Brookfield’s village board on Jan. 9 revolutionized the way future real estate development will be approved in the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad corridor, particularly the areas immediately adjacent to the village’s three commuter rail stations.

Trustees voted 5 to 0 (Trustee Nicole Gilhooley was absent) to amend Brookfield’s zoning code and zoning map, adopting the Station Area Districts plan and capping a nearly two-year effort to modernize the village’s zoning code.

“It’s a complete change for Brookfield,” said Village Manager Keith Sbiral, a planner by background, who began working on the zoning modernization effort prior to becoming village manager. “It’s huge.”

The zoning change, the first major overhaul since 1964, doesn’t directly impact the village’s residential zoning districts and there were no changes made to the code with respect to single-family residential development. The changes also don’t impact existing buildings within the newly designated zoning districts.

But for future commercial, mixed-use and multi-family residential development in the rail corridor and near the rail stations, the zoning code has been converted to what’s known as a “form-based” code, which describes what kind of development, density, parking requirements, building types, design standards and land use requirements will be allowed by right.

If a development conforms to the new code, it will not be subject to a lengthy review by the Planning and Zoning Commission or approval by the village board. In essence, the village is stating up front what kind of development will be allowed; if the development conforms, it will move ahead.

“It spells it out up front for the developer,” Sbiral said. “We’ve moved the process up front. There’s nothing administratively approvable that hasn’t already been approved by the board in passing this ordinance.”

Prior to the code’s adoption, said Sbiral, a developer was able to come in and pitch any type of project through the planned development process. If a developer wanted to build a 10-story tower, for example, he could ask for zoning variances to allow it and then go through a lengthy approval process that might or might not have ended up being approved by the board.

Shortly after the 2020 Master Plan was approved in 2004, for example, a developer pitched a massive six-story condominium building in the 8500 block of Brookfield Avenue. Technically, the building fit in with the goals of the master plan, but neighbors howled about the scale and density of the development, which quickly was abandoned.

The goal of the new Station Area Districts code is to avoid that kind of disconnect. The code essentially states what the village will allow right now, in line with what neighboring property owners will accept. 

For example, the downtown district, including most of the 3700 block of Grand Boulevard and parcels that frame the intersection of Prairie Avenue and the railroad tracks, allows buildings of up to six stories with ground-floor storefronts to create a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use retail and service business district. Office and residential uses are confined to upper floors.

The north end of the 3700 block of Grand Boulevard as well as the 3700 block of Prairie Avenue and 8900 block of Fairview Avenue also allows buildings of up to six stories, including ground floor residential and office uses.

The 3700 blocks of Forest Avenue and the east side of the 3700 block of Sunnyside Avenue allow for denser transit-oriented multifamily residential developments of up to six stories. 

Ogden Avenue west of Deyo Avenue, near the Congress Park train station, is viewed as a three-story commercial district offering a wide range of uses and providing off-street parking. Closer to the train station itself, the code calls for transit-oriented residential developments of between two and five stories. 

Moving east on Burlington Avenue from the Congress Park train station, zoning allows smaller scale multifamily residential developments of up to three stories.

That smaller scale residential development is identical to that allowed in Hollywood along Brookfield Avenue between Arden Avenue and the alley just east of McCormick Avenue.

East of Rosemear Avenue on Brookfield Avenue, the zoning code now allows buildings of up to three stories, but it also allows either residential or office uses on the ground floor.

Prior to voting to approve the zoning update, Trustee Michelle Ryan expressed a concern that the code eliminates planning commission and village board review of projects prior to approval, particularly with regard to land between Prairie and Sunnyside avenues, bordered on the north by Fairview Avenue and on the south by the railroad tracks.

 The zoning code envisions various options for that land, including vacating portions of streets to create more attractive sites for development.

“That could be a dynamic and permanent change for our village,” Ryan said. “I’m concerned because in the development process, it could be a long time before [the village board] got to review it.”

Sbiral said it’s imperative for the village manager to have a strong, open line of communication with the board about such projects, but that the code itself was the trigger for making developments like the ones contemplated between Prairie and Sunnyside possible.

“This isn’t about power,” said Sbiral. “The question is really how do you make something like that happen? In the last 20 years, all they’ve been is pictures and documents. They haven’t actually been buildings and developments.

“What we’re trying to do is to create a zoning process that’s easy and that’s straightforward with what our community wants and meets our community’s values and, therefore, reduces the risk and creates an environment by which a developer can come in and actually build one of these projects.”