Design Guidelines Cliffnotes

Posted by on Jan 20, 2012 in Blog Article | No Comments

The March 2011 issue of Zoning Practice (American Planning Association) was authored by HLA Senior Associate Doug Hammel, and describes some key considerations in drafting effective design guidelines or form-based regulations. This blog posting is a “cheat sheet” version of that article. To obtain a copy of the full article, visit the American Planning Association.

What are design guidelines…or what AREN’T they?
It is important to remember that design guidelines should articulate an attainable product within the given local context. Creating standards based on “ideals” or models imported from other communities can often lead to incongruity with lot conditions, market realities, or the local vision. Within that framework, they can range from adopted regulations (i.e. form-based code), binding based on certain conditions (i.e. incentive-based) or simply advisory but non-binding.

Understand the users and administrators.
Too often, stakeholders want to start the process by debating over the minutia of design. But it is necessary to first think about who will be administering and interpreting the design standards. This will also help determine what kind of end document is necessary and how the standards should be written and illustrated. Will the guidelines be regulatory, incentivized, or advisory? Will municipal planning staff, the Planning Commission, or a Design Review Board determine conformance? To what degree will standards be negotiable? The answers to these and other questions create the nuances necessary to locally implementable standards.

Determine what the guidelines should address.
Guidelines can cover a broad range of topics; private development to public realm, general site planning to architectural details and materials, sustainability, etc. An understanding of local priorities and shortcomings of existing policies can help determine the most appropriate role for design standards. This comes from previous plans, focused visioning, and a “compatibility test” of how zoning regulations align with development goals for a specific area.

Test, test, test!
Block sizes, parcel dimensions, traffic patterns, and several other factors vary between neighborhoods and communities. Design concepts must be tested on actual parcels in order to ensure that 1) what is being asked is possible, and 2) the proposed standards and metrics result in the desired outcome. As many scenarios as possible should be considered; mid-block versus corner lots, alley versus street access, single-story retail versus mixed-use, etc. The result will be standards that are calibrated to local conditions, rather than those inappropriately imposed on existing lots.

Make an engaging and informative document.
Design guidelines can come in different packages, and packaging should be determined by how they are used. If they are advisory, they may use few specific metrics and more illustrations to convey an anticipated outcome of development. If they are regulatory and administered as part of zoning entitlement, they must express clear measures of conformance and be defensible against litigation. If the administrators have no formal training in design, they must clearly convey design elements and metrics and remove undue interpretation. Whatever the case, the balanced use of carefully crafted language, metrics, and graphics is essential. The intent may be sound, but if it is not clearly communicated, the guidelines will go unimplemented.

Coordinate other development regulations and policies.
It is shocking how many communities will undertake the process of drafting design guidelines only to leave in place development regulations that contradict their intent. Something’s gotta give. Either the design guidelines must stop short of trying to “fix” characteristics not permitted by zoning, or the zoning regulations must be amended to enable the desired design condition as expressed in the guidelines.  Either way, ending up with contradictory policies results in ineffective guidelines.

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