City looking for zoning options


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City officials are looking at Western examples, such as Chico, California, to fuel conversations about future developments, specifically through a form-based zoning code.

Iowa City City Councilor Jim Throgmorton, a UI professor emeritus of urban planning, submitted an article to city officials citing recent suburban developments in Chico to break the norm of single-family residencies and increase walkability.

“These articles come from across the country to stimulate conversation,” said City Manager Tom Markus. “Life keeps changing, and so does our community.”

Throgmorton said that he posted the article with the future neighborhoods with the Alexander Elementary and the new Hoover Elementary in mind. The developments in that area feature large quantities of low-density, single-family homes.

Instead of building and zoning in the convention way, Throgmorton said, the types of infrastructure found in Chico can challenge the norm.

“New neighborhoods can be designed to be of various uses that would be attractive, economically valuable, very walkable, and better in the long run for Iowa City,” he said.

Throgmorton said he sees form-based zoning code as a way to develop diverse multifamily buildings in otherwise conventional suburban neighborhoods and as a future for communities such as Iowa City and Chico.

City planner Karen Howard said form-based zoning focuses less about the types and restrictions for properties and more on what the market decides.

The code allows developing residential property directly above commercial properties in buildings.

In the new Riverfront Crossings district, where plenty of rezoning has already occurred, Howard said building codes create provisions for high-density buildings but not what type of property. The goal of the project is to create a market catalyst with the wetland park restorations and create a walkable neighborhood featuring a wide range of amenities, she said.

From a large-scale standpoint, Markus said, form-based zoning has been put in place to get an impression of what the area would like to see.

Howard said developers have already begun showing interest.

The multifamily developments cited in Throgmorton’s submitted article were rated with a very low walkability score.

However, the article states that a new multiuse public center in Chico, Meriam Park, would utilize form-based zoning a couple blocks down the road to create a community-minded neighborhood.

That particular development has halted because of financial crisis, following the 2008 housing crash.

Mike Sawley, a Chico associate city planner, said Meriam Park hit its snag like the rest of the country in 2008 and faces difficulty with bank financing.

“The reality is that mixed-use developments are harder to finance,” he said.

However a new county courthouse has been slated to occupy part of the property, Sawley said. With that and a possible hospital center eyeing the Meriam Park parcel, there are a couple catalysts to further develop the area, such as coffee shops and lawyers’ offices.

It can ultimately create a walkable community throughout the greater part of the city, he said.

Throgmorton said he is viewing mixed-use developments such as Riverfront Crossings and Meriam Park as ways to physically test the functionality of form-based zoning.

At the moment, he said, he thinks that form-based code is the future for developing Iowa City zoning.

“There will be a lot of evolution going forward,” Markus said. “We’re trying to develop our conversation and keep those things in mind.”

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