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 (i.e., building height equal to half the street width) to 1:1 (i.e., building height equal to street width) 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 approximately 40 feet wide. That means the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments will be around 2.3:1, well outside the preferred range and likely to create a claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.
Update 1: Former Chapel Hill Planning Director Roger Waldon contributed the following comment:
I am writing to correct a miscalculation offered yesterday to our Yahoo Group regarding the proposed Village Plaza Apartments and urban design principles.
David Schwartz wrote to Chapelhillmatters yesterday about the proposed Village Plaza Apartments development on Elliott Road, alleging that a proposed 90 ft. height limit for the building (as permitted) will likely create a “claustrophobic, canyon-like streetscape.” He bases his claim on his reading of preferred height-to-width ratios, a measure relating building height to street width, stating that ratios ranging from 1:2 to 2:1 are most highly preferred, creating a clear sense of spatial enclosure and a well-defined street wall. He offers a link to an excellent document from St. Louis describing design principles for great streets.
He goes on to claim that the height-to-width ratio of the proposed Village Plaza Apartments “will be around 3:1, well outside the preferred range.”
The design principle he refers to is a good one. But his calculations in trying to apply the principle are inaccurate and off the mark. If you look at the website he offers, you will see that the definition of street width is “from street wall to street wall (building face to building face).” For this Village Plaza Apartment calculation: The right-of-way width of Elliott Road is approximately 60 feet, and the proposed building is set back 16 feet from the right-of way. Applying that same setback to the other side of the street results in a street width, for purposes of this ratio calculation, of 92 feet. That means that the height-to-width ratio for Village Plaza Apartments will be 1:1, right in the middle of the highly preferred range that David Schwartz suggests.
Update 2: David Schwartz contributed the following reply to Roger Waldon’s comment:
Thank you for pointing out that, according to the site plan for the proposed Village Plaza Apartments, the horizontal distance between building facades on opposite sides of Elliot Rd will be 92 feet. If we measure width from “streetwall to streetwall,” the proposed 90-ft Village Plaza Apartments will produce a height-to-width ratio (HWR) of around 1:1, which is within the range that urban designers recommend for producing adequate spatial closure without creating a canyon-like claustrophobic setting. While the website I referenced in my original post measures the width component of the ratio from building facade to building facade, others measure the width differently.
For example, when urban designers in Toronto considered what building height to allow in an area that they were rezoning to promote higher density, they limited height to a 1:1 HWR, with width defined as the width of the adjacent right-of-way. Similarly, the Building Height law in DC defines the width component as “the width of the street, avenue, or highway” that fronts a building. The Elliot Road right-of-way, which includes the sidewalk, is 60 feet, while the roadway itself is under 40 feet. Thus, it seems that neither DC nor Toronto would permit the proposed Village Plaza Apartments to be built on a street the size of Elliot Rd.
Metrics such as HWR are one way to try to get the height right in Ephesus-Fordham, but it’s not the only way or necessarily the best way. Another way is to ask the town residents what building height they consider most appropriate or desirable. When the Town staff and consultants put this question to the residents in a community survey as part of the Ephesus-Fordham small area planning process, the residents said they considered 2-3 stories the most appropriate height and density for the district.
In addition to asking the residents what they want, one can hire urban design professionals to recommend building heights. In the fall of 2013, Chapel Hill hired the urban design firm Placemakers to produce a form-based code guide for the Ephesus-Fordham district. They recommended that the central, highest density part of the district have a 50-ft hight limit and that the more peripheral areas, such as Elliot Rd., have a 35-ft height limit. These recommendations accord quite well with the building heights envisioned in the adopted Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan (i.e., “1-3 story buildings along the fringes and 3-5 story buildings in the center”).
Because of this clear guidance from the community and detailed recommendations from urban design professionals, it’s still unclear to me, and to many residents, who decided that the height limitation in most of the District should be 7 stories, or 90′, and why this height is appropriate. It is clear, however, that neither the community nor urban design professionals felt 7 stories or 90’ would be appropriate. Do you, Roger, consider 90 ft building heights appropriate or desirable for Elliot Road?
I’d also appreciate your thoughts on the other aspects of the Ephesus-Fordham Plan, and whether or not you feel the Plan (and associated form-based code) will prove beneficial to the community. From my perspective, and I believe that of many others in the community, the plan is deeply flawed. In essence, the plan entitled a few property owners to a huge increase in allowable density without requiring many of the same standards that we require everywhere else in Town.
For example, the Plan does not provide any incentives or requirements for affordable housing and only weak incentives for energy efficiency. It lacks an overall urban design vision, requirements for public open space, or any interface with Booker Creek. The Plan is silent with respect to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connectivity between the District and other parts of Town, and it fails to address the current flooding issues that are occurring within and downstream of the District. These are just a handful of the problems I see with the Plan.
I’d appreciate, therefore, hearing your perspective on the EF plan in general and, in particular, on whether the proposed Village Plaza Apartments is an appropriate scale for its urban context.
Update 3: Roger Waldon replied to David Schwartz’s comments above:
Hello David – -
I read your post from Friday, October 24, in which you ask me some specific questions regarding my opinions about Chapel Hill’s new Ephesus/Fordham Form District, and about the proposed Village Plaza Apartments on Elliott Road. Here are some thoughts in response.
First, you ask if I consider 90 ft building heights appropriate or desirable for Elliott Road. I have been following the community dialogue about this issue as best I can. I hear the concern that you and others have expressed about the proposed building heights – the buildings will be much taller than the structures that exist in the vicinity now. I think that the Town Council made a good decision in concluding that the present conditions along Elliott Road are less than desirable – old shopping centers and vacant property. My understanding is that the Town Council has envisioned an overhaul of the wider area, and that the intention is for this Village Plaza Apartments building to fit with the future character of the area. I think the Town Council was wise to prepare and adopt a Form District that sets parameters for the larger, full redevelopment area. I think that the parameters that were specified in the district that was adopted are reasonable.
Next you ask me about the Ephesus-Fordham Plan in general and the associated Form Based District, and whether or not I feel these efforts will prove beneficial to the community. Again, I hear the concerns that you and others have expressed. This plan and this district represent a new way of doing things in Chapel Hill, and are accompanied by processes not used in this community before (although they have been implemented successfully in other places). It seems to me that these changes have been well thought-out by the Town Council; and, looking at the future of the community, decisions have been made (starting with policies in the 2020 Comprehensive Plan) that this approach to redevelopment of the Ephesus-Fordham area holds significant promise for a successful future. So yes, I believe that these planning initiatives will overall and into the future prove beneficial to the community.
I appreciate your interest in these planning issues.
Update 4: Terri Buckner contributed the following comment:
For those whose eyes are crossing over these measurements, you can walk down Rosemary by Greenbridge to get a sense of the proposed height. The difference will be that Greenbridge is stepped back away from the street and from what I can tell, Village Plaza won’t be; the full height will border the sidewalk.
One thing I learned last year (as a daily pedestrian) on that stretch of Rosemary by Greenbridge is that the building height blocks out the sun, so snow and ice don’t melt naturally. That whole section of sidewalk was dangerous for weeks last year and the development management refused to provide any sidewalk clearance. The town only clears roads, not sidewalks.
Pedestrians crossing the road are also less visible to vehicles make right hand turns. So as part of this conversation, I hope Council members will consider what kind of daily use patterns will be impacted by significantly changing the landscape of EF and act in advance to ensure those daily use patterns are not negatively impacted.
Update 5: Del Snow contributed this comment:
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the new FBC for E/F.
In my close to 20 years as a member of Task Forces, Boards, committees, and activist groups, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many developers, like yourself, and have heard one unifying thread amongst them: “Have the Town tell us what they want and we will build it.”
So far, so good – and I certainly agree with some of the aspects of streamlining the process. In those nearly 20 years, I witnessed the Council asking for concessions in return for approvals. As former councilman Pease once said, applicants generally came in with applications that took those concessions into account. Yet, the principle that those who would profit greatly from the opportunity to build in Chapel Hill would have to return something to the community remained intact.
There is nothing inherently wrong with FBC. Properly used, it can be an efficient vehicle for development and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way. I hope that you have actually sat down and read the FBC approved by the Council as I and many others have. If you did, I’d be curious to find out if you think that:
a) not including incentives for affordable housing was in the spirit of the alleged Town values?
b) not including energy efficiency standards that reflect the need for action in the face of global climate change was wise?
c) not adhering to Smart Growth principles by increasing density without any increase (actually, a decrease) in green space had the community in mind?
When a community and its elected leaders find a huge gulf of mutual distrust, the community suffers.
Post by David Schwartz
Mid-rise: Density at a human scale