Planning discussions to guide development immediately south of Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall are still underway more than two years after the Strategic Investment Plan was adopted by the City Council.

“We did the visioning thing two years ago, but we didn’t go in depth about zoning,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said. “It’s a whole different animal.”

The plan — developed in 2013 — aims to “initiate a transformational process to engage stakeholders, city staff and members of the greater community in the future of the Strategic Investment Area,” which includes 330 acres located primarily south and east of the Downtown Mall.

Goals laid out in the SIA include encouraging investment in the area, creating a “healthy, vibrant neighborhood” with parks and safe streets and rebuilding and preserving public and assisted housing.

The City Council held a joint work session with the Planning commission this week to further consider whether a shift to a “form-based” code would help encourage development.

Milton Herd, of Herd Planning & Design in Leesburg, gave a presentation explaining the basics.

As opposed to conventional zoning — which is typically based on a separation of uses, such as residential and industrial zones — form-based code emphasizes the three-dimensional aspects of buildings and the relationship between structures and the streets.

Herd said form-based code also focuses on by-right usage.

The form-based code proposal for the SIA discussed at the work session suggested a “transect” model in which development would become more intense closer to the Downtown Mall.

Galvin said what is allowed by-right under current zoning regulations is not in keeping with the feedback SIA residents expressed at workshops.

“Across the board, people in — be they in the Belmont neighborhoods or in South First Street or Sixth Street public housing — they did not want what’s allowed by-right, which was in a Downtown Extended [zone],” Galvin said.

According to existing city code, developers can build mixed-use buildings 101 feet — or eight stories — tall by-right within the Downtown Extended zone.

“Those T4 [transects] are transitions … to step down to that smaller-scale, residential neighborhood,” said Galvin, looking at the proposed form-based code map of the SIA.

Several of the areas currently in the Downtown Extended zone would fall into the T4, T5 and T6 transects.

Buildings in the T4 transect would be two to three and a half stories tall and buildings in the T5 transect would be limited to a maximum of five and a half stories. The tallest buildings in the T6 zone would be at least six stories tall.

Councilor Wes Bellamy asked how people living at public housing properties or otherwise financially assisted sites would be protected during a transition to form-based code or redevelopment of any properties.

Four major assisted housing properties are within the SIA: three Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties — Crescent Halls, Sixth Street and South First Street — and Friendship Court, which is owned by Piedmont Housing Alliance and the National Housing Trust/Enterprise Preservation Corp.

“How will we be able to ensure that everyone who lives there now, specifically all of the units … people can continue to live there, that their spots won’t be taken?” Bellamy asked.

Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department, said people who live in any affected facility would have first right of refusal and any changes would result in a minimum of the same number of assisted housing units that previously existed being constructed.

Bellamy also questioned how to respond to constituents who feel that allowing developers to build by-right might result in residents being pushed out of the neighborhood.

Herd said that while “the code is focused on the physical outcome,” managing changes is a “parallel effort.”

“The goal here, and the expected result, would be development that creates a better urban environment in the long term,” Herd said.

Councilor Bob Fenwick said it’s important to ensure residents feel a sense of control in the process.

Councilor Kristin Szakos said she thinks form-based code might offer some security.

“They get more predictability with how it’s going to look like, where as with the current system, no matter how you zone it, people can max it out — or not — and you are never going to know what’s going to come,” Szakos said.

Some developers may build by-right before a form-based code is adopted, however.

“We have to recognize that regardless of what we tell the public, some things are going to happen that we have no control over,” said John Santoski, chairman of the Planning Commission.

Neighborhood and Development Services ultimately was directed to approach a form-based code change in a phased process, with the “warehouse district” area south of the mall as the first phase, the area north of Belmont Bridge in the second phase and the T3 transect area — which includes the Belmont neighborhood — as the final phase.

Public input also will be solicited at the beginning of the process.

Susan Krischel — who works for the owners of the IX property — said it is important to engage the development community during the decision-making process.

“You’re all in a way looking at us … as being one of the major contributors to making the SIA work, so I certainly hope that you will talk to the developers as well about what makes economic sense to a developer,” Krischel said.