Form Based Code Case Study

Amenities Plan showing public parks, bikelanes, open space and other public amenities

Regulating Plan

In conjunction with the Corporation's selected developer's (The LNR Property Corporation) Master Plan for the Naval Air Station, the Zoning and Land Use Bylaw are intended to promote the development of Southfield in accordance with the Regulating or "Reuse" Plan and the associated Development Program. The Development Program outlines the intensity of the development over three (3) phases of implementation and also lists the required public improvements in an Amenities Plan. Since most the former naval airbase is being redeveloped and phased according to the Reuse Plan, developers are responsible for completing the parking facilities, streetscape improvements, as well as the open space and recreational amenities outlined in the Regulating Plan. The Regulating Plan also designates specific locations within the redevelopment areas for public amenities ranging from passive recreational trails and wildlife viewing areas, to campsites, community centers and outdoor recreational facilities. Stops and a route have also been identified for a multi-modal transportation center and shuttle system , along with public school sites and village center parking lots. This broad-based approach is consistent with the development of new communities, or redevelopment of larger areas within an existing community.

Consistent with the Reuse and Amenities Plan, a variety of urban to rural zoning districts were identified using an Urban Transect as an approach to establishing a new community. The corresponding zoning districts fall into two (2) separate target areas: the Central Redevelopment Area and the Perimeter Area. Within the Central Redevelopment Area there are eight (8) different Zoning Districts and two (2) Overlay Districts as follows:

Transect-Based Zoning Map

  1. Village Center District: This district is located centrally within the Base and is characterized by New England traditional neighborhood design. This district is intended for mixed-use, containing the highest density of housing allowed in the bylaw, as well as office, commercial, and retail spaces such as convenience stores, restaurants and shops.
  2. Main Street Overlay District:  The purpose of this district is to ensure that first floor active uses (such as retail and restaurant uses) are located along the two (2) main streets of the Village Center District.
  3. Mixed-Use Village District:  The primary purpose of this district is to provide a mix of residential housing types with some neighborhood commercial uses, including retail and restaurants. The density of residential uses in the district is less than the Village Center District, with fewer commercial uses.
  4. Residential District:  This district serves to accommodate a lower density of housing types.
  5. Shea Village Commercial District:  This district is the commercial center of the Base.
  6. Shea Village Transition Overlay District:  The purpose of this district is to create an appropriate transition in the scale of buildings within ¼ mile of where this district meets the Village Center District.
  7. Golf Course/Open Space District:  The purpose of this district is to facilitate operation of a public golf course and associated uses, including a club house and golf-related retail operation, and other recreational uses. If, for any reason, the golf course is not built, the only other permitted uses for the district are open space and recreational uses.
  8. Recreation District:  This district is established to foster passive and active indoor and outdoor recreational uses on the Base and will house some institutional uses already existing and required within the Base.
  9. Open Space-Corporation District:  The primary purpose of this district is to encourage the preservation of large contiguous wetland areas and open space for park land, active and passive recreation, reservations, community gardens, rivers and streams, and similar uses.
  10. Coast Guard District:  This district is the area currently used by the United States Coast Guard for housing.

Within the Perimeter Area there are three separate "open space" districts that correspond to each of the member towns - Abington, Rockland and Weymouth. Shown as light grey in Figure 3, the primary purpose of these districts are to provide an open space area along the perimeter of the Base boundary, and to encourage the preservation of large, contiguous wetland areas and open space for park land, active and passive recreation, reservations, community gardens, rivers and streams, and similar uses. In summary, the boundaries of these perimeter zoning districts correspond to the separate Transect zones moving from the intensive commercial uses in the "urban core" (i.e. Shea Village Commercial District), to the pedestrian-oriented "general urban" zone (i.e. Village Commercial and Mixed-Use Village District), and then outward to the "suburban" zone (i.e. Residential and Coast Guard Districts) to the "rural edge" zone with its five (5) open space districts.

Building Form Standards

The Table of Dimensional Regulations establishes twelve (12) separate uses with mandatory "Building Form" requirements. Uses such as townhouses, single family houses, apartments, mixed-use buildings, anchor retail, neighborhood commercial, office and commercial, light industrial, and biopharmaceutical manufacturing each include detailed text, tables, images and illustrations explaining the intention of the specific codes requirements for lot size, building setbacks, frontage requirements, building height and parking requirements. Simple and clear graphic descriptions for building height, how a building is placed on site, and building elements (such as location of out buildings, porches, drives, etc.) are used to control development.

The Building Form for "Anchor Retail" permit awnings within the public right-of-way and establish "build-to" lines for the frontyard setback of the building. Exceptions are provided for projects that include arcades and entrances are required along the primary street. At least 75% of the front building wall must be transparent with windows and all parking must be located in the rear. Along the side of the building, a five (5) foot landscape strip is required to soften the edge of the sidewalk and provide a planting bed or turf belt for public shade trees and sitting areas. Finally, all parking and loading areas are required to be located at the rear of the property thereby enhancing the pedestrian environment along the main street entrance.

In summary, the Building Forms provide an enhanced understanding of how building placement, height and design fit into the Reuse Plan for the district. Importantly, if a use does not have a corresponding building form, a conventional Table of Dimensional Regulations serves as the default dimensional requirements for that particular use. Thus, in addition to incorporating conventional zoning concepts of height, lot area and frontage, the Building Forms include flexible frontyard setbacks, lot sizes and mandatory access, driveway, and parking lot requirements in an effort to reflect "smart growth" development principles that enhance pedestrian activity within the public realm.

Example Building Forms for "Anchor Retail"

Administrative Review

As delineated in the Reuse Plan, the Base is divided into a Central Redevelopment Area and Perimeter Areas. According to the Enabling Legislation and consistent with the 1998 Bylaw, the Corporation has the authority to administer and enforce the Reuse Plan, Bylaw and Regulations (i.e. Subdivision Rules and Regulations or Architectural Design Standards and Guidelines) within the boundaries of the Central Redevelopment Area. The Applicable Town Boards of each Town have the authority to administer and enforce the Reuse Plan, Bylaw and Regulations within the boundaries of that portion of the Perimeter Area located within each Town.

Within the Central Redevelopment Area, site plan review is required for all uses whereas larger developments, or uses requiring special permits, require a more comprehensive review. In the Perimeter Area the associated towns have administrative and enforcement jurisdiction. The specific requirements with respect to the contents of a detailed plan are set forth in the regulations, and include, without limitation, the following materials:

  1. preliminary site construction plans showing the location of proposed buildings, lot lines, blocks, streets, parking areas and open space, along with zoning district boundaries;
  2. a proposed mix of uses and development program;
  3. tables showing total land area and wetlands and compliance with applicable dimensional and parking requirements;
  4. an analysis of the circulation system;
  5. an analysis of transportation, utility, drainage, and other required infrastructure systems; and
  6. a timetable for the construction of each development component.

The approval of a development plan is a pre-requisite to the filing of any applications for special permits or for site plan approval, as it may be related to a larger development. For purposes of streamlining the project review, however, proponents of a plan containing uses that require the issuance of special permits or site plan approval may file these applications with the proposed plan, and the applications will be reviewed simultaneously. Once a development plan is approved, the uses and development described therein are considered as-of-right (unless the use is otherwise required to obtain a special permit and subject always to site plan review). Similar to the member Town's Bylaws, the Southfield Zoning also contains provisions regarding the following subject matters: Water Resource Protection; Wireless Communication; Nonconforming Uses and Structures; Appeals; Earth Removal; Subdivision; and Plan Revisions.

Public Space / Street Standards

Streetscape Standards for Narrow Neighborhood Streets

Other than the specific requirements listed on the individual building forms, the bylaw refers to the Subdivision Rules and Regulations ("Regulations") which is used to define and design all public improvements including, but not limited to, streets, sidewalks, bicycle facilities, lighting, stormwater management and landscaping. Using FBCs, these regulations provide a comprehensive array of diagrams, maps and images to clarify the design standards associated with each public improvement.

Streetscape Design: The streetscape design regulations include requirements for the design and layout of streets, blocks and traffic networks as well as provisions for traffic calming measures, street furniture, bicycle facilities, and sidewalks.

The design requirements for constructing a narrow neighborhood street. Notably, the diagrams illustrate the relationship between the frontyard setback, or "build-to" line, and the sidewalks, turf belt and parking areas along the street. Street tree locations are clear and species lists and installation guidelines are provided under the landscaping standards. Similarly, the regulations provide detailed design standards for traffic calming measures, including, but not limited to, mini-circles, roundabouts, road humps, medians, raised crosswalks and intersection bulb-outs (also shown in Figure 5). Provisions also include design standards for the construction of on and off-street bicycle lanes, sidewalks, on-street parking, and cul-de-sac design. Finally, the Regulations also include provisions for public street furniture such as benches, bicycle racks, bollards and trash receptacles.

Lighting: The lighting plan regulations include specifications for outdoor public lighting and detailed provisions for parking lots, residential developments and neighborhood alleys.

Stormwater Management: The stormwater management regulations provide a range of illustrative diagrams and design standards for drainage systems, including many Low Impact Development (LID) techniques like bioretention, water quality swales and other biofilters.

Biofilter Adjacent to Roadway

Landscaping Image - Main Street

Landscaping:  The landscape regulations are organized around a series of principles that are intended to protect the unique features of the site while incorporating as many of these elements and other features of the regional context into the built environment. The guidelines are divided into two (2) main categories of requirements: general aesthetic requirements and specific development controls. The general aesthetic requirements provide direction on subjective issues such as the character of a location, type of surface, orientation, and treatment of spaces and relationships among elements. The specific development controls govern the quantitative issues such as spacing, size of plants, systems, specifications and details.

Definitions / Glossary

Although the Bylaw does not use illustrations or graphics within the definitions, it does provide an extensive glossary of definitions to ensure a precise use of the technical terms. Helpful definitions are also provided in the associated Regulations. These cover a wide array of terms and procedures ranging from calculating finished grades and impervious areas, to characterizing specific architectural design elements such as balustrades, lintels, and water tables.

Architectural Design Standards

Other than some general references to the design and use of the development, the Bylaw itself does not specifically address the issue of architectural standards for controlling external architectural materials and the overall quality and character of the development. However, similar to other land use regulations in Massachusetts, the Bylaw references the associated Regulations which are drafted and adopted outside the Zoning Bylaw. Adopted in 2006, the Architectural and Urban Design Standards and Guidelines contain detailed regulations that regulate the design and character of all development within Southfield. In general, the standards and guidelines regulate the building façade, orientation, proportion and scale, walls, articulation (i.e. arches, columns, piers, etc.), windows, roofs, and materials. Wide-ranging standards are also included for the design of parking, signs, open space, gardens, walls, fences and hedges across all designated building forms and land uses.

The intent of the standards and guidelines is to preserve and encourage a high quality public realm. Importantly, the standards and guidelines draw upon regional examples of historic New England towns, and reflect the principles of Traditional Neighborhood Development and smart growth in determining street layout and design, mix of uses, building placements and architectural character. The standards and guidelines contain mandatory and recommended provisions. Mandatory provisions are obligatory and failure to incorporate mandatory provisions constitutes grounds for denial of an application. In contrast, recommended provisions suggest guidance on preferred design elements, but failure to incorporate recommended provisions is not grounds for denial of an application. Further, the standards and guidelines are based on the application of traditional urban planning and design techniques and several documents are recommended in the regulations for guidance. Notably, projects are not required to comply with the design specifics of the recommended texts and illustrations as they are intended for reference and guidance only.


In translating their Reuse Plan into the Zoning Bylaw, Southfield has established one of the most innovative and comprehensive set of form-based regulations in Massachusetts. By working closely with the selected developer for the former Naval Air Station, the Corporation was able to establish work collaboratively and draft a workable Zoning Bylaw knowing that implementation was all but certain from the selected developer. Thus, the illustrative form-based zoning bylaw and associated regulations (including but not limited to the Architectural and Urban Design Standards and Guidelines, Subdivision Rules and Regulations, Sustainability, Affordable and Workforce Housing, Wetlands Protection ,and Administrative Rules and Regulations) for Southfield stand as one of the first comprehensive form-based zoning bylaws in Massachusetts. The Bylaw represents an innovate alternative to conventional zoning regulations. Coupling the flexible use regulations with specific dimensional regulations underscores the importance of "built form" and its integral relationship to creating a flourishing public realm over time. This approach provides a useful template of how other Massachusetts communities could form a collaborative partnership with a selected developer in order to translate their community master plans for new town centers or other special redevelopment areas into a form-based code.

Further Information

For more information on Southfield's Form-Based Code, please contact Jim Young at the South Shore Tri-Town Corporation at or 781-682-2187 x102. In addition, you can view the Bylaw here.

In December 2004, the second phase was completed. It included revisions to the Zoning Map to guide development over the next twenty years toward appropriate locations across a variety of distinct neighborhoods, as designated in the Master Plan. As shown in Figure 1, the new map rezones the entire city using a new set of zoning districts that are designed to reflect the existing character of the city's neighborhoods on a block-by-block basis and regulate new development to respect and complement the existing neighborhood character.

More recently, in April 2006, the City adopted a comprehensive revision of the Zoning Ordinance including provisions of Form-Based Codes (FBCs). The primary purpose of using FBCs in the Ordinance was to discourage inappropriate infill development and tear-downs of existing historic structures in established residential neighborhoods. It was also undertaken to allow new development to reflect existing neighborhood character and implement the goals of the Master Plan including expanding housing opportunities and stimulating economic development in the downtown and outlying commercial districts.

Regulating Plan

Consistent with the goals and objectives of the City's Master Plan, the City adopted a new transect-based zoning map with single and mixed-use districts established along with new use and dimensional controls, including the use of FBCs for detailing particular design elements like setbacks, height, open space and off-street parking areas. The City is divided into seven (7) types of residential, six (6) types of commercial and mixed-use, and five (5) types of office, industrial and special purpose districts. Adhering to an adaptation of Duany's "Urban Transect", three types of residential neighborhoods are delineated: suburban, traditional neighborhoods, and urban communities.

Lowell's Transect-Based Neighborhood Zoning Map

The transect-based Zoning Map divides the city into new districts based upon the existing character of the city's neighborhoods. The map corresponds with specific FBCs for setbacks, height, open space and off-street parking regulations that vary across a transect of neighborhood districts. Neighborhood types are defined to reflect a distinct neighborhood character. Overall, there are two (2) "Suburban" residential districts, four (4) "Traditional Neighborhood" districts, two (2) "Urban Neighborhood" districts, as well as six (6) commercial districts and five (5) office or industrial districts located across an urban transect.

Supplementing the Zoning Map, the Table of Uses (PDF Link) regulates the type of buildings or land uses that can be constructed within each neighborhood district along the transect while the Table of Dimensional Regulations (PDF Link) controls how these uses and buildings relate to the public realm or streetscape through a form-based set of dimensional controls.

Frontyard Setback

Building Form Standards

IIn developing FBCs, the city sought to establish mandated design standards in the Table of Dimensional Regulations for a host of front facade treatments such as building setback, height, landscaping, parking and garage placement.

Based on a comprehensive analysis across the main neighborhood types, these specific frontyard dimensional standards were calibrated to the neighborhood context. In conjunction with the Table of Dimensional Controls, Figure 2 illustrates how the code defines the frontyard setbacks for a variety of building elements (such as porches, stoops, projections and garages). FBCs are also used to regulate site landscaping and open space as well as a variety of other dimensional controls such as lot width, building height, and parking lot design.

Using the Table of Dimensional Regulations to define urban or building form standards, the ordinance allows multiple frontyard setbacks, particularly within the traditional or older neighborhood districts. Realizing the limitations of standardizing the dimensional requirements across distinct neighborhoods within the same zone, the ordinance also provides exemptions for building height and frontyard setback based on the height or setback of abutting buildings. This provides better continuity along the public realm and maintains the overall character of a street or block within a larger neighborhood zoning district.

Similarly, the FBCs also include innovative provisions to permit new buildings or additions to buildings to be "offset" within the sideyard setbacks. In this case, new buildings or additions are still required to meet a minimum sideyard setback, but are permitted to place the new building or additions much closer to one side of the property - more in character with the other existing buildings within the neighborhood. Additionally, the Table of Dimensional Regulations has specific limitations on the setback for front-facing garage doors and frontyard landscaping is also required in order to maintain or enhance the existing neighborhood streetscape.

In summary, although specific illustrative "Building Form Standards" have not been developed for the Lowell ordinance, the transect-based requirements listed in the Table of Dimensional Regulations produces a similar design outcome. By expanding the definition of frontyard setbacks across five main building elements (minimum and maximum setbacks, projections, porches and garages), providing a range of sideyard setbacks, a minimum usable open space provision as well as two regulations governing the height of a building, the Lowell Ordinance represents a partial application of FBCs. Moreover, the detailed text, tables, images and illustrations included in the Table of Dimensional Regulations, Definitions, and Off-Street Parking requirements all help explain the intention of the specific code requirements and strengthen the effectiveness of the ordinance. As the city continues to more fully implement FBCs, a comprehensive streetscape regulating plan and associated standards for public space or street improvements, as well as detailed architectural design standards, will strengthen the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Administrative Review

The administrative review varies within the overall approach adopted by Lowell, in a manner similar to many other communities. The use of by-right, by-right with Site Plan Review, or special permit requirements changes based on project scale or proposed use. These approaches are primarily listed within the Table of Uses and Dimensional Regulations. The form-based requirements vary somewhat within special permit applications as the evaluation criteria must be consistent with the Master Plan, neighborhood character, environmental impacts, traffic circulation, and other criteria. In the absence of FBCs for public improvements or architectural design standards, the special permit process facilitates a balanced design review process. The Zoning Ordinance also requires Site Plan Review (SPR), administered by the Planning Board, for commercial projects over 10,000 SF in gross floor area, expanded parking lots, multi-family residential developments or large single family projects approved under MGL 41, Section 81P (Approval Not Required lots). As part of the submission requirements, all projects are required to prepare detailed architectural plans that show the ground floor plan and architectural elevations of all proposed buildings sufficient to establish views of the structure from the public way.

Public Space / Street Standards

With respect to the semi-public space within the frontyard setback area, the Table of Dimensional Regulations mandates the setback requirements for the frontyard setbacks, height, projections, porches and garages. Within the urban and traditional neighborhood districts, the regulations require a "maximum" frontyard building setback in order to establish a consistent streetscape. Moreover, the maximum height, frontyard setback, or projection requirements can also be reduced in order to match existing abutting buildings on the same street. For multi-family structures, the front door or main entrance to the dwelling units is also required to be located on the front building wall facing the public street.

Landscaping for Parking Lot

Similarly, for public off-street parking areas, the zoning requires that there be at least a 3-5 foot setback of all parking spaces from the building wall and that parking is not permitted within the usable open space areas required for all residential districts. In order to clarify the design of off-street parking areas, the Ordinance also includes a series of graphical illustrations to clarify how these landscaping requirements should be met for the frontyard setback as well as for landscaping parking lots. Currently, the Subdivision Control Regulations are being reviewed and updated to more accurately reflect the goals of the Master Plan and will most likely include illustrative definitions for street type layouts, traffic calming measures, low impact stormwater management, lighting and detailed architectural standards and guidelines.


Typical to FBCs, the Lowell Ordinance frequently uses graphical illustrations in order to clarify the definitions applicable to the design elements such as building height, lot width and other dimensional requirements. Figure 4 illustrates how building height is calculated based on the ridge height of the building and the finished grades of the property. Further, the inclusion of a maximum number of stories as well as providing a definition of "story" prevents property owners from compressing the floor-to-ceiling height in order to maximize the total floor area of the structure. This design approach often negatively impacts the exterior character of the building's fenestration, sense of entry and overall consistency with traditional building design. In contrast to conventional dimensional controls that often define the overall height of buildings from the average existing grade around the building to the highest point of the building, a FBC approach considers calculation for the maximum number of stories permitted in the ordinance in order to provide better protection of the existing neighborhood character and the relationship of the building design to the public right-of-way.

Building Height

Lowell's use of form-based illustrations within definitions included throughout the ordinance helps to provide clear direction to city officials and property owners. The ordinance includes helpful design-related definitions for usable open space, frontyard setbacks, defining stories, lot width and other dimensional requirements.

Architectural Design Standards

Although not yet included in Lowell's Zoning Ordinance, there are some general provisions for architectural standards under the Site Plan Review and the Special Permit criteria. Similar to many communities throughout Massachusetts, the Lowell Ordinance contains a Site Plan Review process for the review of larger commercial, industrial or residential projects. The application requirements include references for "Architectural Plan" which includes the ground floor plan and architectural elevations of all proposed buildings. The plans must be sufficient to "establish views of the structure or structures from the public way" . However, the ordinance does not include more specific language to determine whether architectural elements such as roof design, massing, building materials or detailing of the windows or doors are within the Planning Board's review of the project. Similarly, the Ordinance also includes another general reference to architectural design standards in the Special Permit for a "Planned Residential Development" where perspective sketches, elevations and/or renderings showing proposed streetscapes and building designs are required.

In contrast, the Special Permit for the "Conversion of Existing Buildings" includes strict architectural standards for exterior alterations to historic buildings or neighborhood landmarks. In fact, the Special Permit cannot be issued for a project unless "the exterior design of the structure is not substantially altered". Finally, a "Neighborhood Character Special Permit" is required for adding two or more residential dwelling units on a property where only one dwelling unit previously existed. The permit requires adherence to the evaluation criteria listed for all Special Permits. Although lacking detailed architectural design standards, this criterion does include specific references to how the proposed project protects or enhances the existing neighborhood character. For example, the evaluation criteria consider whether the project reflects the "density, urban design, setbacks, height, and landscape elements of the surrounding buildings" and whether it is "consistent with the character, materials and scale of buildings in the vicinity". Further, it evaluates whether the project "minimizes the visual intrusion from visible parking, storage and other outdoor services areas viewed from public ways and abutting residences." In an effort to clarify these design issues, the Planning Office also uses a "Residential Development Guidelines for Neighborhoods" booklet to frame the design review process.

Understanding the shortcomings of the existing design standards and subjectivity of the review process, the next phase of implementation includes the formation of formal design review standards and the establishment of a Design Review Board. Detailed architectural standards are expected for front façade treatments and fenestration within selected neighborhood business districts and the Hamilton Canal District. The design standards will likely also include illustrations for projects like porches, decks and stoops as well as other design elements like garages, parking and landscaping. Similarly, the location and number of structures on each lot will be addressed and illustrative diagrams will demonstrate the effect of the "lot frontage per dwelling unit requirement" already listed in the Table of Dimensional Regulations.

Challenges and Status

Some of the challenges identified in adopting form-based codes in Lowell included the difficulty of maintaining consistency with State Zoning Act (MGL 40A) in respect to adding mandatory architectural standards outside a special permit process or a 40R Smart Growth District. Another issue of using FBCs was funding the cost of conducting charettes and other public workshops needed to develop the codes. Although initially confusing to the development community, the design and review process has become easier to understand and implement. Local architects have played a central role in developing contextual plans and assisting the Division of Planning and Department with preliminary design review. However, given the absence of formal architectural standards for building design such as massing, materials, and fenestration a design review process is being considered along with a set of detailed form-based design standards. Accordingly to City Planners, although abutters and neighborhood groups still oppose projects, residents appear less fearful of seeing poorly-designed infill projects approved under the ordinance. As such, it appears that many groups traditionally opposed to all development on density grounds increasingly recognize that the city had a design problem rather than a density problem.

As a next stage of implementation, the City intends to complete an update of their subdivision rules and regulations to include detailed streetscape improvement standards within the different transect zones. The codes will encourage traffic calming measures to keep traffic slow on subdivision streets. Additionally, the code will encourage stormwater management practices that are appropriate for the level of urban or suburban development. A series of Neighborhood Business Districts will also be established with FBCs and the Hamilton Canal Entitlement Process is underway to select a developer and develop specific FBCs for redevelopment of the district.

Further Information

For more information on Lowell's Form-Based Code, please contact Matthew Coggins at the Lowell Division of Planning and Department at or 978.446.7200. In addition, you can view the Ordinance and other Form-Based Initiatives here.

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