Height debate resumes among planners

Downtown development will be shaped by the decisions.

By suggesting buildings be allowed to rise higher, planners and Winslow Tomorrow members inadvertently gave rise to several other things.

Rising first were questions about how taller buildings would change the character of downtown. Next rose the hackles of opponents, followed eventually by the walls of an imaginary, computer-generated “canyon” along Winslow Way designed to illustrate what the street might one day look like should the proposed changes – which also would allow for more density – come to pass.

Then, last July, rose a new wrinkle, when Planning Commissioner Maradel Gale proposed an alternative that would still allow for greater density, but would maintain the current building height allowances – generally four stories instead of the proposed five.

The discussion resumes at 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, as Planning Commissioners prepare to make their final recommendation in March.

“There really is an evaluation process going on,” said Winslow Tomorrow Project Manager Kathy Cook. “The Planning Commission listened to the concerns voiced at earlier meetings and came back with a more moderate approach.”

Commissioners have been wrestling with whether the changes – first proposed in October 2006 – are essential to the implementation of Winslow Tomorrow, the city’s long-range downtown planning effort. Their review has spanned two public comment periods and 11 meetings, the last of which came in mid-July.

Meanwhile, a private consulting firm conducted an economic feasibility study last fall and will present its findings to commissioners on Jan. 24.

Cook said the goal of tomorrow’s discussion is to “refresh” commissioners on the topic and answer questions.

The original proposal called for several new rules that would change the course of development downtown.

Along with increasing the maximum allowable building height from 45 to 55 feet in some areas, the plan would increase the maximum allowable Floor Area Ratio, which determines the relationship of a building’s floor space to the lot on which it sits.

Building setbacks and design guidelines – both considered key mechanisms to changing or preserving the character of downtown – also would be changed under the plan.

Gale’s proposals would leave the building heights alone and allow for a smaller increase of the maximum FAR. The alternate proposal hasn’t been formally accepted, but Gale’s colleagues have expressed a general agreement that it’s more appropriate than the original plan.

Though the Planning Commission won’t have the final say, its recommendation will influence the decision of the City Council.

The commission’s review of the changes also is important because it’s helped gauge the public’s response. Some islanders have expressed strong opposition to elements of the plan, most notably greater building height and density.

“The dominant spatial scale is defined by the buildings framing the street and the topography,” Gale said in her proposal. She also said many feel that building heights allowed under current zoning are “already too high and out of scale with the downtown.”

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