The process of crafting and approving the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) was heavily influenced by the pro-development faction in town, much to the discomfort of the residents. The final was not what the residents hoped for, but they accepted it as a compromise, primarily because of a promise to:
“Preserve and protect existing neighborhoods against potential impacts related to development: traffic, noise, air quality and encroachment of commercial activities.” LUCE Policy N1.4.
Since the LUCE was adopted, parts of it have been seriously rethought and restructured behind closed doors in “negotiations” where city staff and developers agree on what is best for developers and the city and how to convince the residents that this “really is in the LUCE.” The LUCE referred to now is not the LUCE we approved and the promise of neighborhood protection is no longer a consideration.
Earlier, City Hall borrowed money from the housing fund to help buy the RAND property, and therefore, a number of affordable units were required when the property was developed. No developers responded to the initial request for proposals because the requirements of City Hall could not be fit into the allowable height and have the development be profitable. The second RFP brought one response. Related Companies said, “We’ll try.” They then determined that they could not make it work at the allowable height.
But because City Hall was on the hook for affordable units, and was now in negotiations with a developer, they decided to make an exception and allow more height than was legal for the spot at the time. What’s built in the Civic Center Village is even taller than the council approved.
Last Tuesday, the council did two things in relationship to the City Hall-owned property on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets. They asked for an alternative plan with a limited height of 84 feet, versus the 148-foot project proposed, and they entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with John Warfel to develop the property.
While the president of Related California (invited by council) testified that he couldn’t fit all the requirements into 84 feet, Warfel thought that his team could. Was this situation set up to justify a later council vote to approve a city-owned building taller than Downtown zoning allows, should Warfel find that he can’t do it all in 84 feet? Cynical? We’ve seen it before. And remember, even if the council approves a taller project, it will be subject to a referendum.
After the LUCE was passed, development agreement applications began to pour in. As the float-up process started without a new zoning ordinance, residents pointed out that the process was “cart before the horse.” The answer was, “Don’t worry. The new zoning ordinance will correct any mistakes.” My question is, “Who will the corrections benefit, the developer/City Hall coalition, or the residents?” Want to make a bet?
There is an alternative. By determining how many people can be supported by the present infrastructure — sewers, electricity, dependable water supply, parking and traffic solutions, schools, hospitals functioning right now — city officials could project the reasonable and appropriate amount of development for a workable city, taking into account the weekend influx of visitors. With that knowledge, coupled with the development agreement calendar, City Hall could make sure they don’t overbuild and accurately predict how much developers should pay to increase infrastructure needed to support their developments.
But that would require a change of purpose on the part of city officials, political entities, and developers.
The draft zoning ordinance was released for review and comment in mid-November. It’s the first major zoning update since 1988, and it is supposed to contain provisions to implement the LUCE, which was adopted in July 2010.
The draft ordinance and supporting documents, draft design guidelines, and a draft zoning district map are posted on the Planning Department’s website at smgov.net/departments/pcd.
Hard copies of the draft ordinance are also available at all branches of the public library, and can be purchased for about $70 at City Hall.
The draft document is an inch-and-a-half thick and weighs about 4 pounds — not exactly light reading. Planning commissioners have complained that it’s difficult to compare it with the current zoning ordinance because the format is completely different.
The Planning Commission began a series of study sessions regarding the draft ordinance on Dec. 11 and will continue its deliberations on Dec. 18, Jan. 8, Jan. 15, and Jan. 22. The commission is scheduled to reach consensus on its recommendations to the City Council on Feb. 5, however, at least one commissioner has expressed doubts that this schedule is realistic.
According to plan, the City Council will begin its review on March 3, 4, and 11, and is scheduled to vote on a first reading of the final zoning ordinance on March 25. The second reading and adoption of the ordinance is scheduled for April 8, and it would take effect on May 8.
On Dec. 17, the City Council is scheduled to extend the current interim zoning ordinance to May 31, 2014.
During the first Planning Commission hearing on the zoning ordinance, Commissioner Sue Himmelrich requested that written public comments be attached to the appropriate segment of the draft zoning ordinance. David Martin, head of the Planning Department, indicated after the hearing that he really wants to hear what residents want and may do something like Himmelrich suggested.
But I’m reminded of Martin’s statement to those present at one of the early meetings he held with members of the neighborhood council. He said, “I’ll listen to what you have to say, but my decisions will be based on my professional expertise.” Keep in mind that his professional expertise was gained during his 10 years in the development industry, and the bottom line focus in Planning Department staff reports make that clear. What’s changed? Nothing I see.
Authored by Ellen Brennan, contributed to by the Our Town group, which can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.