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Untrue to Form, City Turns Cool With Hip Zoning 

Zoning meetings can be dull, but if you squint your eyes a little, the proceedings can appear Harry Potteresque. While planners bat around different development designations — R3! No, B6! — they begin to belch smoke, unroll parking lots or stiffen into rows of single-family homes.

Traditionally an area's zoning dictates whether the buildings can be used as factories, businesses or homes. But a pair of ordinances City Council passed this month — B7! R8! — are rooted in the philosophy of form-based code, meaning design will trump use.

So far, the zoning applies only in Manchester. It will regulate the dimensions of the buildings, such as height, distance from the curb and orientation to the street, but be more flexible regarding how the building can be used. Rachel Flynn, the city's planning director, says that making it easier for businesses to integrate with residences as the market allows ultimately will create more walkable neighborhoods with a unified look.

Supporters see the new zoning approach as a business-friendly change. Under the traditional zoning procedures, if a developer wants to put lofts in an industrial space, the city approval process to change the property from commercial to residential can take months. With form-based code, as long as the building still fits in with the neighborhood, the request qualifies for approval.

“Any time you have to put a business through an extra process it makes it difficult,” Councilman Bruce Tyler says. “When you're trying to create economic development, why put up a roadblock?”

Geoff Ferrell, chairman of the Form Based Code Institute and a planner with Ferrell Madden Lewis in Washington, says many localities are heading toward form-based code. Richmond is “not at the front of the line,” he says, “but I'd say you're with the cool kids.”

Miami is working toward bringing the entire city under a form-based code, and many of the localities faced with a blank slate after getting wiped out by Hurricane Katrina started over with a form-based code, says Dan Slone, a land use expert with the law firm McGuireWoods.

The city's new master plan calls for bringing form-based code to Manchester. Flynn says that East Broad Street in Shockoe Bottom and Monroe Ward may be next.

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