Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why new design guidelines are not the path to a vibrant Towson

Today at 5pm the Baltimore County Planning Board will conduct a public hearing about Towson again, this time about the Towson Urban Center Overlay District.
Towson's "main street": York Road

Without a doubt Towson is the county's most important place, it is the seat of the County government with a court house and all, and it has been booming lately. With the whole county now having more residents than Baltimore City, it is certainly worth getting the future of Towson right. That is not an easy matter for many reasons, one of them a very convoluted and outdated set of development and zoning regulations that for decades defied every attempt of a comprehensive update.
The proposed Towson Urban Center Overlay District

Consequently, what one gets is tinkering on the edges. Or new patches over so many layers of old patches. A bit like a bucket of roofing cement over top of too many layers of leaky roofing membrane on top of decking that has begun rotting in many places.

So what's the deal with this proposed new patch? Prepared by the County's Planning Department which operates on a shoestring like so many planning offices across the country, the reason for the overlay is noted right in the intro:
County Council Resolution 113-14 requests creation of two new zoning classifi-
cations for Towson and this report focuses on the first such zone that is to
be solely for the downtown Towson area. The resolution cites the Master Plan goals for Towson and recognizes the failings of achieving them through piecemeal amendments to the existing CT District of Towson.
The thankfully slim report goes on to recite five past planning efforts going back to 1992, none of which resulted in an actionable and adopted masterplan that would clearly spell out what goes where, none that brought about an open space network plan, a transpiration element, transit, parking, height and massing regulations or any of those controls that were successfully implemented by many communities around the nation in what is often called "form based code". Instead, there is a patchwork of ten zoning designations and overlays that this latest overlay is supposed to consolidate. The Planning Office aptly and accurately describes the problem thus:
In Towson "compatibility" with existing
buildings means little since scale, material
and styles vary extremely and are very
While each of these districts/zones addresses a specific Towson development goal, they do not build on one another, and their fragmented nature hinders the comprehensive redevelopment of Towson. Problems with the multiple, overlapping districts are numerous: some laws are grandfathered while others are retroactive resulting in different standards for different land parcels. Some are difficult to understand and apply and therefore have not been used by the development community since their inception. There are also multiple approval procedures with different levels of review. County wide regulations originally drafted to address greenfield suburban development are often awkwardly amended to try to fit” Towson. Finally, many of the districts have slightly different boundaries, creating additional disconnection in an area that should be addressed comprehensively.
Yep, that pretty much sums it up. The analysis is good; the problem is the suggested solution!

The Planning Office wants to solve these issues through design review and design guidelines. Essentially by telling their Design Review Panel, here you have a newly defined outline of downtown Towson and with it a different set of design guidelines than for the surrounding communities. Or telling the development community: We suspend major requirements of our standard zoning because they don't work anyway, particularly not in an area we want to urbanize.

So, we don't tell you what we want but we give you a thorough design review and that will give the desired result. Like the famous saying about pornography, I can't define it but show me pictures and I can tell you what it is. And who decides? Well, not just that advisory design review panel, decisions will be made chiefly an administrative law judge! This process would replace public debate with verdicts.

To provide at least some idea of what is expected, the document that is subject of today's hearing, finishes off with a set of design guidelines. They read like this:
Block configuration should respect adjacent buildings and shall result in a cohesive pedestrian realm along streets and alleys. 
Primary building facades should be oriented toward the street and the pedestrian realm. 
Buildings should line the sidewalk and frame the public realm.
Parking areas should be screened by architectural and landscape treatments. 
Pathways from parking areas to the street should have purpose, be safe and be visually interesting. 
Facades on parking structures should be compatible in character and quality with adjoining buildings 
Open spaces such as plazas and courtyards should be provided to give relief and interest to the streetscape. 
The use of trees for shading and cooling is encouraged. 
A wide variety of appropriate architectural styles, materials and details throughout the district are encouraged to create a thriving, attractive district. 
New buildings should fit within the context in terms of mass and scale to enhance the character of a block or street. 
Innovative use of high quality materials should be encouraged. 
Lighting as a nighttime amenity should be considered.
 These are only a few samples of the precious guidelines but you get the picture: Towson should look nice and there should be light when it is dark!

As someone who has served for 10 years on the County Design Review Panel I know that this type of guideline is not what panelists need to enforce good design and make developers and architects provide it. If the panelists don't have enough professionals skills to already apply any and all of the above "rules", they shouldn't be on the panel in the first place.

What panelists need are enforceable must-do specifics. Such as: "sidewalks must have [provide species] street-trees every [xx] feet on center unless underground utilities make this absolutely impossible". Everything in the public area should be extremely well defined in a masterplan with the private developer as the entity that implements and pays.

And for the private lots, for the guidelines not to be random or fraught with unintended consequences, they need to be only the words that refine the elements of that form based masterplan that is missing and that would mandate heights, relationships, open spaces and primary pedestrian connections, to just name a few items.

There isn't any real meat in those guidelines but even if there were, the real action is postponed to the quadrennial re-zoning process coming up next year. That is when the consequential legally binding adjustments would have to be made to the zoning code such as the elimination of the current CT zoning, the elimination of the never used "alternative process" and the amendment of the town center boundary.

As noted, design guidelines make only sense if they are based on a clear masterplan. The Towson portion of the County masterplan is not nearly specific enough to serve as a blueprint. This is why large developers like Caves Valley (Towson Row) have to develop their own guidelines to orchestrate the parcels within their development area.

Chances that this new overlay would make the new vibrant and attractive Towson that most want to see, any more likely are extremely dim. Most importantly, the proposed process won't make the path to there more transparent, predictable and enforceable.

Towson communities have been on high alert for some time. One can expect a lively hearing tonight.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA  updated for language and clarity 14:20h

The author is co-chair of the AIA Urban Design Committee on the local and national level and has advised communities on zoning and masterplanning for 40 years. He has been a member of the Baltimore County Design Review for 10 years and participated in several attempts of reforming the County development regulations. He is also President of the Board of Neighborspace, a Baltimore County land trust. The opinions expressed here are only those of the author and  not supposed to express the positions of AIA or NeighborSpace. 

The author has spoken with the Planning department about Towson and has used Cherry Creek in Denver as a good example of a town that has urbanized a former mall and open air shopping center strip landscape into a vibrant  mixed use community. The Cherry Creek North Design Guidelines were obviously consulted for this overlay proposal as various graphics indicate. However, the Colorado guidelines distinguish between "Intent", "Guideline" and "Standard" whereby standards say what must be done ("shall"). In other words, the Cherry Creek guidelines are enforceable. The suggested Towson guidelines ("should") are not. More importantly, the Cherry Creek guidelines followed a very specific Cherry Creek Area Plan that had been part of "Blueprint Denver", a regional comprehensive plan. Cherry Creek also developed a separate greenway masterplan, another element Towson would desperately need.

 You may be interested in this longer essay about Towson on Community Architect.


A Complete Guide to Form Based Zoning
Cherry Creek Area Masterplan


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