Confused over the requirements under the Design Guidelines and frustrated at the lack of access to staff response to comments on the Initial Study, the Planning Commission voted down key portions of the Trackside development.
By a 6-1 vote with Darryl Rutherford dissenting, the Planning Commission voted not to recommend that the council adopt the Initial Study. It was with a 7-0 vote that they voted not to recommend approval of the Design Review. But, by a 5-2 vote, the commission supported the Core Area Specific Plan Amendment and Rezone of the Planned Development, along with the demolition of the current site.
Most commissioners spoke supportively of the project, but chafed at the lack of guidance and information, particularly on the Initial Study and Design Guidelines. They have thus left these considerations for the council to sift through.
More than 25 people spoke during public comment, and the overwhelming view from the neighborhood was one of intense opposition. Once again they were arguing that, while there is not general opposition to redevelopment at the Trackside site, the size and massing of the building is in violation of design guidelines and the impact will be detrimental both on the immediate neighbors and the neighborhood.
Ash Feeney, Assistant Director of Community Development and Sustainability, attempted to clarify the design guidelines process, noting that the “proposed design guidelines do not prescribe specific architectural styles or images, nor do they encourage direct imitation of the past or radical departure from the existing design context.”
He said the “guidelines describe a preferred policy direction but are intended to provide flexibility.” He argued that the “project is substantially consistent with Design Guidelines.”
On the Special Character Area of Third Street, he noted, “Two- and three-story buildings should predominate,” which he later argued by no means precluded a four-story building. “It does anticipate a vision for greater heights,” Mr. Feeney explained.
He also noted, “The third tier review is required for new buildings or additions greater than three stories proposed in the core commercial area and greater than two stories in the mixed use area.”
David Robertson, one of the commissioners, in reading the code section argued that it would seem to suggest the requirement is to go by the more restrictive section in the case of a conflict.
One of the public commenters cited a code section which reads, “Wherever the guidelines for the DTRN [Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhood] conflict with the existing zoning standards including planned development, the more restrictive standard shall prevail.”
Ethan Walsh, Assistant City Attorney, weighed in, stating, “The way I read that is if there is a direct conflict, between the guidelines and the zoning code, then the stricter of the two shall apply.” He noted the opponents are making a point that the size and massing “are inconsistent with the zoning as amended.”
He said, staff is arguing that “they’re consistent… that there is not a conflict between the guidelines and the zoning. The massing and scale language in the guidelines is more subjective and so there’s a question as to whether or not it is consistent with the two.”
He expressed concern with the fact that “staff was not responding to the letters that have come in.” He said, “It seems to be that the onus on you folks to provide the information that allows my colleagues to say okay, I think I understand all the issues that have been raised by a variety of parties.”
Herman Boschken stated, “We have at this point insufficient information to make a recommendation. The findings are incomplete.” He said “that means we need to pursue that further.” He did call it a “well-designed” and “good project.”
David Robertson said, “I’m torn because we haven’t been given direction by the city council – we must densify. On no uncertain terms, we must increase density in the city. We’re up against a huge problem as far as the amount of housing and this is a drop in the bucket, this number of units… we’re doing this piecemeal and I hate it.
“We’re so far away from meeting the housing needs,” he added.
“By the same token, if you’re going to densify, this project is very well-designed,” he added. “I’m favorably impressed by the project itself.
“I just have problems with the procedure that’s getting us there today,” he said, noting that, with other things in order, he would be supportive of the project and ready to recommend approval.
Darryl Rutherford agreed with his colleague on the project itself, in that “this is the type of project that’s potentially the future of Davis.” He said he hears the neighbors’ concerns on the size and scale of this, that it “could be quite daunting as you stand in the backyard… staring at this large building. But I’m not sure what else we’re going to be doing in this town.”
He suspects the whole corridor will be growing upward. He called the project, “Precedent setting.”
Unlike his colleagues before him, Stephen Mikesell indicated he would be voting no on the merits. He said that city council should “give serious thought to revising those guidelines if they are going to be treated as though they are simply suggestion, then the people affected by those guidelines need to know that.”
He added, “If we are going to continue to enforce those guidelines on most of the people, then we should enforce the guidelines on all of the people.”
Mr. Mikesell said, in the hotels, they were accused of “mutilating the zoning, where the zoning was squishy on those,” then he said that “in this case, the zoning is not squishy, the zoning is very clear as to what the height limitation is on these.”
Marilee Hanson, the vice chair who chaired the meeting, said, “The guidelines mean something. They’re the rules, they’re the standards. We should require people to abide by them or get rid of them.”
She suggested the whole neighborhood bought their properties “thinking that those guidelines meant something.”
She noted that the neighbors stood up there tonight, stating “they have no project with a project going in here – they expected a project to go in here, but they expect it to comply with the guidelines.”
Ms. Hanson argued it would be impossible to make the recommended findings. “They just aren’t true,” she said. “This isn’t consistent with every guideline and zoning requirement.”
She also cited a “pattern here,” where “we’re constantly brought these things with inadequate information and we’re told that the city council really wants our opinion.
“I don’t think that the way that the city has to go is constantly breaking the rules in order to get more housing,” she said. She argued this project could be great if it were more compatible with the neighborhood.
So, in the end, the commission – the vast majority of its members – determined they could not recommend either the Initial Study or the fact that the project “is consistent with the objectives of the General Plan, conforms to the General Plan and any specific plans, complies with applicable Zoning regulations, and is consistent with any adopted design guidelines for the district within which the project is located.”
That simply means that the council will ultimately have to make their own decision – as they would anyway.
–David M. Greenwald reporting