Left to right: San Marcos Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) representative Dianne Wassenich, San Marcos Councilmember John Thomaides, and City of San Marcos Development Services Department Planner Abigail Gillfillan. Photo by Sean Batura
By SEAN BATURA
An urban planning document intended to change the face of downtown San Marcos has been released in draft form by city officials.
The SmartCode, developed by city planning staff and consultant firm Placemakers, is designed to revitalize the downtown area and make it a highly walkable environment with a denser mixture of different building uses, while preserving the city’s unique character.
The SmartCode would replace the current land development code in the downtown area and, possibly, the surrounding historic neighborhoods. Placemakers offered to code the historic neighborhoods for free. The city council may decide to include those regions in the SmartCode ordinance.
“I believe that what you will see in this code and the ideas that came out of the downtown master plan was, everyone talks about wanting to have less of a footprint for the environment, which creates more density, which means more people are gathered in smaller places — and that in itself creates community,” San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz said. “And I think what you’re going to see here is that they’ll take the same space and be able to put unique services, unique amenities, that are going to attract people to downtown, which creates that feeling that people love to come here, and they want to congregate, and they want to stay down here. Some will want to live here, others will just want to visit, but I think it just creates that feeling of — it’s a renewal.”
The city council decided to create the SmartCode after realizing that the recommendations of the downtown master plan conflicted with the city’s current land development code. As identified by planning consultant Bruce F. Donnelly, who conducted a downtown plan analysis earlier this year, the downtown master plan calls for the following initiatives, which, he said, are not facilitated by current regulations:
• Predictability and immersive environments: The downtown plan calls for a predictable development environment and to ensure a consistent look-and-feel on each thoroughfare, which requires codes that foster an urban environment.
• Neighborhoods with centers: The downtown master plan requires the enhancement the distinctiveness of the neighborhoods within and around its downtown, which requires codes that can modulate streets’ look and feel.
• Sensible stormwater regulations: The downtown plan requires stormwater regulations work with density, not against it.
• Structured and paid parking for density: The downtown plan is intended to make downtown more vibrant and less automobile-dependant by building a garage or garages, and by moving toward a paid model for parking.
• Urbanized park edges and transit oriented development: The downtown plan calls for the building of mid-rise “garden apartments” against the riparian open space on C.M. Allen Parkway with development oriented to rail transit.
The draft code is available on line on the website of the City of San Marcos Development Services Department, Development Planning Division. The draft SmartCode will be the subject of a public hearing on June 22 at the regular meeting of the city’s planning and zoning commission (P&Z).
The SmartCode is a form-based code, which means zoning categories emphasize shapes of buildings and lots, rather than the uses to be allowed in particular areas. Form-based coding represents an attempt to implement traditional neighborhood designs of the sort that prevailed in the early half of the 20th century, when more Americans lived in compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. In the middle of the 20th century, conventional urban development standards became the norm, with rigorous separation of building uses and the attendant phenomena of urban sprawl and car dependency.
“We’re sort of the anti-sprawl guys,” said Placemakers Principal and Director of Client Public Relations Ben Brown. “So we’re interested in trying to encourage pedestrian-friendly environments where people can walk to get basic needs within a quarter mile or so. With some of the historic neighborhoods that are close to the square, that’s possible already. But where community residents want that, we would like to encourage that opportunity for developers, for redevelopment to do more of that mixed-use, (with) opportunities for some multifamily mixed with single family, mixed with a little commercial, like a corner store.”
The SmartCode includes five transect zones, or T-zones, instead of conventional, separated-use zoning categories. The T-zones range from less building density to more density: T-1 is natural zone, T-2 is rural, T-3 is suburban, T-4 is general urban, T-5 is urban center. The transect zone model is designed to encourage more neighborhood structure, housing diversity, walkable streets, mixed-use, and transportation options.
The T-zone neighborhood structure allows for residents in each zone to walk to different habitats, such as a civic space, main street, or open space. The T-zones are calibrated for each place to reflect the local character. The draft transect zone descriptions for San Marcos can be found on the city’s development service department website.
Form-based codes have been utilized at the municipal level for the last six or eight years. Texas cities that have adopted form-based codes include El Paso, Mesquite, Leander, the south district of San Antonio, and Hutto, the last of which is where San Marcos Assistant Planning Director Matthew Lewis helped develop a form-based code.Email | Print