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Proposed Downtown Design Standards Get Mixed Reviews

By Jorge Casuso

Sept. 15 -- Wider sidewalks, taller buildings, reduced on-site parking, roomier commercial spaces and larger common areas. Those would be some of the results of a proposal unveiled by City consultants last week to spruce up the blossoming residential neighborhood downtown.

Presented at a joint meeting of the Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board last Wednesday, the recommendations -- which would apply to residential buildings with ground-floor retail -- were welcomed by the area's key developer and greeted with skepticism by neighborhood activists and some of those on the dais.

The proposals were spurred by complaints that a residential building boom downtown -- triggered by incentives that allowed developers to skirt much of the public review process -- was resulting in drab, monotonous designs contributing the "canyonization" of the streets.

Proponents on Wednesday argued that the proposed standards would free up architects to be more creative and help enliven the area -- which stretches for several blocks along 6th and 7th streets -- by adding attractive businesses reluctant to rent the squat ground-floor spaces currently being built.

"We're not talking about changing the density provisions of the buildings, we're talking about shaping," said Chris Harding, a prominent local land use attorney. "We're not talking about building more development, we're talking about adding more flexibility.

New building by architect and ARB member Howard Laks was used as an example of a design that adds variety to the street.

"We're losing out by crunching first floors," Harding said. "We should relax parking standards for such uses. It might encourage people to take a risk on a small café."

But several of the planning commissioners and ARB members countered that the proposed standards would be a boon to developers, while adding traffic congestion by narrowing streets and contributing to a downtown parking crunch by reducing on-site parking.

"I don't think that increasing the height is going to magically create the incentive to be more creative," said Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad. "I'm not enthusiastic about what I'm hearing…. It sounds very much like a vehicle for developers."

Ellen Brennan, a neighborhood activist who was one of the few public speakers, agreed.

"I find myself in shock," said Brennan, who opposed several of the new projects. "This report is worse than my worst nightmare. This is a great plan for developers to maximize their profits, but it does nothing for the livability of people who are going to live in that property."

Among the proposals presented by the City consultants, Roma Design, were:

Increasing building height limits along 6th and 7th streets to 65 feet, from 60 and 50 respectively. The higher limit, consultants contend, would encourage higher-quality steel-frame construction, instead of wood-frame on the upper levels, and "provide opportunities for improved shaping."

Reducing parking standards (including eliminating on-site parking for visitors) to promote more affordable housing and offset the higher cost of quality construction. Reducing parking would also encourage alternate forms of transportation, making the downtown more sustainable, a contention many on the dais disagreed with.

Eliminating parking requirements for ground-floor commercial spaces that are less than 2,500 square feet, a move that consultants hope will lure more attractive businesses.

Revising existing stepback standards to encourage building articulation, solar access and "creative architectural expression."

Reducing private open space, such as balconies, by allowing the square footage of those spaces to be traded off for on-site common space, such as courtyards. The proposal also calls for incorporating the footage taken up by side yards into the common areas.

Reducing the existing 52-foot-wide streets to 36 feet, which would be sufficient to accommodate two traffic lanes and two curbside parking lanes. By reducing the width of the streets, the sidewalk and planting zones could be increased from 14 to 22 feet in width.

At the heart of much of the debate was the proposal to reduce parking standards and narrow the streets. Consultants contend that downtown has more public transit than other areas of the city and that the money "would be invested where it has the most effect in promoting livability and neighborhood quality."

Developer Craig Jones -- who has constructed most of the new buildings along 6th and 7th streets -- argued that the streets are little used and that the supply of parking in the residential buildings is more than enough to meet demand.

"There is no traffic," said Jones, who noted that he and his wife live in one of the new buildings and share one car, doing most of their errands and leisure activities on foot. "You can blow a canon and hit nothing. The north-south streets are devoid of traffic.

"We have a lot of signs saying parking for rent," Jones said. "We're renting them to adjacent office uses… You're seeing a pedestrian culture on those streets. What we're lacking is in the streetscape."

But some commissioners and board members worried that additional construction would lead to congestion and eat up available parking.

"I'm concerned about lowering the amount of parking and narrowing streets," said ARB member Rodolfo Alvarez. He added that while Jones may walk down the block to work, most residents must drive out of the city.

Dad agreed, adding that motorists would be reluctant to leave their cars. "Reducing the parking, I believe is not going to work because of social realities," Dad said.

Board members and commissioners, especially the architects, agreed that allowing taller buildings would lead to better design.

"I'm not afraid of height," said ARB member William Adams, an architect. "For me, that just loosens up the box. It gives them much more variety. One of the problems with these projects is that they're too packed."

Joan Charles, who helped spur the call for design standards after airing concerns that a dearth of public process was resulting in drab, unattractive buildings, was disappointed with the lack of community input.

"This process is supposed to go out to the public before it comes to us, instead of having people on high telling them what it's supposed to look like," Charles said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, the council liaison to the Planning Commission, cautioned that the proposals had a downside. City officials, he said, should weigh the impacts of the recommendations on existing residents and on the City's cash-strapped coffers.

Widening sidewalks, McKeown said, is "horrendously expensive." While lowering the parking standards might encourage alternative forms of transportation, he added, "we don't have enough parking and we're talking about less." And while raising the height of buildings could improve design, it could impact neighbors.

"We've heard a lot of good ideas," McKeown said. But "with every 'yes,' there is a 'yes but'…. What we are doing to the people already living in our Downtown has to be as important as the future of downtown."

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