Form-Based Codes Small Towns News

Opening Doors to New, Context-Sensitive Development

Recent California state legislation (eg., SB 35, SB 330 and the Housing Accountability Act) stipulates that in certain situations, projects that qualify for streamlined review and processing must be designed and reviewed only through objective design standards. Marin County retained Opticos Design in 2019 to develop Objective Design and Development Standards (ODDS) for multifamily and mixed-use residential development in coordination with 11 separate jurisdictions within the County, the largest objective design standards application to date.

Currently, all towns and cities in California use both development standards and review processes that are mostly subjective: the standards and review process rely on personal interpretation. Communities say this is needed to maintain their community’s aesthetic standards. But as important as that is, the overall result is housing production continues to be frustrated and delayed, contributing to myriad issues.

Recognizing that only the objective standards in a community’s zoning code can be applied to qualifying multi-unit and mixed-use projects, Marin County chose to take a holistic approach by joining forces with the 10 towns and cities within the County to develop ODDS. This comprehensive approach is designed to ensure that participating cities and towns in Marin are positioned as strongly as possible to effectuate high quality design for new multi-family and mixed-use development.

Located north of San Francisco and home to approximately 250,000, the County contains the spectrum of nature, agriculture, small towns, and cities across its 828 square miles. The Opticos team was hired to provide zoning tools that each of the 11 jurisdictions can use to deliver context-sensitive, infill housing across a diverse range of communities and physical settings.

To address the wide spectrum of physical characteristics found in these communities, Opticos proposed a Toolkit of Objective Design and Development Standards. The Toolkit can be adopted as a stand-alone set of new standards or be integrated into existing standards. It’s up to each jurisdiction. The Toolkit has been prepared to adapt existing multifamily and mixed-use residential zoning and design guidelines into form-based, objective design standards. Using a place-based approach, these design standards are coordinated with the characteristics or “DNA” that formulate each local context and its specific architectural styles.

First, Opticos identified the shared DNA, “Commonalities”, across communities found by creating a Place Types + Building Types Atlas that mapped a total of 14 Place Types in three categories: Center; Neighborhood; and Corridor. The intent of the Place +Building Type analysis was to show that while each of the jurisdictions is unique, there are repeating physical characteristics. There are two key features used to define the overall character of an area. First, are the buildings attached or detached; are the buildings near or setback from the sidewalk; and are the buildings house-scale or larger? The second characteristic relates to the individual types of buildings that make each area. Having a countywide map of the Place and Building Types to see where they repeat and how they are different was helpful in preparing the palette of eight zone districts that implement the intended physical character allowed by each of the jurisdiction’s General Plans. This effort was supported by additional levels of analysis including:

  • Micro-scale Documentation that analyzed exemplary local projects for standards to refine or generate.
  • Architectural Style Documentation that identified over eight individual styles and their key characteristics that served as the foundation for architectural guidelines.
  • Detailed 3-D site Testing that studied hypothetical build out on priority sites selected by the jurisdictions for how their existing zoning performs and what types of changes would be needed to achieve more housing while fitting into their community and the General Plan.
  • Pro-Forma Analysis by the team that evaluated the results of the site testing to further advise the jurisdictions on the types of standards they should consider in the Toolkit.

Even with COVID-19 restrictions in place, the Opticos project team was successful at collaborating and pivoting from the standard public meetings to virtual and online strategies to conduct the Community Workshops and Roadshows.

Zoning Code Toolkit – In October 2020, Opticos delivered an Administrative Draft of the suite of tools for review by the 11 jurisdictions. The Toolkit consists of design and development standards keyed to a palette of eight zone districts to choose from. The zone districts are supported through supplemental standards for uses, building types, frontage types, slope, signage, and architectural style. While we don’t typically recommend regulating architectural style, these standards are for situations where no discretionary review is allowed – the architectural standards are proposed to make sure this important layer of design is addressed. Jurisdictions opted into the use of the architectural standards or not. The Toolkit is rounded out by review procedures that comply with State Law. The Toolkit presents the standards in a way that enables each jurisdiction to apply as few or as many elements of the standards as desired.

Each of the communities will receive the editable files for the overall Toolkit to make their final selection of Chapters and standards and can seek advice from the Opticos team on the approach to adding the content to their zoning code. Some jurisdictions have hired Opticos to help them customize the standards and produce their individual version of the Toolkit. Once the Toolkit goes through a jurisdiction’s community process and it may be applied to specific areas and parcels, and its standards will be the new requirements for multi-unit and mixed-use development for projects that qualify for streamlined processing.

Call us at 510.558.6957 to inquire about this multi-jurisdictional approach or any other aspect of this Objective Design and Development Standards work. You can also read more about the project here.