Brevity is the soul of Brookhaven design guidelines


Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

Brookhaven, on Long Island, is the third largest municipality in New York State, with 448,000 people in the 2000 census.

Like many towns on Long Island, it has old main street districts that are floating in a sea of suburban sprawl. In 2004, the community rallied and prepared a vision plan for Portion Road, a commercial strip corridor. Residents, civic leaders, and officials set a goal of preserving the character of the old villages while raising the standard of new development from the automobile-oriented strip commercial buildings that had been constructed for years. Zoning wasn’t doing the job.

“We were getting plans not in accordance with what people wanted,” says the town’s principal planner, Diane Mazarakis. “We’d get a new building that looked like a warehouse with a gable roof. It met the setback requirements of the code. So we drilled down and started to develop architectural guidelines.”

The town hired ADL III Architecture of Northport, New York, a consultant on the vision plan. That firm produced the detailed, 43-page Design Guidelines for Lake Ronkonkoma, one of the villages in the town. That impressive document looks a lot like a form-based code. “We said ‘that’s all well and good, the architects will read it but what about everyone else? I have regulatory people in the office that are never going to read that document,” Mazarakis says.

So the town asked that ADL boil down the 43 pages to 2 pages. That’s one sheet, front and back — the front for urban standards, the back for architectural standards. It’s an amazing feat of brevity for a design firm.

At a glance, regulators can now tell whether the project can be sent to the planning board for review or whether the applicants have to make revisions. Officials and developers can now talk about the finer points of design over the counter, using the 2-page sheet as a reference. For more details, the project designers and developers can always read the full document.

Although the standards are called “guidelines,” they have teeth, Mazarakis says. If developers don’t follow the guidelines, they must go to the planning board for relief — but that may not succeed and is likely to take longer. It’s much easier to give the community what it wants.

A proposed Burger King on Portion Road is an example of how the guidelines are helping the town to encourage better design. The original Burger King design, reviewed by ADL, would have been out of line with main street standards (see image 1). Everything — including the first floor, windows, awnings, and sign — would have been out of scale with historic buildings. ADL drew a proposed alternative elevation (image 2). The applicant hired a new architect who is coming up with a new proposal to meet the guidelines, Mazarakis says.

The two-page document is “very clear,” Mazarakis says. “A picture tells a thousand words. Graphics are able to get across the intent of the district far better than the verbiage was able to.” As the town develops design guidelines for other areas, they will ask for a similar abbreviated document, she says.

Ela Dokonal, director of planning for ADL III, would prefer that people read the complete design guidelines. “If somebody wants to develop something, they should get the entire guidelines. But then if they don’t have time or patience, they can take a look at two-pager.”