FORT SMITH — The Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District Commission is due to vote later this month on a proposed new code for downtown.
The intent of the code would be to create sections of downtown in a mixed-use pedestrian environment – with retail, employment, housing and civic use, according to the project. The code would pave the way for the reuse and rehabilitation of buildings, some of which are historic, and allow for new infill developments.
Brenda Andrews, senior planner with the city’s planning department, said the code based on the Downtown Fort Smith forms will be presented to the commission in November for a vote on whether to recommend the code to the commission. Planning Board and the Fort Smith Board of Directors. If supported by the Central District Business Improvement Commission, it would be submitted to the Planning Commission in January and to the Board of Directors in February.
If the council adopts the code, Fort Smith Director of Development Services Maggie Rice said, it would be incorporated into the city’s unified development ordinance. “It will be a different area, basically, with character areas,” she said.
The Central District Business Improvement Commission heard a presentation and subsequently weighed in on a final version of the forms-based code at its Oct. 20 meeting.
Andrews said the code was a key recommendation of the Propelling Downtown Forward master plan. This plan, according to the Fort Smith website, was adopted by the city in August 2017 and continues “the downtown vision for a more walkable downtown that supports quality places, real estate development, infrastructures, the creation of places, employment, creation and the arts and culture.”
Jayashree Narayana, director of Texas-based urban planning and design firm Livable Plans & Codes, said there are problems with the existing downtown zoning.
“Right now you have a situation where you only regulate what happens on private property,” Narayana said. “But we know that downtown, walkability is so important that the relationship between what happens on private property and public land is really critical.”
Current zoning is based on “use” versus “design,” Rice said. Form-based code, on the other hand, focuses more on “design” than “use”.
“And one of the things that the form-based code is going to require, if passed, is that it’s going to require some street frontage construction, which means a certain part of the building is going to have to occupy the area closest to that front property line to give pedestrians a better feel as they walk down, say, Garrison Avenue,” Rice said.
A form-based code, according to Narayana, would implement a specific vision for downtown, focus on the character of different sections of the area, emphasize form over use, and streamline regulations. . Such a code could be better for the city center, among other benefits, by facilitating the predictability of development outcomes in the area and making it attractive for multiple modes of travel, such as cars, bicycles and walking.
Narayana further illustrated the concept of form-based code with a tool called “Form-O-Stat”, which is derived from the word “thermostat”.
“So a lot of planners and zoning geeks like us really think of forms-based code as an on or off, you know, it’s either forms-based code or conventional zoning,” said Narayana. “But the reality is that it’s really a gradation between one and the other, and there are different degrees, if you will.”
The Form-O-Stat described by Narayana places basic urban design standards at zero degrees, its lower end. From there, the tool can be adjusted, progressing through general architectural standards to the other side of the spectrum, 10 degrees, which includes more nuanced standards related to style and preservation.
“The thing about a Form-O-Stat by analogy…you can set the dial to whatever level the community is comfortable with,” Narayana said. “So it doesn’t have to be zero or 10. It can be anywhere in between.”
In addition to development standards, the forms-based code contains a boundary map that divides downtown into six different “character zones.” The names of these character areas are Garrison; Cistern; civic/medical; Warehouse and industrial; riverside; and Neighborhood.
“Each character area creates a distinct urban form, which is different from urban forms in other character areas,” the draft code says. “Each Character Zone sets standards for use and development, including height, volume, building and parking location, and functional design.”
Central Business Improvement District Commission Chairman Bill Hanna asked if the form-based code would change the administrative process. Andrews answered in the affirmative.
“Now, when someone does something in the Central Business Improvement District, and whatever they do, it may require a departure from the current Garrison Avenue Historic District guidelines, or it’s new construction, these types of ‘reviews now take place with the CBID,” Andrews said. “That would change.”
Andrews said if a development met the form-based code, there would be no need for further review other than Fort Smith’s planning department and going through the building permit process. If a development needed a deviation, it would go to the Planning Commission.
If the form-based code passes, current owners of downtown will be grandfathered, the Fort Smith website says. Any uses or structures they have on their property at this time may remain the same.
This all comes after the board voted in September to approve a permanent entertainment district in downtown Fort Smith.