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Monday, July 09, 2007

Is Davis Ready for Taller and More Box-like Downtown Buildings?

While the county continues its assault on the borders of the city of Davis from the outside, Davis' own city council continues its assault on the core character of the city from the inside. Last month, the city approved the destruction of a number of older bungalows in the 3rd and B Street project in favor of three and four story condominiums.

Meanwhile, the council will be deciding on a 4 story, 65 foot building on 403 G Street that contains no setbacks and no stepbacks from the street. The ground floor will contain retail and restaurants and the upper floor offices and condominiums.

The specifics of this project include a giant box shaped building that will rise immediately off the street. It is designed to be a 21,910 four-story building. The project would either demolish or relocate the existing 2500 square-foot single-family residence.

However one feels about the project proposal itself, my own preference would be for a development that is more fitting with the character of downtown, that would include more setbacks and stepbacks from the sidewalk in addition to less of a box-like shape that will really destroy the character of downtown itself, there are actually much bigger consequences in the form of two zoning changes to all of downtown.

City staff has delayed any action taken on this item until a future date. The city council will hold an initial policy discussion on Tuesday and take any public comment. However, they will not vote on any proposal.

The following information is from the planning commission that met on June 27, 2007 to approve this project.

That staff report argues that the relative small size of this particular property, 6,030 square feet, creates a constraint on potential development of the site. Several nearby properties that have been redeveloped are two or three times larger than this property. Thus, in order to develop this site, the applicant is proposing a building that would exceed the allowable floor area ration (FAR) of 3.0. This projected would have a FAR of 3.6.

Instead of simply amending the FAR for this site, the city staff is looking much broader.
"In recognizing the potential development constraints on downtown lots that may prevent effective redevelopment consistent with City policies and objectives, the project also includes an amendment to the zoning ordinance for the C-C (Central Commerical) district."
The amendment to the zoning ordinance would allow for projects to reach a FAR of 4.0 "based on a project's ability to achieve additional downtown objectives."

The amendment would change the FAR which currently reads "the total floor area of a building shall not exceed three times the lot area" and will add:
"except that through Design Review approved by the Planning Commission the allowable floor area ration may be increased up to a maximum of four times the lot area on sites within the Core Expansion North Subarea..."
There would be three "bonuses" one for incorporating design and layout for ground floor retail and restaurant use, one for public plazas and spaces, provision of underground parking, or proximity to a parking structure, and one for saving trees.

This current space would not have a public plaza, so the maximum FAR would 3.75.

In addition to changing the FAR, it also changes the two-story Conditional Use permit (CUP) requirement. This would eliminate a CUP requirement for all structures over two stories. And it would enable the erection of buildings of up to five or six stories without a CUP.

The staff is arguing that the Design Review process,
"which is required for all new buildings or new additions provides an adequate and more appropriate mechanism for reviewing new projects and addressing any issues related to height or design."
So this proposal in essence does three things, first it building a huge box-like building at 403 G Street, second it enables future buildings to have an FAR of up to 4.0, and third, it will enable the building of much taller building without a CUP.

As with all of these changes, the key question is what do we want our downtown to look like. Drive to the corner of 5th and G, look at the new Chuck Roe Building that is being constructed there and decide whether that is the vision that you have for downtown. Perhaps it is and these kind of projects are fine.

Personally, I have seen some more innovative designs that can utilize more density and mixed uses of retail, office, and residential space in the Downtown Core Area. I think taller buildings that can incorporate plazas, open space, setbacks, and other devices will create a much better visual ambiance that fits with our existing Downtown Core Area. I have concerns about the vertical nature of this project that comes forth immediately from the sidewalk, that will act to close off and inhibit foot and bicycle traffic.

I simply do not believe that we are being creative enough in our usages with this project and am alarmed that the city is making changes that will seemingly make this sort of project more commonplace. Davis needs a discussion about what the future of the Downtown should look like. Densification is a good goal for saving land. But it should be done in a way that enhances rather than detracts from the visual and aesthetic nature of downtown and I simply believe based on the construction of the Roe Building, that this will not serve that sort of purpose.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting