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Rick Bernhardt, executive director of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Commission, said form-based codes have helped Nashville grow over the past decade.
Sarasota Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 6 years ago

DSA looks to Nashville for lessons on new code

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by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As the city of Sarasota works toward implementing a new form-based zoning code, the Downtown Sarasota Alliance went to a man who oversaw a similar change in Nashville for insight about what that transition is like.

On Tuesday, the DSA hosted a lecture on the subject of form-based codes from Rick Bernhardt, executive director of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Commission. Bernhardt’s talk was part of the DSA’s Urban Strategies Speaker Series, which has brought in experts on urban planning to help guide Sarasota’s growth.

As executive director of the Davidson County Planning Commission, Bernhardt has led the implementation of more than 30 form-based codes in the area in the past 14 years. The ensuing growth has been significant: Property values have risen 3.5 times faster than the rest of the county in areas with form-based code. Following the implementation of Nashville’s downtown form-based code in 2010, money spent on development more than tripled in the first 30 months.

Bernhardt said the goals of a form-based code would likely vary in Sarasota, but the principles behind forming that code would be the same. He said the change to form-based code allowed for a shift from jargon that largely defined what couldn’t be built in a certain area. Instead, it’s fostered a more easy-to-understand conversation about what people wanted to see in their neighborhood.

A vision, produced via a thorough community conversation, is essential to the success of Nashville’s form-based code. Once residents established what they imagined for the future of their neighborhood — whether it was rural, suburban or a rapidly developing urban area — the planning commission could then tailor the regulations to those visions.

DSA board member Chris Gallagher recounted a visit to Nashville, during which he asked Bernhardt about the residential density of individual developments. Eventually, Bernhardt admitted to Gallagher that he wasn’t really certain of the numbers, because units-per-acre was no longer a crucial part of the development equation. Instead, the code focused on how buildings interact with each other and with pedestrians.

“It got people talking about what are, to me, much more important things than an artificial number issue,” Bernhardt said.

Ian Black, head of the Ian Black Real Estate firm, said people’s experience with Sarasota’s current downtown code — the first regulations in the city to use form-based principles — made some wary about the ability to work with the forthcoming code. He said a concern exists that the code would be overprescriptive: a planner’s dream, but out of line with market realities.

“There’s a fear we're going to produce another form-based code that will make it very difficult to build for another 10 years,” Black said.

Bernhardt said that, though Nashville’s codes were straightforward and lax regarding the regulation of design standards, the nature of the code depended first on the nature of the community vision for the area. He cautioned against excessively codifying if that’s not what people expressed an interest in, but said citizens’ needs and interests vary.

“You have to make a decision as to what is necessary to achieve your vision and what is something that would be nice,” Bernhardt said. “If the market will accept it, then fine. If the market's not going to accept it, then it could be too much.”

Still, Bernhardt attributed the success of Nashville’s form-based codes to the combination of a clear community vision and regulations that simply and effectively communicated that vision to developers.

“It’s not just doing the plan, but also letting loose the power of the private sector,” Bernhardt said. “Make it easy for people to do the right thing.”

Contact David Conway at [email protected].

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