Plan of the Month January 2011: A form-based code for an island community

Rutgers University and Duncan Associates are undertaking a revision of the US Virgin Islands Zoning and Subdivision Code for the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI) has contracted Dover-Kohl & Partners (DKP) to work in coordination with DPNR and Rutgers/Duncan to draft the pilot project of the Form-Based Code component of the code revision, focusing on for the capital of the US Virgin Islands – Charlotte Amalie.

Charlotte Amalie was settled by the Dutch West India Company in 1657 and grew following a colonial development pattern. Today the capital is a major cruise ship port of call, with 1.5 million visitors arriving by cruise ship each year, and is the Virgin Islands largest city, home to a permanent population of about 19,000 residents. It is on the Island of St. Thomas.

The Charlotte Amalie FBC is intended to demonstrate how an open community planning process and a FBC could work as a primary implementation tool for the larger code revision effort. The weeklong Charlotte Amalie charrette – dubbed ‘The Town’s Blueprint’ – was managed by Victor Dover last month (Dec, 2010) to elicit community participation, consider the rich history and architecture of the Virgin Islands, and to put together a FBC for the capital city.

Residents, property/business owners, and government staff attended the week’s presentations and design sessions, and visited the open design studio at the Grand Hotel, where each day’s progress was displayed. Participants shared their goals and ideas through open microphone sessions by drawing and writing ideas on base maps, through exit questionnaires, interactive keypad polling, and through one-on-one meetings and conversations with members of the planning team.

The charrette produced a vision for Charlotte Amalie crafted by participants, who Victor Dover refers to as ‘the citizen planners’, and a DKP team including members from Hall Planning & Engineering (transportation planning), Urban Advisors (economics), Chael Cooper & Associates (architecture), Springline Architects (landscape architecture & local VI firm), and Aaron Cook & Eduardo Castillo (urban designers).

Chief among the problems identified in the charrette were congestion, crowding, parking and dormancy while one-word visions for the future included walkable, active, vibrant and productive.

The big ideas

The preliminary goals of the new FBC – named ‘The Big Ideas’ by DKP – are as follows:

1) Reaffirm & Protect The Traditional Way Of Building – Incentivize and require respectful infill.

2) Transform The Waterfront Into The Finest Public Space In The Caribbean – Pedestrian-friendly, beauty first, reconnect town to waterfront.

3) Connect – Multi-modal: pedestrians, bicyclists, taxi, transit, and harbor transportation; step streets and guts provide greenway connections; new waterfront public spaces connect people to the water

4) Make Walkability The First Priority In Design – Smart street design, architecture, and parking solutions

5) Control The Scale; Small Is Beautiful – Use the code; promote building preservation/revitalization; 100 percent models.

6) Bring Town To Life At Night & Foster Overnight Stays – Improve parking, public safety, transportation; bring a diverse mix of residences, entertainment and services to town.

7) Embrace Our Diversity & Improve Quality Of Life For All – Make town a place for all islanders to work, live, and play.

Mend and improve the neighborhoods

The DKP code will seek to mend and improve the neighborhoods in the city through a number of measures:

  • Fill in vacant lots to complete the neighborhoods: Infill on vacant lots will spark pride and reinvestment along every street. New buildings will follow standards to ensure they contribute to neighborhood character. In the interim, vacant lots can be utilized for other community purposes, including parking (with landscaping), pocket parks, or community gardens.
  • Restore & reoccupy vacant buildings: Complex ownership and heavy regulation have resulted in a large number of vacant buildings – a safety concern as well as an eyesore. The existing vacant building program (in the Savan Enterprise Zone) can be enhanced to include initiatives for fix-up and re-habitation. To maintain the historic integrity, rules and procedures must make it more feasible to rehab buildings and less financially attractive to neglect them.
  • Create high-quality neighborhood open spaces: The historic neighborhoods have prime opportunity sites for public open spaces. The “guts,” or drainage ditches that separate each neighborhood can be cleaned, replanted and enhanced to become green walkway connections. The step streets should be restored to be cultural, historic and recreational resources. Pocket parks and community gardens can be built on vacant parcels, for residents as well as tourists.
  • Support neighborhood schools: The strong tradition of neighborhood schools should be resumed. The vacant lot reserved long ago for a school in the Upstreet neighborhood should be utilized for a school at last. Community centers in each neighborhood can provide after-school education for children.
  • Provide smart parking solutions: A parking permit program should be established to give residents and businesses certainty. Common lots can provide efficient parking for neighboring users, relieving the constrained parcels.
  • Create walkable, livable streets: When rebuilt, streets should have a pedestrian-friendly scale maintaining the best features of the traditional street design. Re-establishing sidewalks and removing obstacles (such as utility poles) will make it easier to walk through town. Placing utilities underground will upgrade aesthetics and boost pride. Vehicle sizes and types can be limited on certain streets at certain hours to increase livability.

Enhance downtown and the waterfront

The DKP code will also seek to enhance downtown and the waterfront. This will be done through the following measures:

  • Integrate parking and transit: Common parking areas (including structures, appropriately “lined” with inhabited spaces and screened from view) should be explored to manage the parking crunch. Parking should be linked with transit, including a trolley/circulator and/or enhanced taxi service to serve downtown businesses.
  • Attract more residents: If parking, safety, and transportation concerns can be solved, then downtown will become a desirable place for additional residential units (for households of many income levels). A larger residential base can support stores offering a variety of goods, open into the evening. This will increase the allure of downtown for both locals and tourists.
  • Provide waterfront greens and gathering spaces: Small greens or plazas can be reclaimed at the water’s edge. Redesign waterfront parking lots as parallel or angled parking along Veterans Drive for traffic-calming benefits to lure back pedestrians; the more efficient use of land will provide space for wide sidewalks, greens, and outdoor cafes in front of waterfront buildings. The aesthetics of highly visible Vendors Plaza should be elegant and reflective of the best of St. Thomas and the US Virgin Islands; a new design should be conceived for the vendor structures, which could be a combination of temporary and more permanent features.
  • Make veterans drive a catalyst for waterfront revitalization: The planned redesign of Veterans Drive will have tremendous impact to the appearance and function of the waterfront, and act as a catalyst for revitalization. This road needs to have the capacity to move vehicles more reliably, especially during rush hours, and it must become the public space that introduces visitors to the aesthetic refinement, polish and dignity of the Territory. But more than anything else, it needs to be welcoming to pedestrians. Travel speeds must be managed to encourage comfortable walking along and crossing to the esplanade. On-street parking, orderly tree plantings, pedestrian-friendly road dimensions, and short blocks with frequent signalized crosswalks will achieve this. The planned improvements should also include HOV or dedicated transit/taxi lanes to further aid the movement of passengers, at least during critical time periods. These improvements to Veterans Drive can be implemented almost immediately. A critical detail of this revitalization project is the travel movement near the historic fort and legislature. Two design options for this area that attempt to meet the goals outlined above were explored during the charrette (a Network Option and a Bypass Option).

Following the charrette events, the planning team is synthesizing the ideas generated with additional input received, and creating a first draft of the code. The team will return to the capital for a presentation of the refined vision, and to conduct a public workshop to gather input on the draft code in March 2011. Visit for updates on meeting times and locations.  This planning effort will result in a new FBC District that can be carefully applied in selected areas throughout the territory. Charlotte Amalie was selected as the first “pilot” area to test this approach; if desired by the community, similar visioning processes and Form-Based Code districts could be applied in other areas in the future.