Stillwater News Press

Local News

May 4, 2014

New direction for streets?

Program makes roads friendlier for pedestrians, cyclists and buses

STILLWATER, Okla. — New development in some areas of Stillwater may soon have to meet standards beyond traditional zoning concerns like use and density.

As cities struggle to deal with issues of urban sprawl and how to handle infill development more of them are turning to a philosophy called form-based code.

Mayor John Bartley has said the city is studying it.

The hallmarks of form-based code are higher density, mixed-use development, an emphasis on building forms and materials and the building of “complete streets” to make roads friendlier for cars, pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation.

Stillwater city officials, business leaders and residents got a primer in what makes a street complete when Dan Burden and Samantha Thomas of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute came to town last week.

They gave a presentation to explain the   concept then led a walk around the Campus  Corner area to illustrate how Stillwater streets stack up.

Some, like the Knoblock south of Fire Station No. 2, do it well.

Thomas said the curb extensions at the corner that accommodate flower beds and tree wells in the sidewalk create a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere and encourage cars to slow down.

Other streets could use improvement.

Thomas and Burden said they see a visibility problem with the decorative crosswalks installed on University Avenue south of the Oklahoma State University campus.

Although the block edging and tinted concrete is pleasing to the eye, it’s almost impossible for drivers to see them well when light is low in the early morning or at dusk.

Wider striping would give drivers more warning that someone could step into the street.

The placement of crosswalk activation buttons at the corners on University Avenue, which were at least 30 feet away from some of the crosswalks, encourages walkers to cross at the corner instead.

Moving the buttons would increase safety and make pedestrians more likely to use designated crosswalks, Burden said.

Planting grassy strips and street trees between sidewalks and roadways would make walking safer and encourage people to walk because it would be more enjoyable.

The complete street concept is part of a 30-year-old design philosophy called form-based code.

Although form-based code is relatively new, it attempts to recreate a type of development seen in older, urban areas.

Instead of focusing on how something will be used and applying numbers-based standards for setbacks, parking requirements and density, form based code focuses on the physical form of the buildings, their forms and their relationships to the surrounding environment.

“Current laws separate where we live from where we work, learn and shop and insist on big, fast roads to connect them all,” wrote the authors of the Form-based Codes Study on Placemakers.com.

The neighborhood is the basic unit in form-based code and mixed-use development is the standard.

Buildings might be closer to the street but if facades are broken up and have design elements to make them attractive, it doesn’t seem dense and people on the street feel safer, Burden said.

“The building actually watches over the street,” he said. “Some of what we’re talking about was completely normal for our grandparents.

“You have to have the right forms, not the boxes that have been built up in recent years.”

Form-based code also allows flexibility regarding things like the amount of parking required.

Buildings with different uses might share a parking lot, for example.

Parking lots go to the back, allowing the building to interact with the street, while green spaces and open space for recreation move to the front.

Increasing density makes public transportation more feasible as well.

It’s all designed to make a neighborhood more attractive and easier for people to live, work and play in without having to drive.

Form-based code makes cities more livable, increases property values and encourages private investment, Burden said.

Stillwater Transportation Director Jason Peek said roads are one of the city’s most significant investments.

“When we make an investment, are we getting a return on it?” he said.

Burden and Thomas said the way streets are built and striped can encourage people to slow down and drive more carefully or can move traffic more efficiently if human psychology is considered when designing them.

Thinking about how streets and buildings relate to the people who use them makes a difference in a community because adding beauty to something makes people take more ownership, Burden said.

Form-based code is often used to guide infill development in historic or established areas.

The city of Tulsa adopted form-based codes for the Pearl District that connects downtown Tulsa, Cherry Street and the University of Tulsa campus.

Stillwater recently adopted a plan to create a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly corridor connecting the OSU campus to downtown.

Burden and Thomas said they’ll return to Stillwater in the fall to get more community input.

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