Commentary by Eric Schaefer

The 2018 design process for Vallco uses form-based codes (FBC) and charrettes.* The process provides the appearance of community engagement but could very well yield a design that is at odds with the desires of residents.

Form-Based Code: Looks are everything

Opticos, the consultant conducting the community engagement process for Vallco provides this definition of FBC at Form-based codes foster 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. These codes are adopted into city or county law as regulations, not mere guidelines. Form-based codes are an alternative to conventional zoning. (

Note that physical form is the criterion. Use doesn’t count. As long as it looks the part, a project could be anything.

What looks like a coffee shop could be a company’s employee break room. Looks like a public plaza? With FBC it could be a parking lot. That single-family home? Might be a sports bar.

A colleague pointed out that we saw something similar with the adverts for Measure D (“The Hills at Vallco”). The brochures I received showed a physical form (places) where people could shop, dine, congregate for leisure experiences, and picnic in orchards. The brochures didn’t explain that Measure D would decrease the space for retail/leisure activities and dedicate the overwhleming majority of space to office use. FBC isn’t just a design device — it replaces zoning in the municipal code.

What looks like community engagement could be community appeasement

Lolita Buckner, Associate Professor at the Cleveland-Marshall School of Law notes how FBC and the charrette process sounds like community engagement but actually disenfranchises the people it is purported to serve:

“The hallmark of form-based code is collaboration, and that’s supposed to be where a bunch of people get together and we all talk, and we all talk about what it is that ‘we’ want. First of all, the ‘we’ is never too well or fully formulated, and as Carol mentioned, you might get to go to one of those meetings if you hear about it. You might even get to talk at one of those meetings. But all too often, there are organized and very much predetermined ideas about what’s going to happen. And you might even be at one of those meetings and think you’re hearing what the opposition is, but when you get the packaged summary, ‘Huh? I didn’t think that was the sense of that discussion.’ The charrette, all too often, and I heard this at a conference I attended back in Houston with Randal, someone in the audience said, ‘The charrette? Where I live we call it the ‘charade’!’ And that’s all too often the case. And yet, this is supposed to be the hallmark of what goes on with form-based code plans.’

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“In this charrette process, in which the community is supposed to participate, most people are ultimately left out.”

Examples in the Vallco design process

At this point in the design process, Opticos has hosted three events: a kick-off meeting, interviews, and a feedback session. In that time, we’ve seen Opticos push some predetermined ideas and do a mediocre job of collecting input from local residents:

  • About 100 people were selected for interviews but the selection criteria was not clear.
  • Many people are still unaware that Vallco is being designed, and their options for participation are limited.
  • Non-locals (from SF, East Bay) have participated in the design process. Only at the most recent (March 13) meeting, after strident complaints from some residents, did Opticos make some attempt to identify legitimate stakeholders.
  • At the March 13 feedback meeting where participants voted on their agreement with guiding principles of the plan, the Opticos moderator prefaced many votes with his suggestion of what is appropriate.
  • Opticos’ summaries of input do not accurately reflect actual public input and tend towards the developer’s ideas for Vallco.
Consider how the public input from the February 5 kick-off meeting was not reflected in the ‘guiding principles’ that Opticos prepared for the March 13 meeting:
  • People suggested trees, parks, and open spaces, but these items were not mentioned in Opticos’ guiding principles. They mention ‘civic and gathering spaces of various sizes,’ but that’s not quite the same.
  • Less than half of the table groups at the February 5 meeting (seven of 16 groups) mentioned ‘office,’ ‘commercial,’ or ‘working’ space in their vision of what Vallco should be. Nevertheless, the March 13 guiding principles suggest that as much office could be added as was balanced by housing to maintain Cupertino’s current  jobs-to-housing ratio.

To Opticos’ credit, unedited feedback from public participation is published at the site. It is a time-consuming job to compare that feedback with Opticos’ guiding principles, but that option is available to vigilant residents.

*A charrette is a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.
Source: The Façade of New Urbanism & the Form-Based Code, from PRFA’s Twelfth Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights, October 18, 2008; Lolita Buckner Inniss, J.D., L.L.M., Associate Professor of Law, Cleveland-Marshall School of Law, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio