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Council Tweaks Downtown Design Standards

By Jorge Casuso

September 15 -- In an effort to make the Downtown a more pleasant place to stroll, the City Council Tuesday night tweaked the design standards for the area, but put off making any major changes to the guidelines that dictate how future buildings will look.

Following recommendations made by the Architectural Review Board, the council unanimously directed staff to draft an ordinance that focuses on making the ground floor retail more inviting and attracting neighborhood serving businesses.

A more comprehensive ordinance to encourage courtyard buildings, increase building heights and create more open space will not be taken up until the City completes its update of the land use and circulation elements of the general plan, which will shape development for decades to come.

“We have to respect the land use process we are already in,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “We should make as few changes outside the process as possible.”

The motion “is harmless,” said Council member Herb Katz, who is an architect. “I think it helps, I think it will improve, and I don’t think that it does damage.”

City staff said the ordinance it will draft can serve as a test case for the more encompassing ordinance the council will take up when the general plan update is completed.

“This is a test period to see what are the implications,” said Andy Agle, the City’s interim planning director.

The recommendations made by the ARB, which were also backed by the Planning Commission, include the following:

? Increasing minimum ceiling heights for ground-floor retail to 18 feet on the Promenade and 15 feet in other parts of the Downtown. As much as a foot and a half will be used for mechanical components. The council hopes the increased height will make retail spaces more airy and inviting.
? Emphasizing the difference between the ground floor and the upper floor by using design features that could include different materials or changes in the planes.
? Eliminating curb cuts by providing alley access.
? Minimizing landscaping requirements to promote “pedestrian friendly design.” Landscaping features are currently obstructing display windows.
? Reducing parking requirements to encourage small neighborhood-serving businesses, such as delis, corner markets and dry cleaners.
? Addressing concerns about the treatment of development next to historic structures.

Some council members argued that the scaled back ordinance -- as well as the more comprehensive ordinance the council will take up-- must allow flexibility.

“It needs to have flexibility,” Katz said. “We need to have an ordinance that is flexible, as well as standard. They (the guidelines) have to be clear. They have to have flexibility.”

But Craig Jones, the developer responsible for most of the more than 500 units added Downtown in recent years, acknowledged that the current standards already allow enough flexibility to create the award-winning building he recently developed.

“Do we need this ordinance to make better buildings?” he said rhetorically, in anwer to a council member’s question. “No.”

Jones characterized proponents of making only the minor changes proposed by the ARB as anti-development. “They don’t want any buildings in the Downtown,” Jones said.

A staff proposal to eliminate much of the pubic process and allow most projects to be approved administratively had already been rejected by the council last year.

But Downtown officials urged the council to reinistate the threshold that triggers public hearings from 7,500 square feet to 30,000 square feet. The council decision seven years ago to boost the square footage that requires a Planning Commission hearing is credited with an unprecedented housing boom Downtown.

“Bring back the threshoold to 30,000 square feet,” said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District, which runs the Downtown.

Bayside officials also urged the council not to adopt the more comprehensive ordinance proposed by City staff.

“Rather thay providing flexibility,” Rawson said, the standards “are far too rigid.”

As for encouraging courtyards, Rawson argued that they are “not desireable for ground floorc retail.”

After taking testimoney from more than a dozen spakers, may of them City officials who sit on boards and commissions, the council decided to delay voting on the comprehensive ordinance proposed by staff.

The proposed ordinance would have “modified building heights, setback and stepback requirements” and “provided design standards and guidelines for building streetfronts and sidewalls,” according to the staff report.

The ordinance would also have set “design standards and guidelines for required courtyards” and allowed developers to “exchange… some private open space for common open space for residential units,” the staff report said. It also would have prohibited “certain building materials that lack quality.”

“What has come back here is a far broader range of changes,” McKeown said at the start of the meeting.

“I’m concerened,” said Planning Commissioner Darrell Clarke. “This was intended to be small changes, yet we’re back to where we were last year. Taller buildings were not the solution.”

Land use attorney Chris Harding urged the council to “send a consistent message to those who design buildings and review them,” while preservations pushed for a policy to reuse, rather than tear down, existing buildings.

“Protect our few remaining buildings Downtown,” said Nina Fresco, chair pro tem of the Landmarks Commission.

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