May 29 2013 12:00 AM

The ins and outs of form-based zoning codes

On fishing weekends, my Uncle Andy used to put a milk carton full of worms in the fridge door, where the milk goes. It freaked my Aunt Sophie out. So did the golf balls in the egg keeper. After talking with Lansing planning director Bob Johnson, I realize that Uncle Andy was only converting the fridge to a modern, form-based zoning code. No matter what Uncle Andy put into it, it looked like a normal fridge.

A small skirmish in last week’s budget tiff at City Hall involved a line item of $70,000 to implement form-based codes in Lansing. When the Lansing City Council took the item out of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s proposed budget, he put it back in. The Council could override the mayor’s veto in the next week, but the six yes-votes to do so are unlikely.

Johnson said form-based codes are “integral” to the city’s Master Plan, adopted last April. Rather than buildings’ rising in conformance with how the property is zoned — for example, residential or industrial — form-based codes create a set of aesthetic regulations that must be met.

“What we have in place now is separation of uses by district,” he said. “You can have a heavy industrial use next to a residential use. Or you can have a special land use that doesn’t anticipate a certain type of building going in, and lo and behold, it goes in.”

Say that in Lansing and most people will think of the blank steel pole barn that sprang up last year in the Walnut neighborhood. Use of the property wasn’t the issue. Nobody minded when high-tech company Niowave Inc. filled the idle Walnut School with worms (OK, particle accelerator gadgets), because it still looked like a school. But the new pole barn LOOKED like it was full of worms. Johnson said the fiasco wouldn’t have happened if form-based codes had been in place.

“I didn’t have the tools,” Johnson said. “With form-based codes, (we) address institutional buildings in our neighborhoods, so we don’t have things like this happen.”

It didn’t happen in Hudsonville with Mr. Burger, a regional chain based in Grand Rapids. Mark Miller, a senior consultant at the Nederveld planning firm, said the small town didn’t want the usual bleak-gray-box-in-a-parking-lot Mr. Burger. Miller worked on the form-based code recently adopted in Hudsonville, and is now working on East Lansing’s master plan.

Miller said form-based codes shape “the buildings, the walls you experience, sidewalks, the streets, all the stuff you experience within the public realm.” 

Hudsonville got Mr. Burger No. 6, the Fallingwater of Mr. Burgers, with brick masses of varied height and thickness, crisp windows and black awnings that subtly complement Mr. Burger’s bow tie. If Mr. Burger ever downsizes, a weight loss clinic could move in tomorrow without changing a brick. Miller said the New Urbanist Mr. Burger cost less than the old ones and the chain is using it as a prototype for future franchises.

Now let’s really go upscale. Mark Nickita, a city commissioner and former mayor of Birmingham, Mich., said his city’s 2016 Plan, adopted in 2001, is “widely regarded as the first form-based code in Michigan.” 

In downtown Birmingham, buildings run right to the sidewalk, with no parking in front. “Build-to” lines instead of minimum setbacks are staples of form-based codes. First-floor windows are mandatory. 

“Walkability is directly affected by how you address the bottom 12 feet, and that’s all in our code,” Nickita said.

Earlier this year, Birmingham’s form-based codes gave planners the leverage to keep Walgreens from building the usual drugs and candy bunker, with shelving around the perimeter and blank exterior walls, in downtown Birmingham.

Johnson said that with Lansing’s master plan finally in place, he needs the same tools Nickita wields in Birmingham. 

“They hold firm,” Johnson said. “Their investments perpetuate more investment. Not, ‘Put something here, we made money,’ and the next person says, ‘I don’t want to be next to that.’”

Lansing Council President Carol Wood said the entire Council supports form-based codes, but she didn’t want to approve the line item until there was a plan. In the meantime, Wood said, the planning department could start working on the project in-house. Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who supported the line item, disagrees.

“The department doesn’t have the personnel to do it,” Dunbar said. 

Johnson said the work is too big and complicated to do in-house, similar to how the city used consultants with expertise to complete its newest master plan. “A code would cover the city,” he said. “It wouldn’t be one size fits all.”

JJR, the consulting firm that helped the city develop the master plan, is waiting on deck for the next step. Nederveld’s Mark Miller said you need the code to “weaponize” the plan.

Dunbar doesn’t want to wait another year: “It needs to be done. To say that you’re for it and not fund it means you’re not willing to put your money where your mouth is.”