Thursday, June 23, 2016

Conflicts in Planning Land

Commissioners Lee Buffinton and Andy Montroll,  duly diligent
There has been an enormous amount of hard work and great critical thinking happening on the planning commission over the last few weeks, as commissioners struggle to understand the repercussions of the downtown core overlay district zoning change they are charged with evaluating. The City Council has asked the Planning Commission to provide their approval or disapproval of the dramatic zoning change necessary to allow for a height increase, by right, from 65 feet to 160 feet in an area of about 2 square blocks. They are charged with doing this in an extremely short period of time. As one commissioner noted last week, they spend much more time deliberating on much smaller projects. As another commissioner said when she discovered they were expected to have a conclusion by July 6th, "You have got to be kidding!"
 There are many things that make this complicated and even sometimes prohibitively convoluted, but the main question is whether they are being asked to approve a zoning change for this particular project or a general zoning change. Whatever your thoughts about the project are, it is clear that the Planning Commission would not be reviewing this change right now if it were not for Mr. Sinex's Town Center project, and it certainly wouldn't be reviewing it within an irresponsibly small window of 120 days.
     If the change is being made for the project, and if the project is not in accordance with our comprehensive plan, then it is spot zoning, and illegal. David White continues to flit back and forth between discussing the merits of the particular project and those of the abstract zoning change. Sometimes the discussions are about the maximum build-out allowable under the proposed zoning; other times commissioners are told not to worry, because the proposed project doesn't do X or Y. This all comes to a very concrete conflict when the planners discuss what kind of a physical model they want (they want one; and they want it before they make a decision about the project; but they are being pushed to decide without one). In any case, the model, which they will get only after their deadline for making a decision, could be either of the maximum build-out allowed in the zoning change, or of the proposed Sinex project. Or of both.
   While David White is unclear about whether the zoning change is for a particular project or just a general change, he is quite clear that it is in harmony with our comprehensive plan, Plan BTV. Fortunately, members of the planning commission have challenged him on this assertion a number of times, noting that PlanBTV shows an 8 story mall, not a 14-story one. It also states that citizens are comfortable with height as it is and that increased density need not mean increased height.
Commisioners Lee, Baker, and Buffinton

   Another conflict in planning land is about the different benefits and detriments of height versus mass. The conversation is most often carried out as if we had only two choices: a project with two 14 story towers which more than double our current height allowance, or a massive bulky monolith. There are pictures of wedding cakes tiered elegantly, and giant brown blocks that are built out to the maximum borders. Lee Buffinton proposed keeping the building within our current height restrictions AND tiering it with step or set backs. Because both scenarios of the either/or narrative are unacceptable. This excellent and wise suggestion must be repeated often!
    Also controversial in this planning discussion is the question of "by right" allowance of height. While currently a developer must provide 20%  affordable inclusionary units (we thought it was 15...but it turns out to be more in this part of town) with any housing development, if he gets more height he would be asked for 5% more for every extra floor. Now, with this proposed zoning change, a developer can get the height just like that, by right, with no public bonuses. That's what it says: no public bonuses, by right. There is still discussion about returning the streets (which process we pay for with TIF money) and the argument is that this is a public benefit, but the zoning language itself says No public bonuses and By right.  David White argues that if a development is larger a developer must provide more because the percentage of units will be more. This sounds good until you realize that this proposal includes many floors that are not housing (parking garages, office space, retail space).
      While planning commissioners and city councilors are concerned about this by right allowance and about the affordability profile of the project, the Mayor, who graced the meeting for a while, but slipped out when public comment period started), asserted that the city council had already vetted the affordability profile and that they were satisfied that they could not ask for more units. I know this to be incorrect, since at least three city councilors testified at the meeting when the pre-development agreement was signed, saying they had serious concerns about this aspect of the project and would not approve the development if they were not addressed. At the last moment in the meeting, a comment by Councilor Bushor demonstrated that this kind of misrepresentation is not uncommon in this process.
   Another bone of contention with this zoning change, or is it with the specific proposal? is the question of above-ground parking. One of the great selling points of this development and of urban infill altogether is that it will improve the walkability of the city and cut down on automobile use and greenhouse gas emissions. It is supposed to be an antidote to "sprawl" and provide a way that people can work and shop and play (as they say) near where they live. Well, then why the 500 extra parking spaces? And why are they above ground in the proposal despite the fact that city policy is clearly against above-ground parking? Well, to answer the first question: we "need" more parking spaces because the anti-sprawl argument is mostly just a talking point and these people are not serious enough about climate change to even consider a development that would truly decrease car use. When asked last night about whether he could put the parking off-site or eliminate it altogether, Mr. Sinex, who, moments before had been talking about the green nature of his project, said  categorically, No, that would not be possible. My investors would not support that. So much for change and progress and innovation. Business as usual rules again. As to the underground parking question. Sinex claims it would cost too much and take too long. So, do we have to just accept that and accept the extra three stories that putting parking above ground entail? even if it goes against both our height restrictions and our restrictions for parking? Well, David White thinks it will be fine, and showed us lots of nice pictures of parking garages that don't look like parking garages....kind of like those cell phone towers that sort of look like trees. But the planning commissioners are not convinced. They want parking underground, off-site, or, if nothing else is possible, indistinguishable (the fake tree model). But why would nothing else be possible? Some critics of our movement say we are afraid of change. In truth, we want change. Real change. It is projects like this that are stuck in the old ways, ways that are clearly destructive to the environment, to community values, and to our human-scaled environment.  Business as usual is not change.
    There was one more controversial moment at the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday. Councilor Sharon Bushor was there and during public comment time she lodged a complaint publicly which she had already filed with David White. The packets received by the planning commissioners included several instances of language which suggested that the city councilors "strongly recommended" approval of different aspects of the proposal. Councilor Bushor clearly stated that the councilors did not strongly recommend anything in the proposal. But the City staff did. As is often the case, City Staff was putting words in people's mouths to achieve their own aims (sometimes it is the people who want X, Y, or Z, sometimes it is the businesses, now it is the councilors). But, lo and behold, sometimes those of us who are misrepresented pay attention (thank you, Councilor Bushor, for always paying attention), and we object to being misquoted and used as pawns in a game we never even wanted to play.
   It remains to be seen what the Planning Commission will conclude by their public hearing on July 6th. There is one more work session on Tuesday, the 29th, at the Police Station, with public comment at the end; and then the hearing at Contois on the 6th of July. Will they say No to this zoning change because it contradicts our comprehensive plan and because there is massive public opposition? Will they provide comments and concerns and hope that the Council will revise the ordinance and send it back to them for another vetting, by that time with benefit of a physical model? Will the city council heed the concerns of the commission and revise it and send it back, or will they rush along to approve it without taking care to do their due diligence? Or will the Planning Commission, urged on by David White and the Mayor, just say Yes, despite their considerable concerns? I think it might be up to you, reader, and your level of engagement and input into the next few essential weeks!


  1. Excellent summary of these past few awful weeks trying to decipher each move that has not been clarified.

  2. Mayor Weinberger and the Director of Planning & Zoning are attempting to bully the Planning Commission into giving the Mall a free ticket. That the Planning Commission is standing firm, and deliberating with due diligence is a tribute to their dedication, honor, and love for the City we share, and is an awesome demonstration of integrity.

  3. I feel we owe everything to those who've been fighting on all the anti-gentrification fronts. The 1% are aware of the newly-emerging resistance in town. As Ghandi once said,"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they try to crush you and then you win". Go Coalition for a Livable City

  4. This is an excellent and thorough account of Tuesday evening's meeting. Thank you! I would like to add a few more things to ponder. 1. Again and again when discussing housing affordability, we are hearing the perspective of the developer - how it costs too much, "kills the economics", and is not feasible. We are expected to simply nod and accept this as fact without seeing any profit and loss statements. How much profit is enough? When do the needs of the people outweigh the needs for financial gain? What about other costs to society of people who need housing but can't afford it? Small business owners know that there are times when you only break even, or maybe take a loss, but that is weighed against the long term benefits of building community. Lastly, the notion of "good planning" brought up several times by Mr. Bradley lacks the kind of innovative thinking that is happening around the world (where all the same challenges exist). Where short term gain is traded for long-term benefit, where building cost is reduced by creative solutions, such as thinking small with unit size and thinking big with ideas of pre-fab, unusual materials and a paradigm shift away from the old business as usual. 2. What will transpire at the public meeting on July 6th? Will we be given a power point promotion of the benefits of a zoning change? Will we need to write our questions on small pieces of paper and otherwise asked just to listen? I certainly hope not.

  5. I'm wondering if there's any possibility of bringing this to ballot, in the way the North Ave pilot project was brought to ballot.

    Is there any possibility of a similar effort? Otherwise, I fear the die is already cast.