Commentary by Eric Schaefer
Form-Based Code: Looks are everything
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.
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.’
“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.
- 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 envisionvallco.org site. It is a time-consuming job to compare that feedback with Opticos’ guiding principles, but that option is available to vigilant residents.