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Community Design Overlay (CDO)

Best Practice Category:

Street and Network Connectivity Transit Prioritization, Accessibility, and Area Design Parking Management Transportation Demand Management Pedestrian and Bicycle Circulation


Little Tokyo Streetscape; SykoSam
Little Tokyo Streetscape; SykoSam

A Community Design Overlay (CDO) is a mechanism to amend and/or augment existing zoning based on a community’s vision and desires relating to design, form, and character of a particular place.  It is distinct from an ordinary zoning overlay due to its stronger emphasis on building architecture, façade design, and massing. The CDO may contain both transit-supportive building and streetscape standards and/or design guidelines; in other words, certain components of the Design Overlay may be required while others may be suggested. Typically, a Community Design Overlay, as applied throughout the Los Angeles region, is placed over an area with particular character, historic context, or urban and natural amenities, such as train stations, that a community would like to preserve, celebrate, or expand. CDOs are organized simply with an introduction of context, a description of administrative procedures, and then a selection of relevant design guidelines and standards. Green building concepts, such as the inclusion of standards for energy and water efficiency, solar panels, or LEED certification, have recently become a common element of CDOs.


  • Encourages human-scale urban character and environment
  • Establishes, reinforces, and/or preserves the aesthetic and spatial character of a particular area
  • Orients buildings and entries to activate the public realm
  • Enhances and enlivens the experience of being in the public realm
  • Encourages sustainable design practices


Little Tokyo Community Design Overlay (CDO) District

Little Tokyo Streetscape; Prayitno
Little Tokyo Streetscape; Prayitno

The Little Tokyo Community Design district is adjacent to an at-grade Gold Line transit station, which will be replaced across the street by an underground station currently under construction.  Development guidelines in the CDO are flexible in the application rather than regulatory, allowing for each development process to be unique and individualized. The Overlay was implemented partly in reaction to increasing development pressure in Little Tokyo, with the forthcoming Regional Connector light rail station.  The CDO contains guidelines relating to elements such as:

  • Site Planning:
    • The incorporation of Japanese architectural and design motifs is encouraged, rather than use of pictorial recreations and ornamental architectural elements.
    • Buildings should be built to the front lot line or required sidewalk easement.
    • Primary building entrances should be oriented to the street.
    • 75% Retail Streets are identified in the CDO, along which at least 75% of building frontages should contain retail uses.
  • Open Space:
    • Projects are encouraged to include publicly-accessible open space.
    • Entrances should be oriented to public open spaces and ground floor uses should activate those spaces.
  • Parking and Vehicular Access:
    • On-site parking should be oriented away from street frontages and should be lined with habitable space.
    • New parking structures should be designed with care and should accommodate ground floor commercial uses to a minimum depth of 25 feet from street frontages.
  • Pedestrian Orientation:
    • Blank walls should be enhanced with artwork, murals, and landscaping.
    • Loading areas should be located at the rear of the structures or site.
    • Passenger loading areas should not impede foot traffic or sidewalks.
  • Cultural Design Details:
    • Exposed structural elements are encouraged on building facades.
    • The CDO promotes the use of Half Timbering as a traditional Japanese building style.
    • Simplicity in design is a main goal of the CDO. Building designs should be understated – not cluttered or distractingly ornamented.

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Downtown San Pedro Community Design Overlay District

Downtown San Pedro; Google Maps
Downtown San Pedro; Google Maps

As part of the Los Angeles General Plan, this Overlay District covers the area in the downtown of San Pedro. It establishes guidelines and standards for pedestrian-oriented development, including site planning, architectural details, signage, utilities, landscaping, and historic resource protection. Although not a transit-supportive development overlay in name, its overall objectives and approaches are consistent to those of transit-supportive design.   The CDO is organized around the following five principals:

  • Activity.  Facilitation of an active street interface with inviting urban conditions and walking environment.
  • Context. Flexible in nature, the design guidelines encourage property owners to “take cues from the environment, historical precedent, physical site data” as well as the goals and desires of the San Pedro Community.
  • Contribution. Building design that contributes to the aesthetic and physical character of the Downtown area.
  • Interest.  This principle relates to the idea that the pedestrian’s experience is of paramount importance.  Buildings should be designed to avoid blank walls, low-quality architectural treatments, and to incorporate a variation of scale, color, and texture.
  • Quality.  High-quality building materials, attention to design detail, limitation of signage, and increased landscaping and maintenance are encouraged.

The San Pedro CDO is contained within the San Pedro Community Plan.  A unique feature of the Plan is the inclusion of guidelines relating to views.  Buildings should be oriented and designed to preserve view corridors, for example to the waterfront.  Residential towers should be spaced at least 80 feet from all existing or possible future towers.  These kinds of bulk and viewshed controls become more important as the height and density/intensity of development increases near transit.  The CDO also contains sustainable building design guidelines for both passive and active sustainable design, such a placement of windows, daylight considerations, use of recyclable materials, and the encouragement for LEED certification.

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City of Fremont TOD Overlay Zoning District

In 2012, the City of Fremont located in Northern California adopted a new ordinance to implement a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Overlay Zoning District. The purpose of the TOD Overlay District was to encourage more compact high intensity mixed land uses in areas of the City with a high propensity for pedestrian activity as well as near existing and future transit stations. As a part of the new ordinance, reduced parking standards and minimum development requirements were offered for select properties within a half-mile radius of the Centerville ACE/Amtrak Train station and the Fremont Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station.

A noteworthy element of the ordinance included utilizing a new approach for calculating project development density. Under the previous method, City Staff would use gross acreage of the site to determine the appropriate density and floor-to-area-ratio (FAR) calculations. This method would street right-of-way and other public easements that are unbuildable areas of the site. The new approach of incorporating net density and net acre eliminates areas of the project that are dedicated for public improvement or unbuildable, which results to a more reasonable representation of development size and land compatibility.

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