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Case Studies - Form Based Codes

View case studies conducted on the Form Based Codes module.

Lowell, Massachusetts

The Lowell City Council, the Lowell Planning Board, and the Division of Planning and Development have completed a comprehensive planning process to revise and improve the Lowell Zoning Ordinance. The City adopted a new Zoning Ordinance in December 2003 which provided an updated structure and addressed many inconsistencies and conflicts in the prior version. At that time, the City also adopted a number of new procedures and regulations aimed at promoting and protecting neighborhood character.

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. 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.

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.

Regulating 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 design elements like setbacks, height, open space and off-street parking areas. The City is divided into 7 types of residential, 6 types of commercial and mixed-use, and 5 types of office, industrial and special purpose districts. Three types of residential neighborhoods are delineated: suburban, traditional neighborhoods, and urban communities.

Lowell's Transect-Based Neighborhood Zoning Map
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  that vary across a neighborhood districts. Neighborhood types are defined to reflect a distinct neighborhood character. Overall, there are:

  • 2 "Suburban" residential districts
  • 4 "Traditional Neighborhood" districts
  • 2 "Urban Neighborhood" districts
  • 6 Commercial districts
  • 5 Office or industrial districts

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

Building Form Standards

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

These specific frontyard dimensional standards were calibrated to the neighborhood context. The image below illustrates how the code defines the frontyard setbacks for a variety of building elements. FBCs are also used to regulate site landscaping and open space, lot width, building height, and parking lot design.

Frontyard Setback
Frontyard Setback

The ordinance allows multiple frontyard setbacks, particularly within the traditional or older neighborhood districts. Because of the distinct character of neighborhoods, the ordinance also provides exemptions for building height and frontyard setback based on the height or setback of abutting buildings. This provides better continuity and maintains the overall character of a street or block within a larger zoning district.

The FBCs also include 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. 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.

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.

Administrative Review

The administrative review varies 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 listed within the Table of Uses and Dimensional Regulations. The form-based requirements vary somewhat within special permit applications because 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
  • 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

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
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. 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.


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. 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. 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

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.

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.


Southfield, Massachusetts

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.

Southfield, MA Reuse Plan
Southfield, MA Reuse Plan

Regulating Plan

The Zoning and Land Use Bylaws 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 3 phases of implementation and also lists the required public improvements in an Amenities 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 including: 

  • passive recreational trails
  • wildlife viewing areas
  • campsites
  • community centers
  • 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.

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

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 2 separate target areas: the Central Redevelopment Area and the Perimeter Area. Within the Central Redevelopment Area there are 8 different Zoning Districts and 2 Overlay Districts follows:

  1. Village Center District: This district 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.
  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 2 main streets of the Village Center District.
  3. Mixed-Use Village District: The purpose of this district is to provide a mix of residential housing types with some neighborhood commercial uses. The density of residential uses in the district is less than the Village Center District, with fewer commercial uses.
  4. Residential District: This district accommodates 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.
  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. 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.

Building Form Standards

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

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 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

Using FBCs, the Subdivision Rules and 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.

Streetscape Standards for Narrow Neighborhood Streets
Streetscape Standards for Narrow Neighborhood Streets

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: 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 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

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,  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.

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.