Zoning and Design Guidelines Do Not Provide the Protection Many Believe
The Vanguard has argued the need for the city to first update what appear to be outdated guidelines, rather than approving Trackside and continuing with a patchwork approach to planning and hit-and-miss exemptions to zoning and other guidelines.
The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association points out – and I think correctly – that Trackside represents a violation of the design guidelines for the city.
“It doesn’t fit the design guidelines that are intended to make a transition from our traditional neighborhood into the downtown core area,” Rhonda Reed said in an interview with a local media outlet.
Indeed, the city’s guidelines for 3rd Street describe that a mix of “commercial and traditional residential building types is appropriate in this area.” It also states that “two- and three- story buildings should predominate.”
City staff argued at the Planning Commission hearing that these are only “guidelines” or “suggestions.”
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.
But it turns out, as Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee pointed out last week, these arguments represent largely a false hope. Even if the Neighborhood Association is substantially correct in their interpretation of the design guidelines, the city council simply has the ability to override and amend them – on the fly.
“I would like to add a caution, it sometimes surprises people – the zoning is the zoning until the city council changes the zoning,” the mayor pro tem explained during the Vanguard Conclave last Wednesday. “Sometimes we feel that there’s certainty because of the zoning and because of the design guidelines, essentially three city council members can change that.
“This is a very important piece because a lot of people spend a lot of time working on the General Plan and they’ll spend a lot of time on this updated form-based code for the Core Area Specific Plan, but ultimately you need council members who will agree to follow what’s been worked on,” he continued.
He then brought up the most pertinent example.
“We have some good examples of that and we have some not so good examples of that. I think Maynard Skinner is here, I thought he was here, and he’ll be happy to share his thoughts on what happened with Mission Residence,” Brett Lee explained. “That’s a good example of where the neighbors in the core area had come up with a fairly recent review and plan for what that neighborhood should look like and it was not adhered to by the council majority.”
Mission Residence, in my view, represented one of the more egregious moves the city has done with respect to ignoring agreed-upon design guidelines.
The problem here is not that the project is bad – it is a good densification infill project, that, taken alone and in isolation, would provide a great model going forward for an efficient use of space.
The problem is that there was a tremendous and egregious abuse of process to get to approval.
The city went through an extensive visioning process for B Street. The process included a large amount of community feedback and extensive community buy in – give and take and compromise.
This wasn’t a 20-year-old planning document, this was an agreement that was completed in 2008 and the project was approved in 2013. Five years.
This is an egregious lesson because, once again, we have council asking the public to weigh in on a Core Area Specific Plan process but, just four years ago, we see what the city did with respect to the B Street Visioning Process.
We want public participation, we want public buy-in, but if the city is simply willing to throw out the agreements without even a reasonable showing of change in circumstances, it will undermine that process. What incentive do residents have to compromise if the city is not willing to stick to their bargains and agreements?
The Old East Davis neighbors have complained about Trackside, but in a way Trackside is fairly reasonable compared to what happened with Mission Residence where the council on a 4-1 vote simply disregarded the agreement from a few years before.
And that’s the problem we face – we have a system where any agreement can be thrown out with three votes. Brett Lee has this one right, and in the end there will be little Old East Davis can do to change that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting