Character-Based Zoning: What Could it Mean for Birmingham?

If the changes are made, historic areas such as Morris Ave. could potentially be designated as character districts. Photo By Andy Montgomery

Proposed Character-Based Zoning Code Addition

An additional chapter to the City of Birmingham’s Zoning Code could soon be put in place — Chapter 10, character-based code. The Birmingham City Council could vote to approve the changes as early as February.

“The intent of this Character-Based Code is to provide for walkable, mixed-use, character-based, development and redevelopment within any or all of the mixed-use areas identified in the City’s Comprehensive Plan/Future Land Use Plan,” according to the 163-page proposal that details the changes.

The Comprehensive Plan that was adopted by the Birmingham City Council in 2013 calls for mixed-use areas to be identified; these are the areas that are most likely to be impacted by the character-based zoning changes. The stated goal is to maximize functionality while improving the “feel” or “character” of an area within the city.

In the proposed changes, building elements from porches to windows, to walls and doors, are detailed, showing how future development in these designated areas should be designed and implemented.

One area that Tim Gambrel, zoning administrator for the city of Birmingham, pointed out as being a prime example of character-based zoning district is a development on 20th Street South that houses restaurants (Momma Goldberg’s, Glory Bound Gyro Co.), retail and residential units above. The mixed-use development is located directly adjacent to the Rotary Trail, an urban walking trail that has added character and utility to the surrounding area.

Example of mixed-use development in Birmingham

“One of the key things about character code is it looks more at the form and design of buildings than it does separation of uses,” Gambrel explained during last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting. “The goal of that is to create a place that has a special character, a mixed-use, walkable district that people find really interesting…places like Five Points South. The key component is that the buildings are at the edge of the street and it creates an environment that is human scale. People can adapt to it and be comfortable there.”

Five Points South, Photo By Dystopos, Flickr Commons

Another goal of the character-based code amendments would be to increase density in urban areas and limit the amount of times people must use their cars to go to the store or go shopping. By fostering strong, urban development, city officials hope to improve the quality of life for all of Birmingham’s citizens.

In the coming weeks, Gambrel will be meeting individually with city councilors to discuss the potential character-based zoning changes and how those can be implemented in their districts.

The following building are several examples of composition standards that shall apply to all buildings in a Character District under the Character-Based Code.

1. Buildings of two or more stories shall be designed to have a defined base, middle, and top with an articulated cornice and roof. On buildings of more than three stories, the top shall also include the upper story.

2. The design of the base of a building, as well as the quality and durability of its materials, shall be emphasized.

3. Base expression line locations shall depend on the overall height of the building, with such expression line usually occurring above the first floor on two story Buildings and either the first or second floor for buildings taller than two stories.

Illustration from proposed character-code

4. The upper expression line shall occur below the upper floor windows. The windows within the top may be square or shorter than those of the floors below.

5. Expression lines shall consist of a continuous, shallow balcony, a short setback, or a slightly articulated trim course.

Character District Distinctions

There will be three different types of character districts categorized by the size and density of the development, according to the proposed changes — CD-4, CD-5, and CD-6.

Illustration from proposed character-based code

The CD-4 General Urban District consists of a medium density area that has a mix of building types and residential, retail, office and other commercial uses; there are medium, shallow or no front setbacks and narrow to medium side setbacks; it has variable private landscaping; and it has streets with curbs, sidewalks, and Thoroughfare Trees that define medium-sized blocks.

Block Perimeter: 2400 ft. max

Density: 43 Density Units per acre (gross, max)

Lot Coverage: 70 percent max

Illustration from proposed character-based code

The CD-5 Urban Center District consists of higher density mixed-use areas. It has a tight network of thoroughfares with wide sidewalks and regular thoroughfare tree spacing, defining medium-sized blocks. Buildings are set close to the sidewalks.

Block Perimeter: 2000 ft. max

Density: 87 Density Units per acre (gross, max)

Lot Coverage: 80 percent max

Illustration from proposed character-based code

The CD-6 Urban Core District is the highest density area and features predominantly attached buildings forming a continuous street wall and accommodating mixed uses, as well as entertainment, civic and cultural uses. Thoroughfares have wide sidewalks and steady thoroughfare tree planting. Buildings are set at close to the sidewalk.

Block Perimeter: 2000 ft. max

Density: Not regulated

Lot Coverage: 90 percent max

Character Districts Design Review Process

The proposed changes are also set up to streamline the design review process for properties that fall within the boundaries of a defined character district.

An applicant will submit a design review application — for signage, store frontage etc. — to the Urban Design Staff (UDS) with the City of Birmingham. The UDS will the review the application and if it is completed properly it will then be reviewed for compliance.

If the application complies with all the character-based guidelines it will be approved and the applicant will be notified. However, if some specific design questions are raised by the UDS, the staff will seek additional input from the Design Review Committee (DRC) — an 11-member sub-board of the Birmingham Planning and Zoning Committee. The UDS will then approve or deny the application after additional input is received from the DRC.

If some form of modification is required, the application will be forwarded to the DRC who will then recommend granting or denying the modifications that were made.

These proposed changes have not yet been finalized and are subject to change, however slightly, before it is brought to the full council for a vote.

Tweets from The Birmingham City Council in Birmingham, Alabama