The original, decades-old PD-15 documentation is faulted for its lack of clarity. Unfortunately, the new document reflecting city staff’s recommendations has its own issues with clarity (Draft PD and Presentation). You will recall that last November, Council Member Jennifer Gates sent the second neighborhood committee home after being bogged down a second time by non-negotiable towers’ representatives. During the two ensuing months, city staff were to have created their own recommendations based on their research and experience. Unfortunately, given the output, I suspect work only began after the Christmas wrapping paper was cleared.
First, the document doesn’t stand on its own as an obviously understandable document. Instead, questions abound, requiring significant explanation by city staff at last night’s meeting. Hopefully as the draft tightens, these ambiguities are made clear to future readers.
For those who enjoy spoilers, the city’s recommendations call for the area between northwest Highway and Diamond Head Circle to support 240-foot heights, while from Diamond Head Circle northward to the alley could build to 96 feet in height. Overall, the PD would equalize density at 90 units per acre. The rough result would be 540-750 total units (405-615 new). Why the spread? You’ll have to read to the end.
Deeded vs. Buildable Lot Lines
Going into the meeting, I had questions about deeded lot lines versus buildable lot lines. The document isn’t consistent in its measuring points, which causes confusion. For example, deeded lot lines are used to calculate lot coverage. However, because interior roadways in PD-15 are owned to their midpoint by the bordering building, deeded lot lines include the roadways. Therefore, you envision 65 percent lot coverage as a park-like setting when in fact maybe 5 or 10 percent of the lot is not concrete because the roads don’t count as covered land.
In the section on setbacks and encroachments, it seemed that “benches, street lamps, landscape planters, sculptures, and other decorative landscape items” could be located on the private roadways. This confusion was because the setbacks were defined as deeded lot measurements but sidewalks and other pedestrian access begins at the curb (or buildable line).
Clarity and consistency would improve the immediacy of comprehension.
Shrinking The Northwest Highway Setback
Staff recommended reducing the Northwest Highway setback from the existing 100-foot setback to 70 feet. That 70 feet is pretty much taken by the Pink Wall barrier of varying width (anything from the barren wall to green strip to parallel parking) along with a two-lane roadway, which itself may include further setbacks. But also, while a building could be build 70 feet back from Northwest Highway, there would be a 15-foot portico reducing the setback to 55 feet, further encroaching into the frontage road. Somehow reducing the free flow of frontage road traffic at the same time you’re adding hundreds of residential units seems problematic for traffic.
Multiple Ceilings For Height
In the graphic above, you can see there are also multiple conflicting height controls. There are two residential proximity slopes (RPS), one of which allows for much greater height than the flat 96-foot height proposed for parcels on the north side of Diamond Head Circle. Why have RPS and height restrictions?
Setbacks Squeeze The Toothpaste
There are also both urban form and tower spacing setbacks required – 20 feet on Diamond Head Circle and Northwest Highway and 30 feet on north-south property lines – but only above 45 feet in height. While I support these added pullbacks on Diamond Head Circle, I don’t elsewhere.
Think of a tube of toothpaste. If you squeeze it, where does the toothpaste go? Up. With large pullbacks on four sides, the bulk of a building is unnecessarily sent up – the very thing the neighborhood is against the further north a property is located. Does anyone care about pulling back on Northwest Highway or side boundaries if it means the resulting buildings would be taller?
Parcel Combination Oddity
Four or five times last night, city staff brought up the concept of combining lots (larger lots offer more design options than smaller ones). This has been floated multiple times over the course of meetings. What made it odd is that, in addition to their comments, some things in the draft PD seem to encourage combinations. Any combination or replatting of lots is the purview of the lot owners, not something the city should encourage or discourage. Odd.
However, what the city has failed to do in the past 18 months is to definitively say whether the roadway closures necessary for such combinations would be allowed by the city. Until that’s done, it’s just pie in the sky.
Unrewarding Rewards For Open Space And Affordable Housing
Lastly, there are potential density bumps for developers providing either green space or affordable housing. These sweeteners add up to a potential 35 more units per acre. However, there is no corresponding increase in buildable envelope. This means that developers would be cannibalizing their income for no added benefit.
Broken down, developers could increase the proposed 90 units per acre to a maximum of 125 per acre. But if the building doesn’t grow, the result is the same total rentable square footage but now it’s divided into more, smaller units, of which up to 15 percent would be affordable (renting for less than market rate). No one would do this. At best it’s an economic scratch, at worst a revenue reduction. I’m all for affordable, but I don’t see the benefit to a developer.
And speaking of civic benefits, the document was silent on any type of energy efficiency requirements. No LEED guidelines — nothing. While it adds cost, it also adds quality and longevity.
The Committee Speaks
The city presented their recommendations and rationale. A lot of it was boilerplate from existing and exemplar documents. When the time for questions and comments came, most committee members thanked the city for putting what had been more ethereal concepts on paper. And I agree. Had this been done a year ago, the process may have been over months ago. That said, I understand their desire for the neighborhood to have worked it out on their own.
After the “thank yous,” the next most common comment was a desire for time to digest. The recommendations were only available four-ish days prior and without the detailed explanation provided last night. I agree. It should have been provided a week prior and included visuals and asterisked explanatory notes.
A specific comment hit on sidewalks and overall aesthetics. The city recommendations included improvements to sidewalk conditions in the area. However a few committee members pointed out that because not all buildings will redevelop at once (likely many decades before Athena or Preston Tower came down), the cohesive look will be unattainable.
Well, them’s the breaks. Zoning changes aren’t retroactive (no one installed fire sprinklers in their older buildings when they became mandatory in the late 1970s, right?). But as I told a committee member, “since y’all are meeting, have you asked the towers if they’d be open to updating their landscaping and sidewalks to put them more in line with the recommendations?” I’d hope the towers wouldn’t want to be the ugly ducklings if there’s a reasonable fix.
One committee member also called out the lack of visual representation. “A picture is worth 1,000 words, and the city continues to give 1,000 words.” Having seen such 3-D visuals elsewhere, I can say they’re worth far more than 1,000 words. Council Member Gates and staff said such exhibits would be available in time for the public meeting where a more formal presentation to the public will be given (slated for late February).
The timing crunch and lack of visuals are more reasons I believe this document was crafted far closer to last night’s meeting than I’d be comfortable with.
Finally, several committee members made note of their own work over the months between meetings. They’ve taken it upon themselves to craft their own plans and want them heard by the public. City staff said they’d been taken into account in crafting their recommendations but they were not the basis of their work. There was some air given to possibly finding a compromise, but that would need to come from the committee as the ship had pretty much sailed as far as the city was concerned.
The towers continued their tantrum this morning with this email being sent by Athena representative and now HOA board member Barbara Dewberry.
Subject: Who can run against Jennifer?
OK, we have been ignored and Jennifer and Margo are pushing the developer’s wishes to reality. Once again she has used people only to shut them down and do what she intended in the first place.
Who can defeat her: Laura would you run? John Pritchett? Who? Let’s find someone to support, as the filing time is near. Someone to stop her. Rasansky? Wonder if Ann Margolin would come back? She was very effective and responsive. Grasping at straws here.
Also how do we rally our neighbors for the Community Meeting?
Let’s find a way to preserve the neighborhood.
As I said, there will be a larger public presentation in late-February, details to come.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.