Tuscaloosa Considers New Building Code
People living in the storm-torn areas of Tuscaloosa got a primer Thursday night on what kind of residential structures may — and may not — be allowed when rebuilding efforts begin in earnest.
Officials with City Hall and consulting firm Code Studio gave a series of examples and explanations of what kind of housing options may be permitted once new building codes and zoning ordinances are adopted for residential areas.
The presentation given during the community meeting hosted by Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together at First United Methodist Church was held to give residents an understanding of what could be contained within the draft versions of the residential zoning rules in order to foster debate.
“None of it has been decided on,” said Lee D. Einsweiler, a principal partner of the Austin, Texas-based Code Studio.
Code Studio was hired by the City Council to assist in developing commercial and residential building codes stemming from the Tuscaloosa Forward master plan, which included community input.
A set of proposed commercial and mixed-use codes and zoning ordinances was unveiled last week, but a draft version of those related to housing and residential areas won't be ready for review until early 2012.
Residents, though, were glad to hear that the conversation has started.
“Getting the dialogue out there is encouraging,” said Philip Pitts, 49, of Glendale Gardens, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods by the April 27 tornado. “I think it's really good that we are having these discussions and there is planning as opposed to the tail wagging the dog.”
Among the possibilities discussed by Einsweiler included large, planned neighborhoods that include a mixture of townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes.
The examples he showed had the different housing styles separated by streets and other built-in buffers, such as parks, green spaces or recreational paths.
And while the mixture of housing options is intended to draw a range of residents, from students to retirees and all aspects of adulthood in between, the consistency of architectural styles allowed the areas to look like one seamless neighborhood.
“There is a need for additional housing,” Einsweiler said. “If we could do a good job of mixing and matching units, we could get stronger, more diverse neighborhoods.”
He and city officials stressed that there was no intention on behalf of City Hall to force consolidation of land tracts to create these kinds of neighborhoods. Nor is it the intention of city officials to hijack existing neighborhoods with these new forms of development.
But the option of integrating portions of existing neighborhoods with a new set of housing options is real, and he showed examples of neighborhoods and housing developments that incorporated higher levels of density, which is the number of housing units per acre.
Allowing these within areas near busy commercial districts that were flattened by the tornado would bring an urban-style housing to these areas while creating the population levels required to fund the infrastructure replacement and improvements.
But almost every neighborhood example shown by Einsweiler retained an emphasis on non-motorized transportation.
Whether it's walking for recreational purposes or biking to get from home to work, the inclusion of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods is a means of planning for the future with higher and higher gasoline prices, Einsweiler said.
Alberta resident Lisa Prewitt said an increased level of pedestrian- and bicycle friendly areas reminded her of Rosemary Beach, Fla., where she and her family spent their summer vacation.
“The whole community was built for a pedestrian community,” said Prewitt, 59. “I hope it happens.”
And as City Hall moves forward with preparing new rules and guidelines by which developers and builders must follow, the end product will depend on what the City Council hears from its constituents.
“I would encourage you to continue to stay tuned to the process and involved in the process,” said John McConnell, the city's director of Planning and Development Services. “It's not going to be like anything you've seen before.”