by Jon Anderson
The latest PD-15 meeting was interesting and odd. Unlike in prior meetings, this session was more of a conversation between committee members and city staffers Andrew Ruegg, Neva Dean and City Plan Commissioner Margot Murphy. It was a chance to ask questions of staff and each other to explore the next steps and possibilities moving forward.
It was also a time to debunk some misinformation. Personally, I think the more free-flowing conversation was needed. The committee had absorbed plenty of information from the city and the neighborhood, and needed to make some sense of it to begin piecing it together.
100-FOOT SETBACKS ON NORTHWEST HIGHWAY
One topic of discussion, the existing requirement for 100 foot setbacks along Northwest Highway, highlights my feeling of oddity. The answer from the city, that the committee could change the existing setbacks within PD-15 was half-true. Yes, the committee can, but the 100-foot setbacks are contained within the individual parcels’ deeds and therefore would require city action to change, which is outside the power of the committee. I whispered this to city staff and was told I was correct, but no one clarified this for the committee.
The reason for the setback chat was Royal Orleans, whose swimming pool and garage entrance encroach on the frontage road (not visible on map above). In a scenario where new development would increase traffic, a non-compliant, pinched road isn’t ideal.
JUST FILE A ZONING CASE
Thankfully on another question, Margot Murphy jumped in with an expanded clarification. The question concerned the misinformation floating around the neighborhood, propagated by those against this process – namely whether a developer could just file a zoning case and bypass the authorized hearing.
As I’ve said, yes, a developer can, but they can only file a case for the 60-ish surplus units available. Commissioner Murphy expanded that to say the 60-ish units are a shared resource within PD-15. The other buildings in the PD would view one parcel trying to take those units as diminishing their own value and would fight it. Because of this, passage through Plan Commission and City Council would be very unlikely.
COOKING THE COMMITTEE’S BOOKS
Another piece of gossip is that the city already knows what they want to do with PD-15 and will just run over whatever the committee says. The fuller answer came back that whatever the committee decides will be captured and legalized by city staff, after which the committee will see/vet the final language.
As it comes to Plan Commission, city staff and Plan Commission may add differing recommendations which are called out in separate boxes. It’s then up to CPC and City Council to work with the community before and during those approval steps to accept or deny any suggested modifications.
At this point it’s is just like a regular zoning case where a developer typically says they want “X” and city staff either agree or amend before sending it on. The public gets to weigh in on those changes before they’re voted on. The public and committee aren’t shut out of these decisions until the final City Council approval is done.
Traffic studies are a catch-22. The city has no money to fund one and won’t require one until a zoning case is filed by a developer, so how does the committee understand the traffic implications on their recommendations (that developers will use to guide their plans) without a traffic study?
After much back-and-forth, the city said they could provide a traffic planner to speak with the group. During this exchange, I had another thought and texted a land-use professional in the room asking how much a study would cost. The answer was “thousands, not tens of thousands” of dollars.
There are six buildings within PD-15, each building should kick in the $1,000-ish and get a study done where they design the parameters and there’s no whiff of developer or city steering the outcome.
The city reiterated they have no interest in the financial viability of any development project. Unfortunately, this translates into the city providing no guidance on what would be profitable to build while protecting the neighborhood’s interests.
It was noted that A.G. Spanos, contract holder on the Diplomat parcel, funded two studies on the economic viability of various construction projects within the PD. As part of the developers’ plans, author of the most recent and detailed study, Joseph Cahoon was available to answer questions that the committee didn’t ask.
In tonight’s meeting, city staff poo-pooed the idea of inviting Cahoon to a session to explain his work. Thinking this a mistake, I texted A.G. Spanos’ representatives asking them to invite the committee to a separate session. Alternatively, committee members can also contact Diplomat’s committee representative and pass along any desire to meet.
ALTERNATIVE USE BEYOND MULTI-FAMILY RESIDENTIAL
Thinking they were beyond contemplating uses beyond straight multi-family, one committee member was reluctant to completely abandon the concept of a neighborhood coffee shop and social venue (or even a dry cleaners) within PD-15.
Preston Tower representatives were quick to point out that in the past there was a restaurant, various convenience stores, sandwich shops, and a coming wine bar. They said all those uses failed to attract enough customers to remain open and they gave the wine bar a year before it too closed. Without the ability to advertise and the extremely limited parking, these uses would continue to fail from lack of patronage.
Dry cleaners are a chemical nightmare for any site and are on par with gas stations for chemical contamination. Getting approval for one might be challenging and would likely wind up being a kiosk where clothes are cropped off and picked-up translating to a bevy of delivery vehicles in the neighborhood providing there was enough business to keep it going.
REMOVE THE DENSITY CAP
Another oddity. If the committee so chose, they could simply raise the overall unit density number and walk away. The density cap is the lynchpin to the PD’s control of development. Were that removed, traditional zoning cases could be filed with developers asking city hall to approve increases in height, lot coverage, setbacks, sidewalks, greenspace, etc. so long as they stayed under the density cap (just like today where someone could apply for the surplus 60-ish units).
I’m glad the committee saw this as the cheat it is. Diplomat representative Maggie Sherod said is best when she said that this process of thoughtfully expanding development rights is complicated, time-consuming and a bit frustrating. However, it would net the neighborhood a better, more controlled result than just abdicating responsibility and hoping, (fingers-crossed) the city would get it right.
Sherod’s words were particularly poignant because those selling (like Diplomat) are portrayed as just trying to grab as much gusto to line their pockets before they run away and leave the neighborhood in ruins. Were that true, she’d only be pushing for the cap to be raised so she could run faster.
CLIQUES AND MORE CLIQUES
I’ll leave you with a little high school reminder. Note that no entity has polled the residents within PD-15 or the Pink Wall in general to get their opinions on what’s going or thoughts on development. Everyone who speaks, speaks for the few handfuls of people they’ve personally spoken to. Those who are against everything hang in their clique while those who are more open to the potential hang in another. Except when being harangued by someone from the opposing clique, folks stay in their clique. It’s warm, fuzzy and non-confrontational.
So when anyone says, “everyone I talk to…”, remember “everyone” is a small number and their own opinion makes it highly unlikely they’ll hear from the other side. It’s the echo chamber of the clique.
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