Muskegon becomes latest MI city to adopt form-based code to guide new downtown development

In an effort to encourage more developers to create new, walkable spaces in its downtown core, the Muskegon City Commission adopted a new form-based code to guide redevelopment, receiving unanimous approval from both the city and planning commissions last week. 

Developed over the past year by Grand Rapids-based urban planning and design firms Nederveld and Williams & Works in close collaboration with the city of Muskegon and Downtown Muskegon Now, the form-based code was spearheaded by community meetings identifying “streamlining development and increasing tax base” as stakeholders' top priorities for the downtown area. 

Mark Miller, AIA and AICP for Nederveld, says contrary to many first impressions of the new development guidelines, the idea behind the form-based code model is not to regulate the creativity of architects and developers, but rather make the approval process for new developments much easier with a set of guidelines intended to help take out some of the guesswork that can often stall new projects in the planning phase. The city of Wyoming adopted form-based code in 2013.

“I think for the most part (Muskegon is) open to development just like most cities are, but the reason that we make the code more streamlined in terms of making that development process even easier is because we want people to use the code, build from the code,” Miller says. “We’re making it as easy as possible for a developer to use the code.”

Miller says form-based codes, in contrast to conventional zoning ordinances, “proactively shape our public realm through the use of form regulations.” For example, things like the transparency of window openings, facade composition and streetscape are regulated by build or type of storefront. 

Essentially, if a certain type of retail space needs x, y, and z building features to comply with the code, then any new proposal for that type of building that complies with the code and asks no exceptions for consideration may be approved by staff, bypassing the Planning Commission entirely. However, requests to build outside of the code will still require planning commission approval to more forward. 

“We’re not getting into telling them what color the paint should be or whether or not the building is in a traditional style or contemporary style - it’s not an architectural guideline,” Miller says. “It’s more like, ‘if you do these basic things, then your building will behave better on the street level,’ and the whole idea [behind] making that building behave is a way to accentuate the walkability and livability of downtown.” 

The new code also deals differently with parking for each new development, using language that encourages conservative use of parking spaces in a city where parking space makes up 20 percent of downtown land use, versus buildings and businesses, which are around closer to 12 percent. Miller says instead of using language that dictates minimum amounts of parking per building, the new form-based code will outline maximums, allowing developers to allocate parking space for only what is truly needed to accommodate the building’s particular use and offsetting service costs with more tax-generating land.

Right now, the form-based only applies to Muskegon’s downtown while the rest of the city’s single-family dwellings remain under the previous zoning ordinances. Miller says if the city of Muskegon wants to extend the code past the downtown core, it’s written to be transferrable, but right now the focus is primarily on creating new urban spaces. 

“You’ll hear people say they’re taking away from the creative aspects of design, but if you really look at this, we’re prescribing the essential things,” Miller says. “Where the building sits on the site, where the parking sits on the site, and the facade composition on very basic levels.” 

Click here to see a PDF version of the final full form-based code online, which includes somewhere around 170 images and illustrations accompanying the new language for Muskegon’s future downtown development, or visit Form Based Codes Institute online to learn more about how they work and how they’re being implemented by other cities. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer
Images courtesy of Downtown Muskegon Now

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