October 30, 2007

Keep it low and slow

The city of Santa Barbara thought it had the building height restrictions it wanted, until a condo developer put up a five-story building downtown. The building’s scale in comparison to those nearby sent people scurrying to the city council, asking for a re-consideration of the current 60-foot limit, only to be told by city staff that reducing the limit could cause trouble once current building owners realized that shorter buildings mean a lowered value for their property.

A mammoth nine-story building is the elephant in Redmond’s living room that many city officials seem to hope no one will bring up. It was the city’s idea to hire consultants to work on design standards for downtown, and for the city council’s own appointed team of citizen advisors – Downtown Urban Renewal Advisory Commission, to help fine-tune standards for development.

However, one of the things DURAC and it seems, the Planning Commission as well, wants to include in the standards are changes in the current building height code – which allows 100-foot buildings in a large chunk of downtown, including the areas next to the historic Redmond Hotel, former Redmond High and Jesse Hill schools, and residences nearby.

It appears, however, that the advisory groups have been getting the cold shoulder from city council and administrators when concerns about the out-of-character height limits are raised.

Advisory groups, it seems, are good only when they tell you what you want to hear.

Redmond became saddled with the 100-foot limit back in 2002 when in desperation for more development downtown it raised the existing lower limits for a particularly ambitious project that never happened. It changed the limits for several city blocks, even though the project only included one block – but that’s a whole other editorial.

Suffice to say since that day five years ago many folks in Redmond have had second thoughts about allowing buildings that high downtown; some are only thinking about it now, being unaware the city had ever changed it.

While it’s unlikely having a 100-foot limit on the books is going to create a ‘concrete canyon’ overnight, it is inviting trouble. Redmond’s downtown will eventually become more urban and taller buildings are a part of that equation. But we’re quite a way from needing/wanting/or having the resources for anything that big. A nine-story building would need several stories worth of parking and we can’t even figure out how to build a modest couple-story parking garage yet. Blasting deep enough through our bedrock for underground parking would make any high-rise very costly in Redmond.

Smart cities use lower building heights to protect historic commercial and residential areas, modifying them through the years only as the need arises.

We should be one of those smart cities.

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