Panama City Beach Adopts Improved Planning Codes

by February 28, 2009 • 4 comments

Imagine hidden parking garages, not of the Batman variant, but of the variant of being hidden behind facades or landscaped walkways.  Think beautified pedestrian walkways and shop entrance ingress and egress without risk of being mowed over by an auto.  Pretend you are one of those developers that don’t do any work and make tons of money (please note the sarcasm here).  Imagine reaping the rewards of not only high density, but planning codes that allow you to achieve that high density in a way that is very asthetically pleasing and doesn’t hack off the neighbors with behemoth towers.  Enter the new Form-Based Code Building Regulations.

Before last week’s Panama City Beach City Council meeting, there was a public workshop held at Beach City Hall discussing the future of land planning for our area’s beach community.  Attended mostly by City employees and a few developers and architects, the only other people there were media and the land owner of one of the example properties used for the analysis.

So, what are Form-Based Codes, you say?  Straight out of the 11×17 color printed packet I received at the workshop:

The Form-Based Codes Institute defines form-based codes as a “method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form. Form-based codes create a predictable public realm primarily by controlling physical form, with a lesser focus on land use, through city or county regulations.”2 While conventional zoning tends to focus on uses, intensities and setbacks, form-based codes focus on building scale and character. The key distinctions between form-based codes and design guidelines are that guidelines are advisory and often subjective, which frequently result in the need for design review boards. Form-based codes establish specific, measurable standards that require little discretion and limited architectural knowledge.

The best form-based regulations address site-specific challenges and conditions that are ignored by conventional zoning. They promote compatibility between adjacent uses through context-sensitive design. They also tend to do a much better job of addressing the interface between the public and private realms (streets and buildings). They also are better suited to addressing scale and building orientation in ways that improve compatibility between adjacent public and private uses.

Rather than focusing exclusively on “one-size-fits-all” setbacks and building heights, form-based codes may include different standards for different situations. For instance, height limitations and setbacks may depend on the proximity to lower intensity zoning districts. Conventional zoning commonly ignores the orientation of a building, allowing entries, garage openings and mechanical equipment to be located on any side. Form-based codes typically require entries to face the street, while garage openings and mechanical equipment are hidden from main streets.

Reference page 6 of the code packet available for download below.

Now, I know what you are thinking:  Where was this five years ago?  Well, my friend, I don’t have the answer to that, but it was conveyed by many of the council members that they had wished we had something like this in place years ago, and that if it wasn’t adopted, they would regret it in the future.

Some of the advantages outlines in the proposal are:

  • They describe what is allowed, in addition to setting limits and focusing on prohibited designs. This gives project designers a clearer picture of desired outcomes.
  • They better accommodate infill and redevelopment because of their focus on scale, orientation and other critical design elements.
  • They may specify specific architectural styles, materials and uses, which provides greater design predictability for property owners and neighbors.
  • They can be adapted to ensure compatibility in widely varying settings.
  • They are easy to apply in small communities because they do not require architectural expertise to use, interpret or administer.
  • They are more readily defensible than design guidelines and architectural review processes that involve more subjective decisions.

As part of the proposal, three independent site studies were conducted named Back Beach, Long Beach and Tidewater.  The Back Beach study is located on Back Beach Road, between Colina Drive and Pearl Avenue.  The Long Beach study is located on the north side of Front Beach Road, between Gulfside Drive and Henley Drive.  The Tidewater study is located north of and across Front Beach Road from the Tidewater Condominium Resort.  The study sites were used purely as examples with no necessary intention of this actually happening to these properties.

The Back Beach Road study sample currently consists of  24,000 sf of commercial space, 22,500 sf of manufacturing space and 0 sf of residential units.  Based on the Form-Based Code, the future development possibilities could include over 54,000 total square feet of commercial space and 14 residential units.  The actual building layout would be such that the parking would be in the back, away from pedestrian walkways with limited access.  This would enhance beautification and create a more pedestrian-friendly area.

The Long Beach study currently allows for 131,200 sf of commercial space and 27 residential units.  Based on the Form-Based Code, a over 249,000 sf of commercial space would be possible, with over 145 residential units.

The whole process would work on a tiered system.  Developers would be allowed greater density the more emphasis they put on beautification towards concealing that density.  One of the greatest examples of this in action is the way the Village of Baytowne Wharf was developed and the proposed plans for the Towne of Seahaven.  In Baytowne, the main parking garage is hidden on all sides and the top with walls, landscaping and residential units.  The side of the parking garage that is facing the “towne” part of the village is where retail is located and above that is residential.  In the center, which is actually the roof of the parking garage is the amenity area for the residential component, including lush landscaping, fitness center and the pool.

Look at Pier Park.  Notice the huge open parking areas in the back but where people congregate is beautified?  This is all intentional and is the direction the City of Panama City Beach is going.  This is an exciting step and much and long needed for our area.

Download the full Analysis of Opportunities here (7.3 mb)

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1 Mac March 2, 2009 at 1:17 pm

New guidelines would be nice, but the real issue is that the PCB Planning Board was brain dead for years. The evidence abounds with sex shops, strip joints, trash bars, no side walks, and underaged drunks at Spring Break. The new developers of condos and nice retail developments like Pier Park are the solution. Instead of pushing on new developers look around at the type of crap that has been PCB businesses. I own a very successful business in another State and you cannot become an upscale growing area until you weed out some of the dilapidated buildings and bars. Most businesses like Schum’ems does not even have grass in front of a new addition. Or a knocked out big sign that is never repaired. Who approved that last year? Is it okay to want the new developments to hide everything and let the rest look terrible? Pier Park and the airport is your biggest asset for growth. You cannot have upscale growth and be the Spring Break drunk & drug fest at the same time. Any comments?

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2 Jason Koertge March 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Couldn’t agree more Mac, thanks for you comment.

Anyone else?

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3 Jellen March 2, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I agree that too many businesses look scraggly. I’d like to see better rules about landscaping – and keeping up that landscaping. Litter control could be better in front of some businesses too. Sidewalks all along Front Beach and the rest of Thomas Drive would be wonderful. Did you see the condo-dwellers walking to the Pier Park Mardi Gras parade? They were in the street. It’s not safe to walk along Front Beach Road but with sidewalks, pedestrians would create a better atmosphere than the transient feel we have now.

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