Zoning Practice — December 2010

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Bret Keast, AICP, author of the December 2010 Zoning Practice article "Defining and Measuring Community Character."

Question from Lisa M. Gilleran, AICP, Herndon, Virginia:

I am with the Town of Herndon, Virginia, and we are anticipating the arrival of Metrorail in 2016 or 2017. The town is currently working with VHB/LRK to develop an area plan for the portion of town adjacent to the future station. The future station will be within the median of the Dulles Toll/Access Road with pedestrian bridges to both the north side and south side of the Dulles Toll Road. Only the north side of the toll road is in the Town of Herndon. The Council and members of the community are very interested in creating a unique environment/experience that tells people exiting Metro and arriving on the north side of the station that they are in Herndon and Herndon is a separate jurisdiction with its own history and character. The pedestrian bridge and associated pavilion will be designed by Metro and will follow their architectural standard, so we must achieve the expression of community character in another manner.

I was wondering if you know of any communities that have achieved such a goal in a creative manner and if so how have they defined and shaped the experience for people entering the community?

Answer from author Bret Keast, AICP:

First, I appreciate you taking the time to pose a question following your review of my Zoning Practice article on Measuring Community Character. To provide more background on the thesis and depth of community character you may refer to our books entitled, Community Character, Principles for Design and Planning and A Practical Guide to Planning for Community Character, both of which are available through Island Press or Amazon.

The purpose of my article is to provide definition to the term community character. Often, it is used (or in the context of this article, misused) to describe architectural or aesthetic design treatments. This is not to say that these are not important ingredients in establishing a certain aesthetic or design theme for an area. These are important but only after the intended development character is determined. As described in this article, community character relates to the pattern, scale, and intensity of development and most importantly, the relative balance of grey spaces (buildings, parking and other impervious surfaces), green spaces (green space, resources, and pervious areas), and buildings (scale, spacing, placement).

In the case of the forthcoming Metrorail station and in the context of community character, a first step would be to define the existing character of the area. Without knowing the precise location of the station, from a quick view of Google Earth, it appears the frontage of the Dulles Toll/Access Road is of an auto-urban character. This is due to the auto-oriented nature of development by way of relatively dense residential areas that are highly patterned (consistent lot frontages, setbacks, unit separation, driveway spacing, etc.) with limited common open space and fairly significant percentages of the sites used for driveways and on-site surface parking (plus the streets). For these areas to be sub-urban they would have either larger lots (12,000 to 15,000 square feet) or an increased percentage (20 percent-plus) of common open space. Urban neighborhoods would have a higher density, use of alleyways, and street and/or structured parking. In the case of the nonresidential development, it too, is of an auto-urban character by way of individual, (what appears to be) mostly single-use sites with broad setbacks, on-site parking, and a high percentages of "gray space." Definition of the existing character with certain measures used to distinguish it from other character types may help the community decide on the type of future development character.

Depending on the community context and character intent, transit station development is commonly of an urban character. By this I mean an increased development intensity by way of greater FARs, building enclosure creating a walkable pedestrian streetscape, limited surface parking in favor of on-street and, when feasible, structured parking, and often vertically integrated uses. However, depending on market viability and the community state and scale, it may also be a suburban village, which is less intense, may have some surface together with on-street and structured parking, and is set around civic space such as a village green. It would be useful during the decision-making process to provide examples to help illustrate the differences between these and other character types (again, not confusing character with architecture and aesthetics) to enable the community to make informed, deliberate decisions. You are in good hands with your talented design team to help guide the community through this process of determining what is most appropriate and preferred in Herndon.