few architects in town who will be, if only in the cause of full disclosure, asking some pointed questions.

Chris - I'd still encourage you to get involved with your neighborhood association, maybe you could be the person who helps give the extra hands (or email) to get notifications out for these sort of events? Since you seem to be interested, and aware to at least some degree? Keeping involvement in NAs is hard, and even University Heights doesn't do nearly as much as it would like to.
Comment by hettie on December 18, 2007 at 12:26am
nothing from the silver hill neighborhood assoc. it's not noted anywhere on their website, either. I feel completely at sea about this, as my knowledge comes solely from these posts and a brief slog through the city's pdfs (which are unabashedly pro-form based code). I really haven't formed an opinon yet, but I'm wondering about how they'll balance developers desires with those of residents. I'll try attend the public mtg. in jan., especially if we get a heads-up on the date. since it is the holiday season and things are busy, is there anywhere on the web that we can find a succinct summary that covers pros and cons in a neutral way? thanks for keeping us informed, ben!
Comment by Ben Roberts on December 18, 2007 at 8:17am
Again, since the NAs were only officially notified 3 days before the meeting, it didn't give them much time to do their own notifying. I do know a couple of folks from Silver Hill attended the meeting and spoke about the FBC, so you could maybe contact the NA about getting another public meeting as well. Asking in a couple of places never hurts.

Did you post a comment on the City website that expresses your need for more information and a more balanced assessment? This would be a perfect opportunity to comment over there and ask for another public meeting which you could hopefully attend.

As I said in my post, January is the EPC hearing. At that point it will be too late to learn more, and you'll have no opportunity to ask questions at the hearing. There will likely be a 2nd hearing, but really what I'd like to see is that hearing pushed back, and if lots of people comment on the City website link I provided to ask for more public meetings prior to the first EPC hearing, hopefully we can get more people involved.

I'm really hoping some pro-FBC people will chime in on this thread too and be able to add to the discussion. As I said I'm not opposed to the new code in principle, I just have some substantive issues I'd like to hear discussed about Form Based Codes in general.
Comment by hettie on December 18, 2007 at 10:33am
I'll head over to the city's site and post something there. thanks.


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