The Madisonville neighborhood in Cincinnati is daring to dream big because of the city's new form-based code. Jeremy Glover/WCPO.com
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Cincinnati's recently approved form-based code gives neighborhoods new hope

'Dream big, expect better'

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CINCINNATI - The way Sara Sheets sees it, Cincinnati City Council has given Madisonville a reason to dream big through a new kind of zoning called form-based code.

That's because council's vote to approve Cincinnati Form-Based Code on May 8 provided Madisonville and three other city neighborhoods a new tool for spurring development in a way that preserves their communities' character.

"Form-based code gets neighborhood residents to think about the best that their neighborhood could be," said Sheets, executive director of the Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corp.

"Especially in neighborhoods like Madisonville that have seen so much disinvestment, this really allows us to dream big and expect better."

Here's how: Form-based code requires communities to think and plan upfront to envision the kind of growth and development they want. While conventional zoning focuses on the use of a project being proposed – such as residential or industrial – form-based code instead considers the physical properties of a community and what else is there.

The tool is a great fit for Cincinnati and its neighborhoods because it focuses on building compact communities where homes are within walking distance of shops, restaurants, offices and entertainment spots, said Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

Qualls argues that Cincinnati's mixed-used neighborhoods are a competitive advantage, especially now that there's a strong demand in the real estate market for those kinds of communities.

"The majority of Cincinnati's neighborhoods were built to be that way," said Qualls, who has been working since 2008 to bring form-based codes to the city. "The irony is that if you took current conventional zoning codes, you wouldn't be able to build Cincinnati's great neighborhoods today. And that's the problem."

The first four city neighborhoods to implement the code will be Madisonville, College Hill, Walnut Hills and Westwood. Each neighborhood raised $10,000 to help pay the costs of developing a community plan as part of the process, Sheets said.

Other neighborhoods interested in using form-based code can notify city officials, Qualls said, although they, too, will have to help pay for the planning process.

While the planning process takes time, the neighborhoods that have gone through it now know exactly the type of development they want to attract, Qualls said.

For developers, that should mean faster approvals as long as their proposed projects match what the neighborhoods want.

"It actually is much more responsive to the market, and it's responsive to the fact that time is money so developers know what the road map is and they know this is what the community has agreed to," Qualls said.

Community development corporations and the city also own lots of property in several of the neighborhoods, which should speed development, too, she said.

The Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., in fact, will soon be looking for a company to develop a project in the south block of Madison Road and Whetsel Avenue, Sheets said. The corporation will issue a request for qualifications in the coming weeks.

The goal is to get a development that combines market-rate housing, office space and retail, she said.

"We're getting a lot of calls for office space," Sheets said. "And we want market rate apartments. We want the young professionals working at Fifth Third, Coca Cola or Medpace to choose Madisonville so they can bike to work if they want."

If form-based code works for Madisonville the way Sheets thinks it will, the new zoning tool will help the neighborhood make that dream come true.

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