Form-Based Zoning

Syracuse’s Proposed Zoning Ordinance contains a section that regulates certain aspects of building form. Form-based ordinances are meant to “promote high quality building design,” but legislating design is tricky, and this draft fails to focus on the kind of design that matters most. The City should adopt rules that support community interaction rather than rules that dictate taste.

One of the draft ordinance’s many regulations governs building rooflines:

Buildings shall be designed to avoid any continuous roofline longer than 50 feet. Rooflines longer than 50 feet shall include at least one vertical elevation change of at least two feet in height.

It’s not clear exactly how this supports the zoning ordinance’s mission, but you have to imagine that the people who wrote it had buildings like One Park Place in mind–big boring rectangles that feel out of place among Syracuse’s beautiful old buildings. However, some of those beautiful old buildings in Downtown Syracuse also have long unbroken rooflines.

The length of a roofline is a measurable indication of the architectural style of a building, but that single measurement can’t tell you whether a building is ugly, or–more to the point–whether people will think it’s ugly in thirty years. The dilemma here is that an ordinance cannot be both strict enough to guarantee taste and loose enough that a small staff of zoning employees can easily enforce it:

This draft tries to strike an important balance between raising the bar for design while recognizing that staff capacity limits the City‘s ability to effectively administer and enforce too many new standards.

This particular regulation errs on the side of enforceability, so while its authors might have intended that it give us more buildings with interesting roofs and outlines like City Hall or NiMo, it’s not specific enough to guarantee that. Instead we’re getting buildings, like the Amos Extension, that satisfy the ordinance in the cheapest possible way.

The Syracuse Zoning Board should focus, instead, on building forms that make it easy for people to interact as a community. This means buildings that let people communicate across the property line. It means forms that allow people to experience the interior space of a building from the exterior space of a sidewalk, and vice versa. It means stitching the public and private realms together. That’s a lofty way to talk, but all it really means are windows and doors that face the street, minimum setbacks, first-floor retail, and parking lots placed behind buildings. It’s very simple, easily enforceable, and more likely to succeed than legislated taste.

Luckily, Syracuse’s proposed form-based zoning ordinance contains regulations like these that will encourage community interaction. The sections on “Building Placement and Orientation,” “Primary Entrance Orientation,” “Building Entrances,” and “Transparency” are all reasonable and only need minor tweaking to focus their purpose. Other sections concerning things like “Building Materials,” “Mechanical Equipment Screening,” “Facade Colors,” and “Vertical Articulation” are unnecessary and should be cut out. These revisions will put the focus squarely on form-based zoning’s true goal: community.