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FORT SMITH -- A new code proposed for the downtown area has progressed to the next level necessary to become a reality.

During its meeting Tuesday, the Fort Smith Central Business Improvement District Commission voted to approve recommending an updated version of the Fort Smith Downtown Form-Based Code to the city Planning Commission.

Brenda Andrews, senior planner with the Planning Department, wrote in a memo to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman that the code will be presented to the Planning Commission on Jan. 12 and to the city Board of Directors on Feb. 2 for final approval.

The code's intent would be to create downtown sections in a walkable, mixed-use environment -- with shopping, employment, housing and civic use, according to the final draft dated Nov. 13. The code would pave the way for the appropriate reuse and rehabilitation of buildings, some of which are historic, as well as enable new infill development.

City Development Services Director Maggie Rice previously said that, should the Board of Directors adopt the code, it would be incorporated into the city's unified development ordinance. "It'll be a different zone, essentially, with character areas," she said.

Andrews said the form-based code had been revised based on input from the Central Business Improvement District Commission after it was presented with an earlier draft of the code during its meeting on Oct. 20. The changes included identifying auto and vehicle sales, service and storage as not permitted in any character area within the space to which the form-based code applies, and increasing the height allowance for buildings in the Garrison and Civic/Medical character areas from five stories to eight.

"Anything in excess of what's allowed in the code would have to apply for a variance, similar to the process right now," Jayashree Narayana, principal of the Texas-based planning and urban design firm Livable Plans & Codes, said via Zoom at the meeting.

Narayana said other changes included adding definitions for all uses not defined in the unified development ordinance and clarifying the applicability of Section 7 of the code, Garrison Avenue Historic District Architectural and Design Standards, to all character areas within the boundaries of the Garrison Avenue Historic District.

A form-based code would implement a specific vision for downtown, focus on the character of different sections of the area, emphasize form over use and streamline regulations, according to Narayana at the commission's October meeting. Such a code could be better for downtown by, among other benefits, facilitating predictability of development outcomes in the area and making it attractive to multiple modes of travel, such as cars, bikes and walking.

In addition to development standards, the form-based code contains a boundary map that divides downtown into six "character areas." The names for the character areas are Garrison; Cisterna; Civic/Medical; Warehouse and Industrial; Riverfront; and Neighborhood.

"Each character area creates a distinct urban form, which is different from urban forms in other character areas," the code draft states. "Each character area establishes use and development standards, including height, bulk, building and parking location, and functional design."

Should the form-based code be adopted, current property owners downtown will be grandfathered into it, the Fort Smith website states. Any uses or structures they have on their property right now can remain the same.

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