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Allowing Frederick County, Maryland to Grow Organically

The MacRo Report Blog is pleased to welcome our first guest writer: Donavon Corum, RLA, AICP, and LEED AP

Growing Frederick Organically

Frederick County recently introduced two proposed zoning ordinance rewrites to provide consistency between the zoning ordinance and the Comprehensive Plan: the Mixed Use and Highway Service Zoning Districts draft text amendment and the Planned Development Districts draft text amendment.

Upon reading both drafts, from a planning perspective one quote immediately comes to mind by  my second year Architecture Studio professor –

Order is determined by the tools we use” – David Spaeth

Professor Spaeth taught me there were obvious and not so obvious tools that will establish or influence the ultimate design of all things.  For planning, the obvious (planning) tools are comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, Public Works manuals and so forth.  Then there are the not so obvious (planning) tools:  looking at our own good neighborhoods and re-creating or asking how can they be improved upon, how is the city or town evolving, how will technology play a role?

The one tool that I did not fully grasp until a few years out of school was the observation that human behavior reacts to market pulls, NOT regulatory pushes.  To that end, any proposal for the “reformation” of the urban and urban fringe areas needs to appeal to the general public and THEIR trends.  For example, in anticipation of increasing  gas prices, the federal government has loaned the Ford Motor Company another $5.9 billion and Tesla Company another $465 million to manufacture electric cars.  This further reinforces that we as a people are still in the Brady Bunch era — people still want the suburban lifestyle and freedom of the vehicle in an urban setting.  Too often the not so obvious planning tools are forgotten during the construction of the obvious tools.

Given the comprehensive approach to planning, one quickly sees who views the glass “Half Full” and aims high — one who is willing to build a framework that “seeds” and guides growth and design, but also trusts in The Community to complete and to “grow” the details of the plan organically over time.

The opposing approach is to view the glass as “Half Empty” where  all is pre-determined, leaving The Communitylittle, if any, flexibility in the future.  Often, governments dictate that all aspects of a project must be determined today, not leaving anything to chance or not having faith in future decision makers and planning efforts.

A “big plan” can be as small as a 1 acre infill within the City of Frederick, or a “big plan” could be as large as the Chesapeake Bay water shed.  It is the inclusiveness of the plan that makes it “big”, not size alone.  What is necessary is that the same spirit and philosophy animate a plan at all scales and that the entire process be organic.  Our land use tools should also be used in this way.  Euclidean ordinances (as in Frederick County’s existing Zoning Ordinance) tend to create a one size fits all mentality and force people to view future planning efforts as the glass is “Half Empty”.  The understanding that not all sites are created equal is key, as well as the understanding that The Community does not know today what may be best for it in the future.  This is not to say that the obvious planning tools be cast aside.  But it is important to note that some elements in our planning tools sound good in theory but do not work well in practice.

Two well known developments that embrace the fundamentals of flexibility and working with all tools — the “big plan”, and the organic nature of planning — are Kentlands/Lakelands, MD and Stapleton, located in Denver, CO.  Both developments benefited from newly created ordinances that focused on flexibility and a consistency for review of innovative designs.  Both plans were created with the understanding that we have not transitioned out of the Brady Bunch era.  They provided areas for conventional commercial (i.e.: larger box stores) and office, while creating a frame work for infilling when the time is appropriate, and integrating these conventional suburban elements into mixed use centers.

I was fortunate to land one of my first planning and landscape architecture jobs in Denver, CO during the start of the Stapleton redevelopment in 1993 and participated in the public process up to 1995 when the plan was complete.  In March of 1995 the Denver City Council adopted the Stapleton Redevelopment plan without a code to control the physical development.  I recently visited Stapleton and saw firsthand its success of aiming high with a “Half Full” approach and having faith in future decision makers and planning efforts.

While there are many good planning tools provided, Frederick County planners and the commissioners should be careful not to fall into the trap of  the  “Half Empty” approaches that are visible in the first draft of the Mixed Use and Highway Service Zoning Districts zoning ordinance text amendment and the Planned Development Districts draft zoning ordinance text amendment.  I hope my planning colleagues continue their discussions of creating anorganic zoning text amendment that will create flexibility and consistency for review of innovative designs.  I look forward to the upcoming discussions of the proposed draft ordinances.

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Donavon Corum, RLA, AICP, and LEED AP  is the Managing Member of Design Core Studio, LLC, a Maryland Planning and Landscape Architecture Firm.  Donavon is currently participating with the American Planning Association’s (APA) National Infrastructure Investment Task Force as part of the Green Sub-Task Force.

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