Zoning regulations can be tricky to navigate for developers. In a perfect world, a developer would be able to buy the land they want and do with it what they want. However, zoning laws are in place for good reason. Without zoning regulations, there’s the risk of incompatible land use (such as building a factory next door to a residential home), which can cause a variety of issues, including decreasing property values.

Most cities today use Euclidean zoning, the conventional zoning system. Euclidean zoning is relatively easy to understand: each zone is reserved for specific uses and has its own regulations. While Denver used Euclidean zoning for many decades, it switched to form-based code last decade. At first glance, a form-based code may seem more complicated than traditional Euclidean zoning; however, there are many advantages to form-based code zoning regulations — both to the city and developers.

How Does Form-Based Code Differ From Traditional Zoning Regulations?

Whereas Euclidean zoning is based on the idea that each “zone” or designated area of land should be reserved for a specific use, form-based code zoning is based on context. Instead of focusing on use, form-based code focuses on building form.

For example, if there is an empty lot between two buildings that sit in a downtown area full of shops, form-based regulations would preserve that block’s form. These regulations could include height regulations (so that a developer can’t build a skyscraper between these two buildings) and width regulations (so that the building doesn’t extend out onto the sidewalk). In the same situation, Euclidean zoning might restrict the development to commercial use only. The following are a few of the common components of form-based code in zoning regulations:

A Master Plan

Form-based code includes an overall master plan. This master plan defines building forms, streets, and spaces in a designated zone.

Building Form Standards

The building form standards regulate buildings’ function, configuration, and design features in a designated area.

Specifications of Public Elements

These specifications refer to the design and function of public elements, such as trees lining the street, width, and access to sidewalks, size and proximity of parks, right of way, and other features impacting, impacted by, and interacting with structures and public use.

Building Placement Requirements

These requirements refer to the building’s strategic placement, like how far away from an existing sidewalk a building needs to be. These requirements are put into place to ensure that new development is compatible with the layout of existing building patterns.

Building Orientation and Presentation Requirements + Architectural Standards

These requirements refer to the way a building must face, such as towards the street or other public spaces. Presentation requirements can include regulations governing the length of front facades.

Definition of Horizontal and Vertical Mix of Uses

Whereas Euclidean zoning regulations separate horizontal and vertical uses, a form-based code defines them.

Parking Regulations and Right Of Way

A form-based code can regulate the parking area built adjacent to a building, from its size to location. It can also define whether parking can be shared between buildings. Form-based code also dictates how a property is situated versus the road (or right of way) and how many access points must be created from lots, sidewalks, and the street.

Clearly Defined Review Process

Form-based code regulatory documents also include guidelines for the administration of the code. These guidelines consist of an application and development review process.

What Benefits of a Form-Based Code?

When comparing Euclidean zoning to form-based code, you might assume that form-based code is more restrictive and complex for developers than traditional zoning. However, there are many benefits to form-based code. These benefits also eliminate some of the drawbacks of Euclidean zoning. Six reasons why form-based code is more favorable for land development regulation in Denver include:

1. Eliminates the Drawbacks of Euclidean Zoning

Euclidean zoning has too many drawbacks to being beneficial to developers or the city’s residents and businesses. In Euclidean zoning, rules and regulations often do not consider the context. There are many consequences to Euclidean zoning, as well, including economic and racial segregation, which do significant damage to the city’s communities. Form-based code is based on the context of the existing construction in a given neighborhood instead of being based on the intended “use” of an entire zone. Form-based code helps eliminate all these drawbacks.

2. Provide Developers With Flexibility

A lack of unique new construction hurts the aesthetic of the city. Unfortunately, this is what happens when zones are drawn up with heavy restrictions on use and development in a zone. With a form-based code, developers have more flexibility as to where they can build, what they can renovate, and more, resulting in more aesthetically diverse buildings that give the city and its communities a more unique appeal.

3. Revitalize Urban Neighborhoods

When entire zones limit development potential, developers can be scared away: the complexity, financial ramifications, and constraints are often not worth the headache. Urban neighborhoods that could benefit from restoration won’t attract new developers if the zoning regulations are too strict. Form-based code zoning is much friendlier to developers in areas like this. A developer might have more leeway to build a unique residential project in a desirable location–based on the number of units, height, and design – rather than be limited to only a commercial or high-rise development.

4. Help Local Businesses to Thrive

Form-based code does not limit commercial businesses to specific zones, allowing local business owners can set up shop throughout the city. This is beneficial to smaller business owners who can not afford rent in more commercial areas of town. Because Euclidean zoning can restrict businesses to commercial use zones only, they can easily be priced out of the city. On top of that, form-based code might allow a building form that permits a business owner to live in an apartment located above their business. It also allows business owners to find areas of the city in need of their particular service instead of being forced to set up shop on the same block as their direct competition.

5. Help Create More Walkable Neighborhoods

A city becomes more walkable when form-based code is introduced. As a result of form-based code, a neighborhood might include residential buildings, businesses, and open spaces, allowing its residents to walk to local amenities without needing to rely on a car. Euclidean zoning tends to restrict neighborhoods to a specific use. If you live in a strictly residential neighborhood, it will take much longer to get to the nearest grocery store or park. The more walkable the neighborhood, the higher the residents’ quality of life and helps reduce carbon emissions.

6. Promote More Affordable Housing

Euclidean zoning causes different neighborhoods to be restricted by different rules and regulations. One of the unintended consequences of this is economic segregation. Unfortunately, if all new home construction is occurring in the same zones, it causes all the demand to be concentrated in those zones, resulting in a lack of affordable housing. Form-based code allows new construction and residential renovation to occur throughout the city instead of forcing it to be concentrated in specific areas. As a result, there are more affordable housing opportunities for current and future residents.

Denver Developers Should Favor Form-Based Code

Although most real estate developers throughout the country are likely more familiar with Euclidean zoning codes, it is an outdated model with many drawbacks. Form-based code in zoning regulations is much more beneficial to the city, its residents, and developers. We suggest that developers in Denver embrace form-based code for all its benefits. We can help you navigate Denver’s form-based code zoning regulations and help you understand the ins and outs.