Storytelling to lead to development of standards for Laconia architecture

LACONIA — Planning Director Shanna Saunders calls it "our storytelling grant," $50,000 awarded to the city by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority to fund the development of architectural standards for downtown and The Weirs.
What, you might ask, has storytelling got to do with architectural standards?
Architectural standards were among the priorities when the Master Plan was updated in 2007 and two years later the Planning Department contracted with the Ironwood Design Group, LLC of Exeter and Sheer, McCrystal, Paison Architecture, Inc. of New London to assist with developing them. In November 2010 the consultants presented their initial findings to the Planning Board.
Instead of critiquing the design of particular buildings, they eyed the city through the prism of "form-based code" (FBC), a departure from conventional zoning. Jeff Hyland of the Ironwood Design Group explained that conventional zoning primarily segregates different uses into different districts. FBC, on the other hand, emphasizes the form, features and placement of buildings themselves, which together define the bounds and character of the relationship between private development and public space. Where conventional zoning is based on specific uses and numerical  standards, FBC gives priority to quality design and graphic imagery." FBC helps you achieve what you want," he said, "while traditional zoning is based on what you don't want."
Saunders recalled that she first encountered storytelling as a means of discovering what residents want when seeking a grant from the Orton Family Foundation, which assists small cities and towns preserve their identity and character in the face of growth and development. "They use the storytelling method to determine what residents believe is unique and valuable about their communities," she said.
Saunders said that when she spoke to residents and business owners at The Weirs about what they considered important they told stories about what they valued most. "We decided to look for stories about what people like and dislike about downtown and The Weirs," she said, "to collect information by collecting stories."
Saunders has enlisted a number of allies in the effort, including the Main Street Initiative, Weirs Action Committee, Laconia Historical Society and the schools. She said that a "Family Write Night" was held at Woodland Heights Elementary School and that high school students will be interviewing residents of the Taylor Community. Storytelling booths will be opening at the Laconia Public Library and at The Weirs during Motorcycle Week and throughout the summer there is a story "hotline" on the Planning Department's page on the city website.
Saunders intends to turn these stories into architectural overlay districts for the two "villages." The districts will incorporate architectural standards, building placement, streetscape features, pedestrian ways, traffic patterns, parking areas and public spaces. She said that the aim will be to promote economic growth while sustaining the character the character of both downtown and The Weirs.
Saunders anticipated that distilling the information from the stories and translating it into zoning ordinances to be her stiffest challenge.