San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 15th, 2010
City nears adopting form-based downtown development codes


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

News Reporter

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.

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0 thoughts on “City nears adopting form-based downtown development codes

  1. This is an interesting concept and I have seen it work well elsewhere. IMO, when people say they want more dense development and less sprawl, they mean they want more packed in downtown. Which, is what this talks about (it seems).

    I can’t envision any map of San Marcos today, which would include Buie tract as part of “downtown.”

    So, let’s truly keep with the spirit of the people’s responses to various surveys and get a walkable *downtown*, where people can work (for a decent wage), live and play.

  2. I received a letter from PADS last week informing me they were changing the zoning of my property on the end of Johnson Ave, 2 acres on Purgatory Creek. I don’t know if I agree with the designation or what affect this change will have on my future land use or property value. The letter directs me to the City website, where I can find no definitions of “T-3” or any of the new designations. Really? Guess I”ll go down to City Hall today ; )

  3. Chris, you need to jump right on it. T3 allows some “interesting” uses from a traditional neighborhood perspective. I’d email you a copy of the info, but I’m doing chemo all day today.

    This is surprising to see the city already starting to use SmartCode outside the downtown area.

  4. I live in the historical area and received a notice this week-end of a public hearing for a city initiated zone change to my area. The boundaries are not clear but we will be a T4 or T3. I went by Planning & Development yesterday and picked up the “Specific Function & Use” paper on these new categories. T4 allows for retail and other uses not particular to residential and this would be “by right” with no permits required. Under the new zone plan, it will no longer be called a “permit” but rather a “warrant” that will be needed is some cases. T3 is “sub-urban zone consists of low density walkable residential areas, adjacent to higher zones that have some mixed use”. T4 is “general urban zone consists of a mixed use but primarily residential urban fabric”.

    During the seminars held back in March/April on this smart code, several people referred to Hyde Park in Austin as what they were trying to achieve here in San Marcos. I also think that Hyde Park is a great area… to visit. Ask the folks that live near the restaurants among the residential homes. Do you think they have parking issues? Ever been there when you have had to walk blocks to find a parking space? People walking on their lawns, throwing garbage wherever?

    This is a new system being started by the city. I would highly recommend that we begin with ONLY the downtown area for this “smart code”. Let’s implement it and see how it works, take out the kinks and refine it BEFORE taking on surrounding neighborhoods. It seems that neighborhoods in San Marcos are constantly being assaulted with attempts to make them something else besides a “neighborhood”!

  5. Sorry, I forgot to add…. I also hope, Steve that your treatment goes well today. It is obvious that you are a good citizen of San Marcos that you take the time to help make it a great place to live!

  6. I suggest that we start with Willow Creek. That seems like a safer way to ensure that the kinks are all worked out, before it is rolled out to the rest of the neighborhoods.

  7. Will this vision of Hyde Park increase the property value of targeted San Marcos neighborhoods? Will prop taxes increases force families out of these homes?

  8. It would appear to me that a T4 zoning would be incompatable with a historic district.

    As for Hyde Park, that might not be the example the City would want. Didn’t go too well there when the parking garage went up.

  9. The smart code seems to be a good idea, for Downtown, and trying to create more compact mixed use neighborhoods in good, in some places. However the persons pushing “smart growth” don’t ask, or don’t care to ask one thing, what if most people don’t want to live in such a neighborhood? Urban sprawl did not happen because people were forced to move out of the old compact mixed use neighborhoods, it happened because they wanted to move out of those neighborhoods. Once they had cars, and once the interstate highway system was built, it was easier for them to move out of these neighborhoods, so they did.

    The maddening thing about the recent Buie Tract controversy is that all the people who were pushing for that development did not ask that question. We were told how wonderful it would be to have the mixed use development in mist, where we could walk to shops and offices. But no one stopped to wonder if the people of Franklin Square, Oak Heights, and Castle Forrest moved to those neighborhoods because they did not what to live in a mixed use neighborhood.

    I have an office downtown, which is San Marcos’ one mixed use neighborhood, and in my mind it is quite successful. If I wanted to live down here I could. My landlord owns apartments directly over my head. I spend so much time down here I sometime think I do live down here. But at the end of the day I want to go back to my house with it’s space, yard, and relative quiet.

    Now I am more cynical than I’m letting on. I sure some people bought in to the vision painted for the Buie Tract, some people are just in it for the money, and don’t care. You can decided who is who. But it seems that the persons currently in charge of this city’s government are intent on implementiung a new planning model, a new vision for San Marcos without asking the rest of use if this is where we really want to go.

  10. I suppose I am more than a little thick between the ears, as many would eagerly agree. That given, could some word-wizard please give me a sound definition of the word, “smart,” in general? All-purpose?

    Then, as a favor, could someone really up to date on urban planning outside “metro centers” of over a hundred thousand tell me how the newly defined term “smart” applies to the growth pattern historic to our town? Does it mean mainly “mixed”? Anybody ever hear of the great classic of Ian McHarg, “Designing with Nature”? Nah, too old, I imagine.

    Maybe I’m beyond help. Sounds to me as if the current fad in the use of “smart” means two things, mainly: “agreeing with me,” and “mixed”–i.e., open use–zoning. The second is really difficult to apply to long-established, but not yet decaying toward “transitional” (read “devaluing”) areas of the City. In my experience, slipping in an incompatible or “non-traditional” use is quite often the quick way to clear out a residential neighborhood, in particular, and MAKE it become “transitional.” It is both costly and traumatic, as neighborhoods surrounding colleges and industrial areas around the country clearly show. Thus the formation of special “Historic Districts” with unique land use and development requirements.

    The “New Urbanism” really works best in new development or in areas decayed enough and therefore cheap enough to “gentrify”, i.e., mostly tear apart and redevelop. Or might the intent be to create little self-contained enclaves which become tiny towns unto themselves, where the residents come to think only of their own, local needs?

    I heartily endorse well-designed, before-the-fact, compatible mixed uses. But I look at the decay that surrounds many central cities (including even small ones) and see no analogy YET to San Marcos. That was most of the original momentum for creating a “downtown bar ordinance” at a time when opportunists were aching to make our declining CBD into a “Sixth Street” playground and trouble spot. The community chose then to go a better way, which included placing residential space downtown in unused second-floor space, helping upgrade buildings and streetscapes, and encouraging common public uses other than “entertainment.” That’s Main Street San Marcos, which has amassed huge sums in redevelopment, a great roster of civic and tourist events and piles of awards, in spite of being largely ignored. God bless Saint Kelly Franks.

    One wag along the way immortalized the comment that “When Austin eats beans, San Marcos farts.” Thus far, we are not yet entirely the tail end of Austin, but an observer might conclude with some justification that we really want to be. Why, we might even create our own “drug enterprise districts” like Austin has! That’s commerce! Money! Yum, yum! Smart! Fast! Hip! (None of which applies to your gentle commentator except, often regrettable, the last.)

    Diversifying the tax base seems like a more noble pursuit, and more lasting and beneficial, than jiggering land use to speed up development–some times people riding that horse go so fast they fall off, forever handicapped. Why did the Corridor Business Incubator (Yes, there ‘is’ one, 202 W. San Antonio.) languish and become just a cheap City rental property, rather than a creator of new jobs?

    Ah, well, maybe the average taxpayer might benefit from a new slogan and logo more than anything we could do to make it better for those who live and work here. Reminds me of one of those old Mickey Rooney movies where he says to Judy Garland, “I’ve got it! We could put on a show!” They always end happily, so why not?

    Today’s word is “sustainable” growth–appropriate to the highest and best land use, efficient, economical, compact, expandible, and self-sustaining through the self-interests of the community. Long-term solid. Easy to manage and maintain.

  11. Mayor’s aggressive pro-growth and TSU’s land grab have created instability in single family neighborhoods. Whose block is next to have a business and parking lot next door? Thus existing residents will move outside of town to live creating more sprawl.

    Sounds like an emphasis on “look and feel” translates to more brands, logos, banners and fancy street signs.
    Look- the Emperor has no clothes!

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