If good fences make good neighbors, then questionable fences apparently create 4-hour City Council hearings.

City Council on Tuesday heard an appeal of the proposal to reoccupy the former post office building at the corner of 5th Street and Arizona Avenue. However, the vast majority of the hearing focused on how a fence around the property was approved, why a fence was needed and how tall a fence should be.

Skydance Productions has applied to reuse the site with a remodeled interior and construction of a new addition at the rear of the building.

The remodel would reduce the first floor from 17,516 to 16,146 square feet, convert the 2,645-square-foot mezzanine level to an 8,508-square-foot second floor, add an 8,148-square-foot third floor and increase the basement from 13,807 to 16,516 square feet.

The project proposes a new 32-foot-tall, 14,490-square-foot building to be built at the rear of the existing landmark building.

The city Planning Commission approved the project earlier this year, but Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy appealed that decision.

The appeal cited concerns over the project’s compatibility with the Land Use and Circulation Element, conflicts with the proposed Downtown Community Plan, questions over traffic mitigation plans and a belief the project’s office component required additional review. Excluded from Council’s jurisdiction Tuesday was a 5-foot fence already approved by the Landmarks Commission.

Discussion of the actual project and its merits or flaws was largely absent from the 4-hour hearing. Instead, staff and the applicant were put on defense over the fence.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich quickly zeroed in on the process that allowed the fence to be approved by the Landmarks Commission as a standalone item. She criticized staff for their interpretation of the jurisdiction over the item and said the City should be able to modify the fence height.

The verbal fencing prompted City Manager Rick Cole to step in on behalf of staff.

“There’s a difference between how we argue interrogatories in a courtroom and pose questions of our staff,” he said. “It may not make sense to you how we’ve interpreted the rules, that’s fine, but we’ve done our best to interpret the rules and to apply them to this project. If you’re dissatisfied with this project you have a right to have a different opinion, but I’m concerned as city manager that you’re putting our staff in an awkward position of defending our policies … ” he said.

Himmelrich said she was trying to understand the basis of the policy decision that allowed approvals for the project to be dispersed among different city agencies.

Cole said a complicated project like the adaptive reuse of a landmarked property requires some judgment calls on who approves what.

“It is not easy in a built-out city to adaptively reuse a building and we make it, in fact, pretty difficult, and this hearing is an example of just how difficult it is,” he said. “We say we want to have adaptive reuse but we want to make sure the landmark people take a look at the historic piece we want to make sure the Planning Commission takes a look at the parking and the this and the that and the [Architectural Review Board] looks at the design. All three of those you have built into the process, this community, this council has said we want all three of these commissions to have overlapping jurisdiction and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Attorney Kenneth L. Kutcher, speaking for Skydance Productions at the meeting, said the Landmarks Commission’s decision could have been appealed but as it wasn’t, the only issue before the council was the potential addition to the building and the parking variance.

“There was no appeal filed with respect to that (fence) approval and the time for appeal has run, that approval is final and cannot be challenged,” he said. “Those of you that are lawyers on this board will understand the principle of finality, that’s over.”

Councilman Kevin McKeown acknowledged the council’s lack of authority over the fence but repeatedly asked if the applicant would voluntarily reduce the height from 5 to 3 1/2 feet.

“Please don’t wall off our beautiful old post office from us,” he said. “Please don’t do that with a 5-foot fence that you don’t really need. Please agree to voluntarily change the height of that fence so I can vote for that project enthusiastically tonight.”

Skydance representative Nancy Reid said the fence design was the result of an exhaustive process that included safety concerns, privacy concerns, aesthetics and physical constraints of the property. She said the Landmarks Commission ultimately approved the fence because it was an appropriate response to the conditions and, while the company couldn’t make any promises, it would be willing to continue discussions with City staff if the project were approved.

“What I’ve found throughout this entire process is, unfortunately, people are making a lot of reactive comments and opinions that aren’t fully based on fact,” Reid said.

McKeown and Himmelrich made a brief attempt to continue the discussion to allow for potential revisions to the project, but the rest of the council was on the fence over the idea.

When discussion returned to the substance of the appeal, the council unanimously praised the design of the project for preserving the historic integrity of the site. Brief discussion regarding parking resulted in a boon for the applicant when council altered the parking variance imposed by the Planning Commission. The applicant had previously been required to secure deed-restricted off-site parking spaces. However, Council said the city should incentivize, not penalize, adaptive reuse and removed the deed-restricted requirement.

By the end of the night, City Council denied the appeal but the project will return to various other city commissions for additional approval regarding its landscaping and eventual reoccupation of the historic building.

editor@smdp.com

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