Thursday, December 31, 2009

Post No. 2009-9: Breaking with the early pattern for posts here on RTUF...

Form-Based Codes (Finally) Gaining Traction in New England?
And so, dear readers, we take our leave of 2009 and look ahead to 2010 with encouraging regional news on the Form-Based Codes (FBC) front. In fairly rapid succession over the last 3 months of the year, we have seen 3 new FBCs adopted in 3 different New England states:
  • First, on October 22, Jamestown (Rhode Island) adopted a SmartCode^-based FBC for its core village area.
  • Then, on December 7, Hamden (Connecticut) adopted a town-wide FBC, also based on the SmartCode.
  • Finally, on December 9, Dover (New Hampshire) adopted a Transect-based FBC to replace its existing downtown mixed-use district.

When combined with the 3 FBCs already adopted in Massachusetts -- for the Hamilton Canal District in Lowell*, the Buzzards Bay downtown area in Bourne, and the SouthField project in Weymouth-Abington-Rockland -- these new codes leave Vermont and Maine as the last two New England states without at least one FBC in place.

Curious about what exactly a FBC or Form-Based Code might be? And why someone concerned about urban design and creating better places might want to look into this relatively new form of development regulation? The Form-Based Codes Institute (visit them at: has a comprehensive definition occupying its own page on FBCI's website that is available for initial reading. I'm hereby encouraging discussion in the comments section of this post if anyone wants to explore the concept further.

Here let it be said that FBCs are intended to regulate both private and public development in a way that produces desired built environments or urban forms such as residential neighborhoods, village centers, main street districts, suburban and urban downtowns, while simultaneously permitting and even encouraging mixing of uses (e.g., residential or office above retail) as essential to creating those desirable places. FBCs are best understood in contrast with conventional zoning, which is geared to regulating the private use of land as the first priority, typically by separating uses from each other into homogeneous districts (residential, retail, office, industrial, warehouse, etc.), pushing buildings back from the street and each other through setbacks and buffering requirements, and deferring to advisory design guidelines or design/development review processes to determine how and in what structures those uses will occupy the land. For FBCs, enjoyable places and a strong urban fabric are intended regulatory outcomes. For conventional zoning, such outcomes are often incidental or, in the worst cases, made more difficult to achieve.

For more information on the adopted NE FBCs:

SouthField (MA) -- Zoning and Subdivision (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

Bourne (MA) -- Zoning Overlay

Lowell (MA) -- Zoning and Subdivision (Four pdfs starting with "Final HCD Form Based Code...")

Jamestown (RI) -- Zoning Text and Map (Article 11 provides the bulk of the new FBC provisions)

Hamden (CT) -- Zoning Text and Map

Dover (NH) -- Excerpted Zoning Text and Embedded Regulating Plan (pardon the multiple jpgs):

^ - The SmartCode is a model FBC made available for adaptation to local conditions and legal requirements by the Center for Applied Transect Studies at The SmartCode uses the Transect as its framework for regulation.
* - My firm was retained by the City of Lowell to provide legal assistance in the drafting and adoption of the Hamilton Canal District FBC and, along with my firm colleagues, I was personally involved in providing that assistance.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Blog Post No. 2009-8: The W Hotel Boston (100 Stuart Street)

And now for something completely different...

Location: 100 Stuart Street, Boston, MA (MAP)
Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2009

The Photos: Walking along Stuart Street, from the corner at Tremont Street toward Charles Street.

The Story: Finally completed and opened just a couple of months ago, the W Hotel Boston substantially changes the dynamic at the corner of Tremont and Stuart streets in the heart of Boston's theater district. The Charles Playhouse is down Warrenton Street, the Wang and Wilbur theaters are across Tremont Street, the Shubert's right next door, the Emerson Majestic is a block up Tremont, and the Colonial is up and around the corner on Boylston Street. Most recently, art house cinema returned to Boston at the Stuart Street Playhouse two blocks over. Despite its central location, for at least as long as I've lived in Boston (since 1997), this site was the archetypal urban fabric no-no: a surface parking lot occupying a full city block at a key downtown intersection.
The architecture here is uncompromisingly modernist in style, though the building's placement on its site suggests its designers were more than happy to come out and meet the street directly with lots of ground floor activity and transparency. Of course, this is a fairly tight urban site with no space to waste anyway. While the building is a clear departure from much of what's around it, there has been little open hostility to its ultimate arrival, especially given its overall height and facades that proceed directly to the buidling's full height without any stepping back.

This may be a good point at which to discuss Boston's "High Spine." As with so many things having to do with architecture, urban design, and planning in Boston, Robert Campbell recently (in 2006) covered this topic in the Boston Globe (link here) elegantly and with an eye toward what is truly important about it, especially its accordance with Boston's "basic DNA" as a craggy peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck, even if the original Boston Neck was a bit more to the south and east. Here let it be said that the High Spine has, since its endorsement in 1961 by the Boston Society of Architets' Committee on Civic Design, provided a remarkably durable and understandable conceptual framework for where tall buildings outside of the city's Financial District should be located. That is, in a "High Spine" stretching from the area around Kenmore Square on the west, running eastward on a line through the Prudential Center, Copley Square, and Park Plaza (thereby threading the needle between the Back Bay and the South End atop the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, the MBTA Orange and Green lines, and the main Amtrak/Commuter Rail corridor). Major and easily recognizable peaks on the High Spine today include the Prudential building itself and the "old" (the one with the weather beacon on top) and "new" (designd by I.M. Pei) Hancock towers, but there are many less lofty peaks along the length of the spine, including the Millennium Center development from earlier this decade and, now, the W Hotel. It may well be that the location of this new building along the High Spine explains why, at least at this point (several years after its approvals were obtained), its realization has caused little angst among the populace. All in all, it's a welcome addition to the urban ensemble.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: I'm pretty sure that the dimesions on the building's notch along the Tremont Street side are not accurate, but you get the general idea.