Explaining Form-based Code

By ABBEY KUNKLE
Special to the PRESS

February 5, 2015

Recently, the South Padre Island held a workshop to discuss the current Form-Based Code that has recently been under much scrutiny. Members of the City Council, the Design Standards Review Task Force (DSRTF), and the Planning and Zoning Committee (P&Z), as well as members of the general public attended the meeting along with the developers of the code, Gateway Planning, to get a clearer picture of how the code is affecting economic development on the island and what can be done to make improvements. Council Member Alita Bagley, who had called for the workshop, opened with a thorough history of the code and said, “My goal in this was not to get into the minutia of the Form-Based Code. We have staff that does that that will work with the developers of the code. I think that is not in my mind what we’re here to do today. What we’re here to do today is look at the big picture, and where is this going to take us and how can it take us there.”

In 2003, the city commissioned a study by firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT) that summarized, “The town of SPI has decided to take control of its destiny. It has commenced a proactive planning process designed to preserve, maintain, and enhance the unique assets which make it both a major tourist attraction and a haven for a wide range of citizens that make up its population. Following a tourism study, which both identified the town’s great potential as well as expressed concern about the negative impact of its deteriorating image and curb appeal, a vision statement for the future was developed though citizen participation.” Projected images of Padre Boulevard were developed to include landscaped medians, wider sidewalks, and more. In 2007, the medians were constructed. The City’s comprehensive plan for the future was completed in 2008 based on many goals  from the WRT Study, and the council unanimously supported a Padre Boulevard Revitalization program in February of 2009, creating a temporary committee to improve the long range plan for a safe walkable community. The committee’s number one recommendation to the council was to support and fund a Form-Based Code. A Form-Based Code Committee was created, and in March 2010, Gateway Planning of Dallas, Texas was selected to work with the city to develop the code. Stakeholders from all areas were involved in the process with many meetings, workshops, and even door to door surveys, and the Form-Based Code was officially and unanimously adopted as Appendix Z to the City of South Padre Island Code of Ordinances in September 2011.

The Form-Based Code defines specific zones and guidelines for development, and is the implementation of a long term vision that was developed by previous councils to create consistency and beautification. Recent concerns have been that the code is too complicated and inflexible and that it is driving business developers away from the Island. Scott Polikov, CEO of Gateway Planning, argued that the code should be complex so as to implement guidelines but not complicated. He also agreed that because of different circumstances and visions for the city, the code should be tweaked based on current needs and past issues. Polikov noted that the reason for the current state of Padre Boulevard is because it is a series of successful and unsuccessful businesses that have no relationship to each other. He added, “A code without investment is simply a code.” The code was adopted under the assumption that the city would make an investment in infrastructure improvements, but without that investment, it has not served its full potential to beautify and create consistency on Padre Boulevard. Many have expressed concern that the main issue is with the Form-Based Code, however, Council Member Bagley expressed, “Form-Based Code is not the answer to the whole issue. It’s a much bigger picture.”

Joe Logan of the DSRTF, who has been a consistent part of this process, said, “I think we have a great ordinance in the Form-Based Code, but I think we have a public relations and an implementation problem.” The City’s Development Director Dr. Sungman Kim was also in support of the code and recommended that it be modified and updated based on today’s needs and goals. To prevent confusion and the need for developers to appear before multiple committees, Polikov recommended that Dr. Kim, who is very knowledgeable about the code, serve as a one stop concierge for developers to simplify the development process.

The workshop was a success with many ideas and opinions brought to the table. Participants agreed that a committee should be formed to move forward with practical adjustments to the code. They added that Dr. Kim should be given more authority to allow modifications to be made and that the city could be more receptive to development variations in the future. Mayor Patel said, “We’re trying to make this an easy process as we move forward in developing South Padre Island. That should be the ultimate goal.”

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