Council votes to loosen downtown code restrictions
Blaine City Council stopped short of giving free rein to downtown developers, but they will give them more latitude.
At their March 13 meeting and, in a prior work session, city council members had a vigorous discussion about a proposal to let developers design projects completely outside the specifics of downtown regulations, as long as they stick to the city’s vision for the area as outlined in the comprehensive plan.
“The answer lies somewhere between having total flexibility and good criteria,” said city manager Gary Tomsic, who suggested that eliminating restrictions could jumpstart stalled downtown development. His initial proposal was to allow projects that did not comply with development regulations to undergo planning commission and city council review to determine if they were consistent with the comprehensive plan vision and would substantially contribute to public amenities.
Following a February work session in which some council members felt the measure was too open-ended and left the city vulnerable to legal action if they turned down any projects at all, Tomsic, city attorney John Sitkin and community development director Terry Galvin came up with a more regulated freedom.
“Rather than evaluating a proposal based on whatever we feel like, we evaluate it on good criteria,” Tomsic said. “If you have a process that has rational criteria every application is reviewed against, the chances of someone prevailing at litigation are minimized.” Those criteria, he said, already existed in Blaine’s municipal code and the amendment requires developers to adhere to five chunks of code that provide general guidelines. “Really we’re not saying it has to be consistent with the entire regulation but with the intent and purpose and those statements are fairly general,” Tomsic said.
The criteria, Sitkin said, would give the process consistency and give developers who used it some guidelines. “The code is not unconstitutionally vague,” he said. “When you use language like ‘consistent with downtown character,’ now that’s nonspecific. You need something specific telling someone what they have to do and here the architect and developer can refer to those themes.”
While council member Bonnie Onyon said she supported more flexibility for downtown developers, she was leery of eliminating specific height restrictions, especially on the west side of Peace Portal Drive. “The west side is like the baseline,” she said. “I think we should limit height on the west side because I don’t know if I want to chance someone even going five stories,” and the new amendment would allow them to build twice that high, or more.
John Liebert said the slope and soil conditions of properties on the west side of Peace Portal Drive would prohibit overly tall buildings. “I think mother nature should set the baseline, not us,” he said.
If developers along the harbor put up a five-story building it will lead to an escalation of building heights as you move further inland, Charlie Hawkins said. “It will impact every other property owner downtown,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re giving the pie to only the developers on the west side of Peace Portal Drive. Our job is to protect everyone in the city not just certain developers.”
With bigger buildings, Hawkins said, there was also the need for more parking that would be difficult to accommodate on the properties west of Peace Portal Drive. “I think that can be managed in a variety of ways,” Galvin said, including paying into a downtown parking district or adding additional parking at another site.
Jason Overstreet said tall buildings in the downtown core were not a problem, and could be the solution to a stagnant downtown economy. “These design guidelines for a pedestrian friendly environment are based on density and we won’t allow density to occur,” he said. “We’ve just seen one of the greatest real estate booms perhaps in history and here we are in downtown Blaine with dust swirling in the street. People are bringing great projects to Blaine and they’re hitting a wall.”
Hawkins said he was concerned that residents and visitors would find a wall of high buildings blocking views of the harbor, but Overstreet countered that from street level, even two stories is a wall. “One of the reasons we’re building the boardwalk is to preserve public access to that view,” Tomsic said, adding proposals would still be subject to general guidelines on building shape and mass to allow light and air through.
Council voted five to one to approve the amendment, with Hawkins opposed and Onyon voting a cautious yes. “I have some reservations because I really don’t envision 10-story buildings in our downtown,” she said. “The proposals will have to be very creative to convince me.”
Tomsic, however, said focusing on the height issue is a big mistake. “It’s about more than that. It’s about attitude. The message is we’re willing to sit down and talk about options. We’re not giving away the ranch. We’ll expect some things in return.”
Meanwhile, Rick Osburn, whose Harborside project at H Street and Peace Portal Drive is on hold pending approval of a full fourth floor made possible under the new amendment, said he thinks it would let developers find creative ways to design economically feasible projects. “I think you’ve succeeded at putting in language that will allow developers to move forward,” he said.