Form-based zoning code fosters revitalization of urban places

Can urban design terms like “walkability,” “place making” and “high-quality public realm” save our cities? The answer lies in our ability to harness their value.  

The other day, a friend described her husband’s aggressive but loving questioning of her day as “har-asking”—a blend of the words "harass" and "ask." It made me laugh, because it described my style of caring. It’s a good fit for this line of questioning.

Living in a first-ring suburb, we’re familiar with the challenges of our post-industrial cities: the downward spiral caused by accelerating infrastructure costs and a shrinking population. Fortunately for the Heights, an invisible asset was left behind by B.R. Deming (a founder and developer of Cleveland Heights) and it can be harnessed to pull us out of our descending path.   

When talking about architecture, people often focus on a home or building’s shape or surface. I’m describing something which, in many ways, is invisible. It is the space between objects. The architecture of urban design is about the distance between the buildings and not the buildings themselves.  

There is a sense of safety and well-being created when the building height along the street edge is in proper proportion with the width of the street and sidewalk. It creates an outdoor room and a sense of place. We have these qualities in the Heights, but are they valued by the commercial real estate industry?

I’m not a fan of the fake urban retail experience, but I wanted to see why Legacy Village attracts so many retail clients and is considered the unofficial town square of Lyndhurst. 

The Bar Louie hostess sat me at an outdoor table where I could people-watch and get a sense of things. The human-scale attributes were clearly present. The walking experience from store to store was pleasant, with on-street parking and buildings positioned near the sidewalk. The small, grassy park is smartly surrounded by restaurants, and this creates an appealing courtyard atmosphere and a sense of place.

Some people consider this patch of urbanism disconnected and inauthentic; but Legacy Village’s popularity demonstrates an appreciation for characteristics which many people, especially those in the real estate industry, abandoned or undervalued for decades (consider Severance Town Center).

The Heights is in a good position to compete with the fake urbanism in Lyndhurst. We have a culturally rich location, the patina of the City Beautiful Movement, and proximity to world-class healthcare. But it will require a cohesive marketing effort and a design approval process which is uniform and predictable.

Walking through the Cedar Fairmount neighborhood provides an example of a high-quality public realm. Thanks to the creation of FutureHeights, a developer’s uninformed plans were blocked in the 1990s, and the neighborhood’s character is intact and remains a city asset. Unfortunately, battles like this indirectly discourage real estate investment.  

If we can agree in principle that our urban fabric is valuable and worth protecting, then let’s explore the best tools to do so. Cities and towns of all sizes are changing to form-based codes. Form-based codes replace typical zoning regulations and communicate through diagrams and shapes, instead of relying on words—a picture (or a form) is worth a thousand words.

This type of zoning code fosters the creation, revitalization and preservation of vibrant, walkable urban places. The City of Cleveland is currently in the process of updating its code to include it. 

Builders and developers love it because it creates reliable parameters for design and pro forma modeling, while providing guidance for fitting into a neighborhood’s context.  

A high-quality public realm is a tangible quality and is not a matter of style or nostalgia; it is neither traditional nor modern. Its importance is already contained within the pages of the Cleveland Heights Visioning Plan, and its neglect can be uniformly prevented. Furthermore, once we better understand how to curate our architectural heritage, it will be an appreciating asset, increasing tax revenue and regenerating our city growth and predictability. 

Let’s continue to promote our city’s remarkable architectural heritage, and work these new buzzwords and terms into our social gatherings: walkablity, place making, high-quality public realm and, my favorite, form-based code.

Roger Bliss

Roger Bliss, LEED-GA, is a developer specializing in infill locations, pedestrian-scale urban design, mixed-use projects, and multifamily project construction. He is a Cleveland Heights resident and member of the Severance Subcommittee of the FutureHeights Civic Engagement Committee.


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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:23 AM, 12.31.2015