Downtown Las Vegas Form-Based Code: A Nevada First

by Roger E. Eastman, AICP and Spencer Johnson, CNU-A, Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc.

The City of Las Vegas has adopted the first Form-Based Code in the State of Nevada following two years of hard work, focused education of city staff, officials and local residents, and robust community engagement. This is a major step in implementing the city’s Vision 2045 Downtown Las Vegas Master Plan. City officials believe the new code will lead to a more compact, vibrant downtown and support sustainable growth and economic vitality. The enthusiastic reception of the new code is a result of an “educational and informed” approach which featured the Form-Based Code Institute’s (FBCI) comprehensive three-course curriculum on form-based codes.

Overshadowed for many years by the famous Las Vegas Strip to the south, Downtown Las Vegas is looking to the future and to achieve a more compact, vibrant urban environment with a focus on higher density mixed-use development around transit hubs and activity nodes. The City of Las Vegas adopted its Vision 2045 Downtown Las Vegas Master Plan (Master Plan) in July 2016 to re-energize and support the revitalization of its fading Downtown. The Master Plan establishes a framework for a more energetic urban lifestyle and a more attractive and inspiring physical environment for locals and visitors. To better anticipate growth and change, the Master Plan encompassed an expanded study area of approximately 2,800 acres and 12 downtown planning districts, including the addition of the Las Vegas Medical District, 18b Las Vegas Arts District, Fremont East District, and the Historic Westside District. (See Figure A, Districts Within the Downtown Las Vegas Overlay District). Each of the districts is unique with a wide range of demographics, building form, block patterns, development opportunities, local constraints, and character.

Figure A, Districts Within the Downtown Las Vegas Overlay District; Credit: City of Las Vegas

The first of 12 implementation actions proposed in the Master Plan is the “adoption [of] a form-based code … that implements the Master Plan through place-based standards”. While some City Planning Department staff had a general idea of what a form-based code (FBC) is, many did not fully understand how a FBC works, let alone how to implement one. Additionally, members of the Planning Commission and City Council were unfamiliar with this trending and effective zoning technique.

In April 2017, the city hired Lisa Wise Consulting Inc. (LWC) to lead the Downtown Form Based Code project and enable the creation of the human-scaled, walkable, mixed-use development envisioned in the Master Plan. LWC was part of the Downtown Master Plan team which focused on a detailed evaluation, community engagement, and recommendations on appropriate next steps.

Given the complex nature of the study area, the challenge for the city and the consultant was how to draft a FBC that embraced the unique characteristics of each district, while also streamlining and developing a consistent context-based FBC that would apply across all of the downtown area, especially considering the city’s limited budget. Three key priorities were established early in the process, Applicability, Phased Approach, and Education:

  1. Applicability: The FBC needed to be structured and applicable to all 12 districts (not 12 separate, independent FBCs) and organized so it could be inserted in the city’s online zoning code as a new Title 19;

  2. Phased Approach: Over the first 2-3 years of the project LWC would develop a FBC for the first four districts working closely with the city’s Planning Department staff, so that city staff could model the approach for the FBCs for the remaining districts;

  3. Education: Given the approach, it was critical that the Planning Department staff had a sound technical and practical understanding on how FBCs work and the requirements for implementation. The FBCI’s comprehensive three course curriculum was the most effective platform for educating staff, interested residents and developers, and civic leaders and elected officials about FBCs.

FBCI and the Form-Based Code Classes

Soon after the project started, a series of “hands-on”, interactive courses on form-based coding for city staff, members of the Planning Commission and City Council, developers, and interested members of the public were held.

The Form-Based Code Institute (FBCI) is a professional organization that is a program of Smart Growth America and dedicated to advancing the knowledge and use of, and develop standards for, FBCs as a method to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. In addition to developing standards for codes and advancing the practice of FBCs, FBCI conducts courses, workshops and webinars led by volunteer planners and architects who are experts in FBCs. The introductory classes were scheduled soon after the Downtown Las Vegas FBC began to ensure that everyone who would review, adopt, or implement the FBC understood the guiding principles and implications.

The city hosted five FBCI-curated courses over 18 months which attracted over 100 attendees, many of whom completed all three levels of training. Classes were attended by a range of individuals, from intrigued residents and property /business owners and operators, planning staff, and local developers eager to understand the mechanics of writing, adopting, and implementing a FBC. Classes also attracted members of the City Council and their staff, Planning Commissioners, local architects, and affordable housing advocates.

Credit: FBCI

Credit: FBCI

Credit: FBCI

What is a Form-Based Code?

FBCI defines a form-based code as “a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation”.

A FBC also addresses the relationship between building façades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. Standards in FBCs are presented primarily with clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals as well as supporting text keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, the character) of development, rather than only distinctions in land-use types.

This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the segregation of land uses, and the imprecise control of development intensity through tools like FAR, density, setbacks, parking ratios, etc. which do not regulate built form well.

The Downtown Las Vegas Form-Based Code

Of the 12 districts in the Master Plan area, the city identified the Las Vegas Medical District as a priority due to development pressures in the district, which is expected to become the premier medical campus in the southwestern United States. Developers, struggling with the existing development code and approval process, eagerly awaited the new FBC and more predictable outcomes it promised.

After developing a comprehensive outline and structure for Chapter 19.09 (Form-Based Code) of the Las Vegas Unified Development Code, LWC began developing standards for the Downtown Las Vegas FBC applicable to the Las Vegas Medical District. LWC and City staff initiated the effort with a comprehensive on-the-ground analysis of existing built conditions in the Medical District and other downtown districts (i.e. a micro-scale analysis) to understand the existing development pattern. The results of this analysis informed the standards for building types and frontage types in the FBC. LWC also developed transect zones for the FBC, which primarily regulate form and the relationship of buildings to each other and the public realm, rather than a conventional approach, which primarily regulates use. The transect zones are mapped on a zoning map (more precisely a “regulating plan”) and replace the base zones for the district.

Figure D: The Las Vegas Transect graphic; Credit: City of Las Vegas

The sections and standards of the Downtown Las Vegas FBC applicable to the Medical District were officially adopted on October 19, 2018. The FBC includes development standards and building types that are consistent with and complementary to the University of Nevada Las Vegas medical school, doctors’ offices, and the region’s two large hospitals. The FBC enables a variety of building types and development styles, a wide range of frontage types, and diversity of uses intended to preserve the district’s character while encouraging appropriate development.

The Las Vegas Planning Department staff were key participants in the process of writing, adopting, and eventually implementing Nevada’s first FBC. The city staff leveraged lessons from FBCI classes to participate in the documentation of existing built form, contributed to writing various portions of the FBC, managed the extensive public education and outreach effort to build support for the FBC, and guided the FBC through the extensive public hearing process required to amend the city’s master plan (general plan) and Unified Development Code.

Recently, LWC completed the Public Review Draft of the Fremont East District standards, the smaller, mixed-use entertainment hub located east of Las Vegas Boulevard and the Fremont Street Experience – which will be presented for adoption in spring 2019. Thereafter, the Project Team will commence work on the Historic Westside District and the 18b Las Vegas Arts District. Once these are completed, Las Vegas Planning Department staff will complete the FBC for the eight remaining districts.

The City of Las Vegas has taken a bold step to realize its vision for the downtown by updating the Unified Development Code with a FBC to support the vision for a walkable, human-scaled downtown that attracts and retains residents and visitors. LWC will continue to support the city’s planning staff with FBCs for the East Fremont, Historic Westside, and 18b Las Vegas Arts Districts, at which time planning staff will take over the process. The partnership between the City, LWC and FBCI to develop the Downtown Las Vegas FBC is model for future partnerships and projects in Las Vegas and throughout the country.

Few understood the possibilities of a form-based code when the City of Las Vegas confronted its downtown vision two years ago. There was hesitation and misunderstanding amid a much-needed change. It made all the difference when Lisa Wise Consulting rallied the city to enlist FBCI’s training program. Knowledgeable instructors walked residents and elected officials through the basics of form-based codes and advanced classes exposed practitioners to the intricacies of execution. The curriculum was tremendously effective for building community buy-in, administrative capacity, and overall competence of our new form-based code.
— Mike Howe, City of Las Vegas Planning Section Manager – Urban Design Coordinator

Authors: Roger E. Eastman, AICP and Spencer Johnson, CNU-A, Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc.

Roger E. Eastman, AICP, has over 28 years of land use planning experience in Arizona with an emphasis on writing effective land development/sign codes, development review, and long range planning. He served as Senior Planner for the City of Sedona, AZ for 15 years before joining the City of Flagstaff as Comprehensive Planning and Code Administrator. He retired from local government in 2016 to join Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc. (LWC), a California-based planning, zoning, and economics firm as Director of Development Codes and Planning. Roger has received several Arizona chapter awards for his work, including two for the comprehensive rewrite of the Flagstaff Zoning Code and was recognized by his colleagues in the Arizona chapter as the Distinguished Professional Planner of the Year in 2012. In August 2006 he completed the inaugural Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI) training, and now serves as vice-chair of the FBCI Steering Committee of Smart Growth America and teaches classes on Form-Based Codes. He has presented at national and chapter conferences and professional development workshops on form-based codes and related topics. Roger served on the Board of the Arizona Planning Association from 2015-2018 as Director at Large and Chapter Professional Development Officer, and currently serves as Chapter Treasurer.

Spencer Johnson, CNU-A is an Associate Planner/Designer with Lisa Wise Consulting, Inc., where he focuses on long-range planning, urban and graphic design, hybrid codes, and land use economics. Spencer has worked on a wide range of high profile projects at LWC, including those with a strong New Urbanist approach. He has been appointed Deputy Project Manager on several LWC projects, including the Las Vegas Downtown Form-Based Code, where he helped facilitate formal educational activities, drafted development standards, and documented and analyzed development patterns and conditions in the Downtown. In January 2018, Spencer earned the Congress for the New Urbanism accreditation (CNU-A) through the University of Miami School of Architecture and he currently serves as the San Luis Obispo Subsection Director of the American Planning Association (APA), California Central Coast Section.

Paul Moberly