One of the many design failings of the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code is the utter arbitrariness and context-insensitivity of the building height standards. Urban designers emphasize the importance of creating the right proportion between building height and street width. If the height of buildings along a street is too low relative to the street width, the space will evoke only a weak sense of spatial enclosure and will not feel particularly inviting; it may not feel like a distinct “place” at all. On the other hand, if the buildings are too high relative to the street width, it may evoke a canyon-like, claustrophobic feeling.
So what are the ratios that avoid these two undesirable extremes? From my reading, height-to-width ratios ranging from 1:2 to 2:1 seem to be most highly preferred; these ratios produce buildings high enough (relative to street width) to create a clear sense of spatial enclosure and a well-defined street wall without being so high as to create a claustrophobic canyon. For example, in Washington, DC, a very dense urban environment, there has been a law on the books for over 100 years limiting the height of buildings to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. In DC, therefore, the height-to-width ratio rarely exceeds 1:1.
In Toronto, urban designers similarly determined that a 1:1 height-to-width ratio is a good rule of thumb to follow when rezoning to promote higher density redevelopment:
“We analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambience. Again, it just feels right. This realization led us to define a mid-rise building in Toronto as a building (greater than four stories) that can rise up to, but no higher than, the width of the adjacent right-of-way.”
In Ephesus-Fordham we have some very wide streets, such as Fordham Blvd, and some much narrower streets, such as Ephesus Church Rd. and Elliot Rd. To achieve good building height-to-width ratios—and, therefore, appealing streetscapes—throughout the district, one would want to permit taller buildings along Fordham Blvd and lower building heights along Elliot Rd and other secondary thoroughfares. This, in fact, is what the Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan proposed to do.
Unfortunately, however, the Town staff recommended, and the Town Council approved, a code that permits the same 90-ft building heights on both Fordham and on Elliot. Because Fordham is so wide, 90-ft buildings along that corridor may create a ratio that falls within the desirable range. But what about the 90-ft. apartment building East West Partners plan to build on Elliot Rd.? What height-to-width ratio will that produce? Elliot Rd is three lanes wide, and the width of a standard lane is about 10 feet. Therefore Elliot Rd. is probably about 30 feet wide. That means the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments will be around 3:1, well outside the preferred range and likely to create a claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.
Post by David Schwartz