Alexan Apartments was the first project permitted under the new fast track approval process, i.e., form-based code, that the Town adopted in May, 2014. As the project nears completion, let’s assess how well the Ephesus-Fordham (E-F) redevelopment plan is measuring up to expectations. Originally billed as “mixed-use” the zone is fast becoming apartments (7 story) that crowd the 2 lane Elliott Road marketed to students.
New projects in E-F are not creating a walkable, pedestrian friendly experience. Since the Alexan provides no pedestrian pass-through, the route from businesses on the east side of the building to those on the west side—e.g., from Thimble Pleasures to Whole Foods—is a long, unpleasant experience, especially on a hot summer day. The block size of this structure is about 400 feet – too large for good pedestrian mobility. Curbs with narrow sidewalks along the street front of Elliott Road crowd pedestrian travel and the enjoyment of a pleasant walk.
Tree canopy replaced by concrete and glass. Beautiful mature willow oaks, such as these on the south side of Elliott Road, were cut down on t he north side of the road to make way for the more “urban” streetscape of the Alexan building. The form-based code (FBC) encourages loss of tree cover during redevelopment by permitting construction right up to the property line. How will redevelopment in E-F deliver the tree-lined pedestrian streetscape that residents want if the FBC does not require building setbacks to make that possible?
A missed opportunity to enhance the Booker Creek greenway. A replacement greenway pictured here skirts Booker Creek, located just to the left. On the right side of the greenway path will be a new connecting road and the garage and garbage bays of the 90-foot tall Alexan apartments. Those additions will turn what was once a pleasant walk through natural surroundings into an uninspired sidewalk route surrounded by pavement. Booker Creek and the adjacent wooded landscape would have provided a perfect backdrop for a park and an enjoyable public space.
Major problems yet to be tackled. These are just a few of the changes we’ve observed on the ground since the Town Council approved the FBC and applied it to the nearly 200 acre E-F district. The pictures illustrate only a few of the problems that need to be fixed in the FBC. Other problem that need to be addressed include the lack of affordable housing requirements, lack of incentives for energy efficient construction, and building densities and heights that threaten to overwhelm our infrastructure.
Summary August 22nd Public Meeting
The public session was billed as a chance to give input to improve “walkability and open space” in the Ephesus-Fordham district, which is regulated by the FBC. We came to this meeting thinking we would be asked to offer ideas about how to integrate green space, mini parks, sidewalks and connections in the FBC, but we didn’t get the chance.
Most discouraging, the meeting leaders did not acknowledge the fact that we are not at the beginning of a collaborative process, but are instead trying to improve a poor, hastily-adopted code that is already in place. New projects could be submitted any day and the Town Manager would need to approve them if they satisfy the minimal criteria of the deficient existing FBC.
We learned that the Town intends to attack the problems in the FBC by hiring four consultants:
TOPIC CONTRACTOR SCHEDULE
Urban Design Tony Sease fall
Mobility Study Stewart Consulting fall
Design Guidelines Winter Consulting fall
Affordable housing David Paul Rosen Assoc ???
Here is the schedule the town will use to bring the final text recommendations to public hearing.
We see at least three barriers to success for improving the FBC.
- The fragmentation of property ownership in the district restricts opportunities for green space and large scale storm water planning
- Need for parking coordination across parcels: If every property owner provides exclusive on-site parking, this will cause additional auto congestion and undermine “walkability”
- Increased heioght and density, currently allowed “by right,” must be made contingent on provision of affordable housing, energy efficiency and other community benefits.
Will the Council adopt any of the significant changes suggested by the participants, e.g. lower building height (50 ft vs 90 ft), reasonable setbacks, adequate publicly accessible green space in every development, pedestrian/bicycle connectivity (other than street-based sidewalks) between developments, energy efficient construction, stormwater controls, and incentives for affordable housing units?
What happens between now and when the FBC is “fixed?“ We worry every second of every day that yet another “Alexan” will be approved, or that The Park Apts. will submit their redevelopment application. In fact, some of us have heard that the new owner of the property adjacent to the Alexan wants to construct another building just like it!
Will the minor fixes the Town intends make enough difference for community members feel it worthwhile to engage in this process? Will the Town Manager and the Project Managers allow the hired experts to make an honest assessment about what needs to be done to really fix the code, so the town staff can begin to rebuild that trust with community members?