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Small town with big visions

A rendering of a hypothetical development where Blackbird Bakery now sits. Such a development is allowed under current codes; proposed changes would allow for an additional story. More images are at the city’s web site. - Courtesy of Van Meter Williams Pollack
A rendering of a hypothetical development where Blackbird Bakery now sits. Such a development is allowed under current codes; proposed changes would allow for an additional story. More images are at the city’s web site.
— image credit: Courtesy of Van Meter Williams Pollack

Planners, citizens debate the wisdom of taller buildings along Winlsow Way. This is the second part in a series about the Winslow Tomorrow planning initiative.

It was Blackbird Bakery, minus the bakery – and the building.

In the foreground, green trees stood starkly against superimposed walls of white. Those walls belonged to an imaginary development, created by a city-hired design team to illustrate the difference between current codes for the downtown core, and those being considered by the Planning Commission.

It was supposed to be an exercise; Blackbird isn’t going anywhere for now.

Still, at four stories tall – a size already allowed for under the current rules – the image drew audible gasps from those watching a presentation at City Hall Thursday.

“Jeez,” said an awestruck voice in the crowd, unable to keep mum as nearby chatter swelled.

Then came another mouse click by planner Libby Hudson. Like bread baking at Blackbird, the imaginary building in the picture rose even higher, taking with it the temperature of an already heated group of islanders.

Thursday’s meeting – the most recent in a series of sessions held by the Planning Commission as it reviews the changes – followed an emotionally charged community-organized meeting on Tuesday, at which some 75 people gathered to express their views on Winslow Tomorrow, a long-range planning effort for downtown that is nearing the implementation phase.

“I see a government that is unaccountable and out of control,” said Stephanie Ross at the Tuesday meeting. “And that scares me.”

At the core of the debate is a set of proposed code changes that would, among other things (see box), increase building bulk and height downtown. Planners say the changes are necessary to accommodate growth and development in Winslow.

Others wonder how that growth would impact character and independent businesses, which some fear would be forced out by the changes.

Questions were raised about what the changes would mean to the island’s water supply, the capacity of which is now being studied. Also discussed were open space, tree preservation, transportation, green building, financing for the project and how its current course might impact development outside of Winslow.

Thursday’s gathering afforded fewer opportunities for public outbursts than the Tuesday meeting, as only questions – not comments – were taken from the audience. Still, some, like Eric Schmidt, embedded their views in their inquiries.

“I would like to know where the shadows of those buildings will be when kids are trick-or-treating on Winslow Way,” he said. “Has anyone figured out what that will look like?”

Public comment about the changes will kick off the next Planning Commission meeting, at 7 p.m. May 24.

City staff, who gave a brief presentation to commissioners and the audience before fielding questions, aimed to clear up what planners said was misinformation regarding the changes and their potential impacts.

Former Winslow Tomorrow project manager Sandy Fischer was on hand, saying that concerns about tall buildings are understandable, but overblown.

Alluding to Harbor Square – cited by many as an example of undesirable development – Fischer said that most lots downtown could never accommodate a development of that scale.

“That’s the exception rather than the rule along Winslow Way,” she said.

She also addressed the ways in which current codes are hampering redevelopment for existing retailers. Fischer pointed to a study that said more than 60 percent of island money is spent off-island. Small stores, she said, can’t expand because if they did, they couldn’t meet parking requirements on site.

That’s slated to change in November, when already approved parking changes take effect. Under the new requirements businesses will be able to meet their parking obligation off-site through a fee-in-lieu program.

The changes will reduce the parking requirement for retail and office space from four spaces per 1,000 square feet to two spaces per 1,000 square feet. That, said Kathy Cook, who took over for Fischer as project manager, is just one example of why changes are needed.

“It’s part of what we need to do for small stores to be able to stay and thrive,” she said.

A major point of contention was the rate at which development under the new rules might take place. Planners have continually stressed that growth would happen incrementally. Some in the crowd were less certain.

“What can you say to reassure us as a community?” asked Kirsten Hytopoulos, who helped create a website and petition opposing Winslow Tomorrow. “My understanding is that there are a number of developers out there waiting for these changes to take effect. Once investors see the opportunity, why would we not see rapid growth?”

To which Fischer replied:

“There’s a misconception that Winslow Tomorrow was all about investing in the downtown,” she said. “Most people agreed we either had to go up or go out. The economic analysis came later.”

Once it did, she said, economic interests dictated that codes should change even more drastically than the current proposal, but from a design standpoint the city wasn’t comfortable doing so.

The current proposal, she said, is a compromise.

Proposed changes to downtown design guidelines, which aim to mitigate increases in building bulk and height, were heavily scrutinized.

The Design Review Board, made up of local architects, developers and artists, is charged with judging the aesthetic merits of proposed projects based on those guidelines.

That body recently was given more authority, but some at the meeting wondered whether the guidelines, which aren’t law, would be enforced as written, and what recourse the community would have if they weren’t.

As an example, under the new guidelines, buildings over two stories would be required to have “stepbacks” at levels above two stories, the goal being to avoid monolithic structures along Winslow Way.

But in response to an audience question, planners acknowledged that there is nothing in the guidelines that would prevent builders from placing the stepbacks in the back of a building, thus negating their purpose.

Commissioners recommended that staff revisit the point. Still, Hudson said, there should be some wiggle room.

“We need some flexibility,” she said. “If you’re too structured with the guidelines it can stifle creativity.”

Cook said the guidelines, like all the other proposed changes, are part of a larger system that aims to preserve character.

“We want to avoid getting fixated on numbers,” Cook said. “What truly matters is the design of a building and how it looks and feels within the context of the neighborhood.”

When discussion turned to the state’s Growth Management Act, there was some disagreement about the island’s obligation to adhere to it. Some, like Planning Commission Chair Thomas Fischer, think the island, by virtue of its potentially limited water supply and limited access, qualifies for dispensations from some of its requirements.

Others, like Alan Grainger, who called such an attitude “elitist” and “selfish” because it ignores intent of the GMA, disagree.

“Which community is going to make up for (growth) we’re not going to take?” he said.

Added Commissioner Maradel Gale, “It’s us and our neighbors who are deciding to develop. Unless we can contain that, I’m afraid we may end up with the worst of both worlds – a hyper-dense downtown and a fully developed outlying area. We need to find a way to address that.”

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Tomorrow 101

The basics: Winslow Tomorrow is a long-range planning effort for downtown that began in 2004. It’s guided by the state’s Growth Management Act, which directs growth in cities around the state. The city’s Comprehensive Plan was crafted around the GMA, as was the Winslow Master Plan, adopted in 1998. At the crux is the premise that 50 percent of new growth – nearly 7,000 new people are expected island-wide between now and 2025 – should be steered into downtown. That decision was made by the City Council in 1994 with input from the public. The idea is that focusing density downtown will help preserve the rest of the island, though some disagree with this strategy, or the ways in which it may be implemented.

What’s new: Though nothing’s been built as a result of Winslow Tomorrow, tangible change is near. The City Council recently approved funds for the early stages of infrastructure improvements along Winslow Way. Now the Planning Commission is reviewing a number of code changes that could alter the course of development in Winslow. Changes wouldn’t be official until approved by the City Council, which will base its decision in part on the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Included in the proposal are revisions to:

Floor Area Ratio: Known by the acronym FAR, it determines the relationship of a building’s floor space to the lot on which it sits. To calculate it, divide the total floor area of a project by the total lot size. The city began using FAR in 1996 because it’s more flexible than the old model, which was based on units-per-acre. Density is the key.

Imagine a lot that is 10,000 square feet. Under a FAR of 1.0, a developer is allowed to build a 10,000-square-foot structure. If the structure were four-stories tall, it could only consume one quarter of the lot. At the other end of the spectrum, a developer working with the same FAR of 1.0 could choose to build a one-story building covering the entire lot.

Currently, the FAR in Winslow varies based on a building’s use. Residential development has a FAR of 0.4; commercial FAR is 0.6; mixed-use FAR is 1.0. The proposed code amendments would create a fixed base FAR of 0.7 downtown, regardless of a project’s use. Planners say a uniform FAR would simplify development in Winslow and better accommodate projected growth.

To exceed the base FAR, developers would have to contribute to a bonus program designed to create affordable housing, open space and downtown amenities. Developers would have some flexibility to choose how to meet the bonus requirements. For example, a project could meet the open space bonus by including a small green space on site, or by contributing money for open space elsewhere.

Under proposed amendments, the maximum FAR (for those who take advantage of the bonus program) would increase to between 1.5 and 2.5, depending on location. The city would decide whether a project meets bonus requirements.

Building Height: Building height is closely tied to FAR. Allowable building heights downtown now are 35 feet, except for south of Parfitt, where the maximum height is 25 feet. Buildings can be as tall as 45 feet, though, if parking is under the building (not necessarily underground).

Under the proposal, the allowable building height would be increased to as much as 55 feet, or about five stories. The tallest buildings would be allowed along the north side of Winslow Way and on both sides of Madison Avenue between Winslow Way and Wyatt. Some areas, like south of Parfitt, would see no changes. Maximum heights would be allowed only if parking is located under-building or off site through a fee-in-lieu program. Taller buildings would allow for taller “commercial bays” on the ground floors of buildings.

Design Guidelines: Related to building setbacks are new design guidelines that aim to lessen the visual impact of increased building bulk and height, and preserve the downtown’s character as defined by Winslow Tomorrow. Each downtown district has a separate set of guidelines. The new guidelines in the downtown “Core District” encompass building design, street character, public spaces, site development, circulation and landscaping, and will serve as a template for future amendments to the guidelines in other districts.

Building Setbacks: Most buildings now must be set no more than five feet from the sidewalk. The new plan would increase setbacks, something planners say will improve downtown character.

How to get involved: Planning documents are available for viewing at the city’s website. The Planning Commission on May 24 will continue where it left off at Thursday’s workshop.

– Chad Schuster

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