POSTED ON JANUARY 4, 2012:
How one ordinance is changing the face of the Pearl District
The term "form-based code" often elicits blank looks. It's a dull term for what's becoming a fast-growing new trend in community design and sustainability.
The first form-based code in the state is being implemented right here in Tulsa. With the new code, advocates hope to revitalize the Pearl District, a flagging turn-of-the-century midtown neighborhood near 6th St. and Peoria Ave.
About 300 form-based codes are in place across the U.S., according to developer and Pearl District homeowner Jamie Jamieson. And many more exist throughout the world. But so far, there haven't been any in Oklahoma -- until now.
For years, the Pearl District Association worked to bring their form-based code before the City Council, where it was approved on April 29, 2011.
Ordinance No. 22411 is a hefty one, also called a redraft of Title 42-B, and it's set to change the face of the Pearl District.
Nestled against Tulsa's downtown, the district was one of the area's first suburbs. Many of the homes are a hundred years old or nearly so, with wide front porches and large shady trees.
For Pearl District residents, the view from the backyard is a gorgeous one. It's a unique vantage point where you can see Tulsa's historic Art Deco buildings lit up against a navy sky, classic Route 66 signs flash neon or OneOK Field's fireworks displays.
In terms of revitalizing downtown, the district is an important piece of the puzzle. Pearl District dwellings are some of the closest to downtown eateries, shops, workplaces and grocery stores.
The Pearl District is a rounded square that encompasses Oaklawn Cemetery and Centennial Park. The district borders 11th St. up to I-244, and spans Utica Ave. to Highway 75.
Since the ordinance was approved, the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) has held a handful of informational meetings to let residents and business owners know about upcoming changes to the area.
The form-based code was designed by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Ferrell Madden Lewis, with help from the city of Tulsa and the Pearl District Association.
Still wondering about exactly what constitutes a form-based code? Most consider zoning a topic best left to city wonks, but the implications affect everyone's way of life. A form-based code is a detailed small neighborhood plan, often built with sustainability, infill and revitalization in mind.
The new zoning trend has strong ties to the New Urbanism movement. There are many ideas in New Urbanism, first and foremost is best summed up by a quote from famed American urban planner and architect, Edmund Bacon: "The building of cities is one of man's greatest achievements."
And New Urbanists have set out to keep 'em that way. The tenets of New Urbanism include: walkability (10-minute walk between work, home and amenities), connectivity (high quality pedestrian areas and smart flow of automotive traffic), mixed-used housing and development (focus on mixing races, cultures, socioeconomic status as well as shops and types of residences), quality architecture and urban design (aesthetically beautiful buildings and walkways).
Form-based codes are simply a tool to implement these goals. Through the collaborative effort of neighborhood associations, planners and designers, cities can create a better vision for their future.
Standard zoning codes separate land by its use, a tradition that goes back to the pitfalls found when industry was king.
People lived in overcrowded tenements near smoky, smoggy factories. Separating or zoning a city according to its use -- keeping residential areas separate from manufacturing, etc. -- made great sense. But in the digital age, when most Americans work in a service, retail or information position, a new era of zoning has arrived with it.
Form-based codes take a multi-dimensional approach to zoning. Rather than a simple land use allocation, the regulating plan behind the Pearl District code provides for sustainable living, flowing architecture and human comfort. The ordinance states that the plan provides "for the regulation of land development by setting controls on building forms, height and siting, and defining public spaces."
Simply put, the code focuses on form and function, rather than on function of the land alone. After the boom period in the 20th century, what is Tulsa left with now? We've got neighborhood after neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes, many without proper sidewalks, and blighted strip malls.
We've painted ourselves into a parking lot corner.
Before automobiles, form-based planning was the rule, not the exception, especially in ancient Roman and Chinese towns. The first written form-based code may be the Laws of the Indies, a 16th century rulebook dispersed by the Spanish Crown for its colonial towns. In the 19th century, Paris was redeveloped with strict rules about building heights, street widths and the sizes of windows and doors, and standardized materials, colors and trees.
Great cities don't just happen. Tampa began implementing the codes to revitalize its Seminole Heights area into a modern urban village, while the city of Miami, Fla., has implemented a citywide code. In an effort to create a community vision, Beaufort County, S.C., is pursuing a countywide code.
Form-based codes, also called SmartCodes, are also in the works for communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as Taos, N.M., Michigan City, Ind., Lawrence, Kan., and New Castle, Del.
In the Netherlands, Dutch designers first decide how public spaces would be best used before architects are called in.
Here in T-Town, the Pearl District's form-based code is awaiting final approval by the Planning Commission before it can kick into high gear.
The redrafted Title 42-B offers a plan to develop "new, infill development and re-development" through public and private investment. The stated goals of the code are to: capitalize on public investment in existing infrastructure; promote compact, mixed-use development at an urban density; ensure transit-supportive and transit-serviceable development; and require pedestrian-oriented and transit-oriented design.
Many of the Pearl District's younger, hipper business owners, like Lot 6 Art Bar owner Vanessa Somerville and Joe Momma's owner and District 4 City Councilor Blake Ewing, actively support the new code.
At the groundbreaking event for his new Phoenix Café -- set to open in a few months in the heart of the Pearl -- Ewing was excited not only about his new business but the revitalization of the area. He was thrilled with the new construction on the sidewalks along 6th St., where decorative and sturdy herringbone brick patterns the walkway in front of his new café (currently under construction). Gas lamp lookalikes are also planned for the 6th St. thoroughfare, he said.
Yes, the Pearl District form-based code is a change of pace. The regulated plan approaches public space with new ideas and deeper insight.
Oklahoma is one of the fattest states in the U.S. (see our cover story on Oklahoma's Medical Crisis in the next issue), we've designed our public spaces around the automobile, not walkable, healthy living.
Imagine a Tulsa where we plan for our culture, our wellness and our bodies, rather than on the easiest way to park our cars. The new code is small, and it's not cheap or easy in the short term. But nothing great ever is.
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