‘Form-based” code approved for Virginia corridor

A detailed new urban code coupled with a specific plan was approved recently by Arlington County Commissioners for the 3.5-mile-long Columbia Pike corridor. The first development plan using the new code, calling for 16 live/work townhouses, was filed and approved immediately after the code was put in place. As much as a million square feet of mixed-use development could be built along the corridor in the next five years, according to some predictions.

“Every metropolitan area has several aging strip corridors in need of revitalization and a new future,” says architect Victor Dover, whose firm, Dover Kohl & Partners, teamed with Geoffrey Ferrell Associates on the plan and code. “This could be a prototype and a case study that communities all around the country could use.”

Many plans have been drawn for converting old “grayfield” sites into mixed-use, walkable areas. The approval of codes to support that vision is less common, Dover says. “Most corridor projects that have been done — including ours in the past — have been concept studies,” he explains. “Arlington County made it law.” Although not within the District of Columbia, the corridor is within sight of the Capitol dome. “The county has approved an entirely new approach to zoning, says Tim Lynch, executive director of the nonprofit Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

The Columbia Pike code is referred to as “form-based,” a term which describes to a certain degree all codes that follow principles of New Urbanism. It is focused on ensuring that streets and public spaces achieve a desired form and character. That is realized by the design and placement of buildings and other elements, such as streetscapes and plantings, which define the public realm. Instead of prohibiting mixed-use buildings, in the fashion of most conventional zoning, it requires a degree of mixed use, but enables flexibility in those uses. The code allows almost any architectural style to be built, according to Geoffrey Ferrell. One exception would be “glass box” buildings, which are prohibited by the fenestration requirements, Ferrell says. The first 60,000 sq. ft. project of live/work townhouses is essentially modernist in style, Ferrell points out.

Voluntary, with incentives

The code leaves the current zoning in place. The form-based coding is an optional overlay. Many such optional codes have been ineffective, because developers choose to continue using the old zoning. Yet the Columbia Pike code has strong incentives and therefore may become a test case for this type of voluntary code.

Under the current zoning, developers have to go through a difficult public approval process, Ferrell points out. Many of the parcels are small, yet developers have to supply their own parking and drainage infrastructure for each site. Land assembly is difficult, and all of this has tended to discourage investment, he says. “Even in the middle of the DC metro area, a very pent-up market, nothing has been built in this area for a couple of decades,” he says. “There’s all sorts of vacant and underutilized land.”

The primary incentive for developers meeting the requirements of the form-based code is guaranteed rapid approval (within 30 days of filing). Also, developers will be able to take advantage of shared parking provisions and greater levels of on-street parking. At press time, some of the issues were still being worked out.

The impact of the incentives was immediately apparent. The live/work townhouses, known as the Capstone Project, were submitted and approved on the same day, having been in design for some time, awaiting approval of the codes.

Poised for progress

The Capstone project will be “the first mixed-use development in the Columbia Pike Corridor in more than 40 years,” according to the county, and “could be underway sometime this year.” Lynch is talking with a number of private developers who are interested in moving forward. “I’m expecting to see a significant number of site plans coming through this year that are what Victor Dover would call 100 percent projects,” he says. “ They will have ground floor retail, are designed at the right scale, and the buildings are in the right location. There is already a buzz in the real estate community and county citizenry about what will happen on Columbia Pike.”

The code was accompanied by a specific plan that identified and designed four town centers along the Pike (see plan, p. 11). It calls for the most intense uses and highest density fronting the Pike, with slightly less intense uses one block away from the Pike, and quickly transitioning to residential blocks further away. Detailed streetscape guidelines have been created. The county will take the lead in initiating the streetscape improvements.