Call me worldly, now that I know the difference between form-based and Euclidean zoning.
The latter, dating to the early 20th century, sought to segregate land uses as cities became more and more crowded with tenements and heavy industry. It’s why communities today have various residential zones — single-family here, multi-family there — set apart from agricultural zones and commercial zones and light-industrial zones. (The separation was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1926 case involving the village of Euclid, Ohio, which is how the concept got its name.)
Form-based codes, though, stress form over function. Touted by the New Urbanism movement of the late 20th century, they encourage mixed, pedestrian-friendly uses; the individual lot is less important than how it fits with its neighbors to create a lively, integrated community.
My lesson in zoning came courtesy of John Zepko, senior planner for the town of Malta, whom I had contacted to learn more about the retail/office components of the big new residential projects proposed for the town.
While much of the consternation over growth in Malta has focused on the height of Ellsworth Commons, the four-building, four-story apartment complex being built in the heart of the mostly one-story town, little has been said about the accompanying new commercial square footage there and elsewhere.
By my estimates, the proposed new retail/office space equates to something on the order of a Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland (235,000 square feet) — or larger.
Ellsworth and three other projects slated for a two-mile stretch of Route 9 off Northway Exit 12 would add new apartments, town houses and single-family homes — some 800 units or more. Much of the housing has been proposed with GlobalFoundries in mind. The computer-chip manufacturer is constructing a massive plant at the nearby Luther Forest Technology Campus, where more than 1,400 people will work; other new residents are expected from companies that will want to set up shop locally to do business with the factory.
Each of the four residential projects includes commercial space, too. At Ellsworth Commons, 71,000 square feet of street-level storefronts and second-floor offices are taking shape. At Blacksmith Square, 12,500 square feet of retail/office space is expected on the lower floors of the two-building, four-story apartment project. At Park Place at Malta, where single-family homes and condominiums are planned, 115,000 square feet of “boutique shops, eateries and … specialty businesses” will be built. And the drawings submitted for the proposed Malta Crossings, which just received subdivision approval over the summer, show five commercial buildings, a hotel and a day care center — along with housing — but offer no details on the square footage of the planned commercial space.
After GlobalFoundries decided to build in Luther Forest, Malta began working to update its master plan. Among the goals was creating a downtown core along Route 9 where residents could do more than run discrete errands — like dine at sidewalk cafes, window-shop and meet up for outdoor concerts. Higher-density and mixed-use development would be encouraged, along with housing located above retail and office space.
That’s where form-based thinking comes into play, town planner Zepko told me. “We’re engaged in community-building,” he said when I asked whether concern over building height ought to be matched by concern over so much new commercial space.
The town isn’t interested in single-use projects anymore but ones that mesh with the vision of creating a vibrant downtown.
“We’re trying to make the best use of the land,” he said. “We’re trying to outlive GlobalFoundries.”
Marlene Kennedy, a longtime business editor in the Capital Region, can be reached by email at [email protected]