Form Based Codes (FBC) Case Study

Southfield, MA
Southfield, MA Reuse Plan.
Southfield, MA Reuse Plan

Adopted under a Special Act of the Legislature to guide redevelopment of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corporation has adopted form-based codes (FBCs) to work in conjunction with its zoning and land-use bylaws to convert the base into a brand new $1 billion community of nearly 3,000 homes, 2 million square feet of commercial space, a golf course and other amenities, and open space. The FBCs illustrate the urban design standards for certain building types, such as townhouses, single-family dwellings, apartment buildings, office developments and neighborhood commercial buildings. These building forms regulate general building dimensions, site location, and building elements, such as the location of porches and driveways. Together with a set of architectural standards, the building forms and land use restrictions regulate much of the redevelopment of the former Naval Air Station in South Weymouth. The FBCs also include a series of graphics, photos and dimensional tables in order to make the general building form regulations clear to developers, regulators and residents.

Amenities Plan showing public parks, bikelanes, open space and other public amenities.
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.
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".
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.
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.
Biofilter Adjacent to Roadway

Landscaping Image - Main Street.
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.