Cincinnati adopts a new form-based code

In 2010, vice mayor Roxanne Qualls of Cincinnati introduced a motion to adopt zoning that supports mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development around transit stations. This project has grown into city-wide form-based code with the help of a $2.4 million grant from HUD, part of which was used to hire consultants. 

The code was adopted in May, but it is not yet implemented. Each city neighborhood must be mapped and have regulating plans approved. Maps have been created for four neighborhoods — College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills, and Westwood — and the code has been applied to business districts and key vacant parcels. These plans are under review by neighborhoods councils. The plan is to map 42 neighborhoods in the near term, according to Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design — the Berkeley, California firm that authored the code.

The city hopes that the new code will spur redevelopment of neighborhoods that have been in decline or stagnating for a long time. A report following a citywide charrette explained why the city is optimistic despite the history:

The city has lost 40 percent of its population since 1950, leaving suburban densities in the city’s formerly urban neighborhoods. Many residential buildings and lots sit vacant or are not being maintained, with over 10,000 historically contributing units in need of renovation. Neighborhood main streets have withered due to lack of people, competition from nearby big box stores, and bad thoroughfare design that speeds cars and potential customers through these neighborhoods, rather than to them.

But Cincinnati has a tremendous opportunity. In these urban neighborhoods they already have what other cities want and are trying to build: a variety of urban housing types; a network of neighborhood main streets ready to be revitalized; a rich, diverse, and well-build collection of historic architecture; and easily accessible open space networks created by topography that weaves throughout these neighborhoods.

Millennials, who are just moving into the housing market, and Baby Boomers, who are nearing retirement, are driving the resurgence in demand. “The Queen City is positioning itself to capture this demand and to put a strategy in place that makes these neighborhoods Complete Places with everything urban neighborhoods have to offer,” the report notes.

A rendering of a T4 mostly residential neighborhood in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati follows Miami, Denver, Nashville, and El Paso — other medium to large-sized US cities that have adopted form-based codes in recent years. Philadelphia has also approved zoning reform with many form-based elements, and other cities such as Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Austin are in process of changing their zoning. 

The city planning department lists four reasons for zoning reform in Madisonville, one of the four initial neighborhoods that have been mapped for the new code.

1. Form-Based Code will allow the development of the vacant land at Madison & Whetsel into a mixed-use development, where housing, retail, and office space can co-exist in the same development—just like Madisonville used to be!

2. Form-Based Code primarily focuses on the form of the buildings, and the use of the building is secondary. Madisonville’s Code, created by Madisonville stakeholders, shows developers the type of new construction we want to see here. This zoning was initiated and created by Madisonville community members with the assistance of City staff.

3. Form-Based Code emphasizes people and public spaces. The neighborhood leadership believes that if Madisonville is rebuilt for people, we’ll get more people, as opposed to building for cars and traffic, which results in more cars and more traffic.

4. Form-Based Code will streamline the development process and provide more predictable results for both the community and developers.