Developersinvited to join in new zoning fest

Published on Thu, Feb 24, 2005 by eg Olson

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Developers invited to join in new zoning fest

By Meg Olson

After some procedural wriggling Blaine planning commissioners and city council members agreed to let local developers join in as they inched their way through new development regulations for the central business district.

Mike Kohl, representing Joel Douglas’ Palisades and Seascape projects at the south end of Peace Portal Drive, and Harborside LLC partners Doug Romano and Rick Osburn attended the February 17 meeting looking for more flexible rules about uses and designs in Blaine’s downtown.

“This becomes such a sensitive document in the growth of your community,” Kohl cautioned. “If you hold it too tight you don’t allow development to come to your community. The more flexibility you can provide under a reasonable rein of guidance the better off.”

Planning commissioner Brad O’Neill wondered if it was appropriate for developers to be in on their review as the commission had closed their public hearing on the proposed rules a week earlier. City council members present assured the planning commission that they would hold another hearing on the regulations during their review and the session proceeded as a joint workshop. “It would be unfair if there was no chance for rebuttal from other people who spoke at the public hearing,” O’Neill said. “This solves my problem.”

The first changes planning commissioners wanted were to the vision statement, and they wanted any trace of hip, such as “not your daddy’s border town,” out. “I like the idea of funky but I don’t want it in this document,” said Sue Sturgill. City council member Bob Brunkow asked if they wanted to take out the whimsical because the document wasn’t intended for an audience that wouldn’t appreciate it. “The whimsical part is fun but it might be out of character for the sophistication the city deserves,” O’Neill said.

As planning commissioners went page by page through changes to the downtown zoning map and rules for development there, Kohl and Osburn both stressed that the rules needed to give developers enough leeway to build something that would fit with today’s as well as tomorrow’s downtown. “In an emergent market the income level of the community won’t support certain levels of the market,” Kohl said. “As you thicken the level of requirements you dampen the ability of the developer to do something.”

Sturgill suggested rules made sense when it was more profitable to build something that didn’t fit with the downtown vision. “The developers want condos. As it is our entire central business zone is going to be only one floor’s worth,” she said in reference to the proposed requirement for commercial or retail uses on the first floor of downtown buildings. Floors above street level could be used for residences, as proposed in the Harborside project at H Street and Peace Portal Drive.

“The free market system is a dynamic motivator,” Blaine community development director Terry Galvin said. “We may have residences on the second floor but the market may shift.” O’Neill agreed. “It’s a chicken and egg thing. The more people are living downtown the more there is a demand for services.”

Both planning commissioners and developers were strongly in favor of a professional design review process over a review board. “It’s local, it’s part of the community, it’s cheap,” Galvin said of the review board process he had initially proposed. “The downside is it becomes bureaucratic.” As an alternative he said the city could refer major project developers to a list of design professionals they would pay to check for compliance with city standards and submit a report to the city. “There’s an economy of time,” Osburn said in support of the latter option. “If we can get a fast fair and consistent opinion by hiring a professional, we’ll pay for it.”

When it came to specifics developers wanted less of them and not more. “If there are too may requirements that need to be met you might as well draw up the plans here and hand them out,” Kohl said. Galvin agreed that the new regulations were focused more on giving developers the right idea that telling them how to get there. “Intent statements are increasingly important and staff will rely on them a lot in coming years,” he said. “We can regulate this thing to death or we can allow the free market to work.”

O’Neill was strongly in favor of options, rather than mandatory requirements for things like view corridors. “He’s sacrificing building space and there should be repayment for that,” he said. Galvin said the regulations gave planners the flexibility to offer incentives for things like open space and access, as they did allowing Harborside LLC to build a higher building in exchange for a view to the water from the street and boardwalk access. “That flexibility provides feasibility,” Osburn said. Kohl added the options needed to be clear. “We’d like to see some kind of menu,” he said. “Pick three of these 10 options and you get an extra 10 feet.”

Kohl hoped the city would look at similar flexibility for parking, asking that buildings be allowed to be set back from the property line at the street to allow for cutouts to accommodate angle parking. “It benefits our project and the whole downtown area,” he said. Galvin said the city was hiring a consultant to look at the overall parking picture downtown. “Long-term it will require lots of involvement,” he said.

Planning commissioners will continue their review March 3 and at its completion they will forward a recommendation to city council.