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Auburn crafting form-based code to spur development in downtown, Old Town areas

Reposted from the Sacramento Business Journal, read original here.


Ben van der Meer, Senior Reporter, Sacramento Business Journal

April 20. 2023 6:24am PDT


City of Auburn


The city of Auburn is in the process of adopting a form-based code for its downtown and Old Town areas, as a way to make it easier for developers to know what's likely to get approved. That's included city workshops with residents, such as the one shown here.

For developers apprehensive about proposing projects in Auburn'soldest areas, there's a movement underway to give them a roadmap to success. The city is crafting a form-based code, an overlay on zoning, to provide a guide to the types of buildings that will get approval to fit alongside existing century-plus-old structures and architecture.

"We would be most successful if we establish a mainstream of what's acceptable, and we have an opportunity to streamline the process," said Genevieve Marsh, an urban designer with her own firm who's also serving as the project lead.

Currently in the outreach phase to residents, the form-based code would have more emphasis on allowable buildings than what use they'd have. The code would apply to an area of roughly 200 acres encompassing both downtown Auburn along Highway 49 and the historic Old Town Auburn area off Interstate 80.

Jonathan Wright, Auburn's community and economic development director, said current city zoning codes date to 1973. A form-based code would be a step toward helping the city modernize its older areas while retaining their character, he said.

He gave the example of a developer who wanted to build a chain pharmacy store in downtown Auburn, with a conventional style of such stores and the accompanying requirements for setbacks and other conditions. If the store later closed, he said, the city is left with a large building that's both empty and out of sync with its surroundings.

With a form-based code, he could show developers a prescriptive design for a building likely to be approved, he said, making them more likely to pursue a project under it.

To create the codes, Marsh took inventory of the city's existing buildings within its downtown and Old Town areas. That will create a toolbox for developers to use, Wright said.

Marsh is leading the outreach effort, which includes both public meetings and workshops to discuss the process. She's also surveyed residents and learned they'd like to see more buildings with a mix of uses in its oldest areas, such as housing above street retail.

"Our greatest opportunity is also our greatest challenge, and that is walkability," she said. In addition, she's also established kiosks in downtown and Old Town that include QR code links to learn more, as a way to meet people where they are rather than hoping they come to meetings.

Formal adoption of the code could come by fall 2024, Wright said. Once it's adopted, both he and Marsh said they're confident they'll see new developments pop up that follow it.

"In looking at our building stock, we've got a lot of potential for buildings that could use major renovations and a decent number of sites that are vacant or lined up for redevelopment," Marsh said, adding, "We're testing building types so that they actually pencil out. It's super important that this is really realistic."

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