Tag Archives: floor area ratio

Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.

transect

In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).

ratio

To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]

FAR

Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.

phoenix

 

References

[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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The Importance of a Relatively High Floor Area Ratio (FAR)

By Dom Nozzi

June 11, 2004

What is a “Floor Area Ratio (FAR)”? An FAR of 1.0 means that the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over her entire lot, or a 2-story building over half the lot.FAR An FAR of 2.0 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a two-story building over her entire lot, or a 4-story over half the lot.

An FAR of 0.5 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over half her entire lot, or a 1-story over half the lot.

And so on.

I should hasten to point out that while these numbers seem very dense, keep in mind that in almost every case except in, say, the middle of a downtown, an FAR of 1.0 would NOT allow the developer to build one story over the entire lot, as other development code regulations would ALSO require space for landscaping, open space, parking, setbacks, etc. Thus, an FAR of 1.0 would almost never result in a one-story building over an entire lot. It would probably be a one-story over less than the full lot to be able to fit in the landscaping, etc. In effect, what FAR limits do is control the amount of building floor area, and often don’t really tell you how much of the site will be covered by a building.

Walkable urbanism and healthy transit require FARs to be at least 1.5 to 3.0. In Europe, those loveable cities we all love to walk have FARs that are probably well over 3.0. In villageAmerica, as you can imagine, most of our commercial areas have developed FARs of about 0.1 (with most space taken up by surface parking).

Therefore, if a community wishes to encourage more walking and vibrant, sociable urbanism, it should require at least 1.5 FAR. Anything less than about 1.0 locks a community into sprawl, extreme auto dependence and downwardly spiraling downtowns,
because low FARs create unwalkably large spaces that are more car-scaled than people-scaled. People feel more comfortable in the quaint, enclosed spaces created by, say, 2.0 FAR buildings. They feel exposed and in a “no-man’s-land” when FARs are less than 1.0 (which is fine if you are inside an SUV…)

Note that I am NOT suggesting that we require more than 1.5 FAR everywhere in a community. Only in in-town places where more walking and urbanism are being promoted do we want to see 1.5 FAR or more. In suburban and rural locations, it is generally okay to have an FAR of 0.5 or less — unless you are trying to create a walkable neighborhood center (a sea-of-asphalt shopping center that is to be transformed, for example) in the middle of a suburban location.

Here is an excerpt from the Urban Design Toolbox I wrote for Gainesville, Florida that will forever collect dust on a shelf due to its “controversial” suggestions (and despite the Gainesville Plan Board demanding that it be published):

“…  In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0. In office/industrial and mixed use areas, it should be at least 1.25 (Snohomish County WA).  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers, and 3.0 for office areas.  San Diego requires at least 0.5 FAR near bus stations.  To increase employment densities, Orlando requires both a minimum and maximum FAR for most commercial zoning.  However, a FAR of 1.0-2.0 is considered ideal for creating transportation choices, yet Gainesville allows less FAR than this in town centers.  Every 20 percent increase in floor space in commercial centers developed as non-office uses is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in ride sharing and transit use…”

I’ve not given much thought to how we should design low-density residential areas, in part because nearly all of the regulations of most all American communities are intended to serve such a lifestyle, which means “we’ve got that covered — no need for more work there.” In effect, what that has meant for me is that I generally assume that the existing FARs that a community has adopted should presumably be appropriate for low-density residential areas.

Note, however, that usually, a community does not have an FAR rule for its single-family areas, probably because generous setback requirements, strict height limits, and the strong market desire for low density means there is very little danger of “too much” floor area in such neighborhoods.

In many cases, the community looking at addressing the needs of various neighborhoods or sub-areas of the community needs to make a decision about what the future intent will be for a neighborhood. Is the intent that the neighborhood remain low-density, smaller and more affordable houses and auto-dependent? If so, it would be appropriate to have an FAR of 0.5 or lower. If, on the other hand, the neighborhood has historically been low density and smaller in house size but is located near a part of the community that is intended to be more walkable and urban (such as neighborhoods adjacent to a transit center or town center), it would probably be appropriate to have higher FARs or no FAR limit so that the neighborhood could incrementally transform into a place that is more walkable, more urban, and perhaps more wealthy (due to the larger size of the homes or the high desirability of the location (in this case, being near all the urban action).

Healthy communities sometimes acknowledge that the historic character of a neighborhood should not be forever frozen in its current character. Sometimes, a neighborhood may have been originally built as a low-density residential area with smaller homes, at a time in which it was remote from the more urban locations of a city. But over time, those urban locations may grow in size or see the emergence of a new “satellite” downtown (such as a shopping center that has been rebuilt to be like a walkable downtown). In such instances, it is usually in the best interest of the city to encourage low-density neighborhoods that are now near urbanized areas to incrementally become more urban and walkable themselves.

In general, such transformation is a response to a market shift. If a historically low-density neighborhood is now within walking distance of where the urban “action” is, there will be more demand for folks who seek a walkable lifestyle to own a home in such a place. Also, when the neighborhoods near an urban center become higher density, they make the urban center more healthy, because a denser neighborhood brings more pedestrians and less cars — and excessive numbers of car trips are deadly to an urban center.

Often, if it is deemed appropriate that a neighborhood should become more compact and walkable, such a neighborhood will incrementally see some of its existing residents, who may prefer a lower-density lifestyle, be replaced by others who DO seek a higher-density lifestyle.

If we didn’t allow this to happen in cities, we’d have farms next door to skyscrapers in downtown NYC.

 

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Local Government Development Regulations as a Recipe for Sprawl

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 5, 2005

I worked as a town planner for Gainesville, Florida for 20 years. Like most cities, Gainesville’s plans, policies, regulations, elected officials, and planning staff proclaim that the City supports compact development, more bicycling and walking and transit use, and less sprawl.

Tragically, however, Gainesville has adopted a long list of development regulations that require dispersed, drivable suburbia. Examples are nearly endless.

Gainesville’s building setbacks, like in nearly all cities, are gigantic and desperately fought for by staff.parking_sea

Gainesville’s parking requirements, like in nearly all cities, are ENORMOUS, and staff aggressively fights for as many parking spaces as it can extract from the developer. To do this is to be a “hero” for nearby neighborhoods concerned about “spillover” parking – one of the great bugaboos in American town planning.

Nearly everyone in Gainesville — including most public works staff — join the Florida Department of Transportation in fighting for HUGE intersections and wider roads (I recall that my proposal to limit use of turn lanes downtown in the Transportation Element I prepared for the City was shot down, and my 4-lane maximum road size was subsequently removed after the plan was adopted.

Gainesville has over 33 zoning districts. More single-use districts means more sprawl.

Sidewalk requirements don’t really do much to discourage sprawl when located in suburbia, because distances are too large to encourage people to walk to destinations. They just ease our guilty conscience.

Maximum “floor area ratio” (FAR) requirements (which set the maximum square footage of building that can be built on a property) are extremely low. Low FARs strongly discourage walking, and undercut the need for creating an urban fabric that possesses human-scaled charm.

Minimum lot widths are excessive. Relatively small lot widths promote vibrant, sociable, convenient walkability.

Maximum building height limits are nearly always less than 5 stories. As such, compact urbanism is extremely difficult to achieve.

The City adopted a huge and growing “transportation concurrency exception area” (TCEA). This was done when it was realized that requiring developers to show that “adequate” road capacity was available for the new car trips the development would produce was counterproductively promoting car-oriented sprawl. But instead of adopting a TCEA that covered only the relatively discreet downtown, Gainesville adopted a TCEA that applied to the entire city – including suburban locations.

Which promotes sprawl.

And even if it properly only applied to the downtown, it would still have been unhelpful because it did not effectively require any form of meaningful compact urban design. To correct this, the City should have only been granting a TCEA if the City was getting urbanism in exchange for exception. As it is, all the City got was what amounted to little more than a few shrubs for landscaping.

Overall, Gainesville – like nearly all cities in America – has adopted land development regulations that ensure a future of unlovable, car-happy sprawl.

How odd, since the plans and elected officials and staff always seem to be united in opposing sprawl…

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What Is “FAR”?

By Dom Nozzi

“FAR” is a land development regulation used by planners and developers, and is found in most town zoning regulations. It refers to the “Floor Area Ratio” of a development. As an example of how FAR is used, an FAR of 1.0 allows a single-story building to cover an entire plot of land, or a two-story building to cover half of the land in question. An FAR of 2.0, therefore, allows a two-story building to cover an entire plot of land, a four-story building to cover half of the land, or an eight-story building to cover a quarter of the land. And so on. NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) in communities throughout the nation tend to be well aware of FAR regulations, and often counterproductively fight aggressively to minimize the FAR ratio. I recommended relatively high FARs in town centers or other places where compact, higher-density development is desired because it is well known by researchers that low FARs kill transportation choice. Walking, biking and transit are nearly impossible when FARs are low. I also happen to believe that higher FARs are much more charming and lovable (when done right). Most NIMBYs improperly assume that higher FARs mean that all greenspace on a lot or in a neighborhood would be consumed by asphalt or buildings. Ironically, the places that most all of us love most (including NIMBYs) are those places with relatively high FARs (much higher than NIMBYs want when they yell and scream at public meetings). It would be nice, in site plan review, to do two things: 1. Invite citizens randomly throughout the community to attend the public meeting (as suggested by Andres Duany) so that you reduce the NIMBYism associated with the typical scenario where only those living close to the project are invited. A broader geographic range of citizens attending development review meetings is much more likely to elicit support for a fuller range of community quality of life objectives, rather than more narrow, emotional, counterproductive NIMBY sentiments. 2. Figure out a way to allow citizens who attend (or vote at) the development review meeting to somehow FEEL what the design will be like. This can be done either by having people visit a representative site so they can feel it and see it with their own eyes, or prepare quality 3-D images for the presentation. Just stating what the FAR will be for the project with a number (“this project has an FAR of 2.0”) can easily terrify those who are not designers. _________________________________________________ Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290 My Adventures blog http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/ Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/ My Town & Transportation Planning website http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/ My Plan B blog https://domz60.wordpress.com/ My Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi My YouTube video library http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi My Picasa Photo library https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534 My Author spotlight http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

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