City core falls short on density

Developer Kelly Samson wanted to put a very small project on a very small lot he owns on Wyatt Way, next to the Kass funeral home.

He wanted underground parking, ground-floor offices and a few residential units. But if he built to the allowable density, he couldn’t provide the necessary parking spaces.

“We say in our Comprehensive Plan that we want to put density downtown,” Samson said. “But then we make that impossible by the sheer mathematics of the various requirements – not the economics, but the math.”

Samson is not the only one who is concerned. A recent staff report shows that the city is falling far short of the goal of channeling half the island’s growth into the downtown Winslow area. And as part of a state-mandated review and update of the plan, those responsible are trying to see how that failure can be remedied.

“The problem is two-fold,” said Sean Parker, chair of the Planning Commission, which is considering matters related to Winslow density at its Thursday meeting and for several meetings thereafter.

“There is concern from existing neighborhoods scheduled to take growth and a lack of understanding that we have a larger goal in mind, and our density bonus plan has been modified over the years to penalize the bonuses that the Comprehensive Plan says we need.”

As an example of the former, Parker cites the Island Apartments, a complex planned for a one-and-three-quarter acre site on the north side of Ihland Way, south of the Village shopping center. Originally envisioned as having as many as 90 units, it was down-sized to 37 units, and, in that configuration, received unanimous Planning Commission recommendation.

Parker said that neighbors’ specific objections regarding traffic flow could have been addressed by re-design, which could have preserved more units. And with little empty land remaining in Winslow, Parker said that any development at less than permissible density jeopardizes the ability to reach the 50-50 balance envisioned in the comprehensive plan. “One after another, we are dismissing opportunities to reach our broader goals,” he said.

The original Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1992, planned for island population to grow from 16,850 to 24,280 by 2012, an increase of 7,430. Half of that – 3,715 – was envisioned for Winslow.

But a recent report from planner Steve Morse shows that over the last six years, Winslow has seen just over a quarter of the island’s growth. Of the 1,327 dwelling units permitted on Bainbridge since 1996, only 401 have been in Winslow, compared to 926 in outlying areas.

Morse’s report says that it is still possible to put enough residences in Winslow to house 3,715 people, especially by full development of vacant land in the ferry terminal district, where the 160-unit Harbor Square project designed by Parker and architect Bill Isley is pending, and where at least one other large tract of land is available.

To approach the 50-50 split, though, Parker says development will have to use the so-called “bonus densities” approved for the Winslow area.

In much of the downtown area, densities are not expressed in the traditional units per acre, but rather, in what is called “floor area ratio” – the relationship of built footage to total lot size. A permissible FAR of .4, for example, means that roughly 16,000 square feet of space could be placed on a one-acre lot.

To encourage greater downtown density, the zoning code permits developers to increase their FAR ratios by paying for additional footage or by creating public amenities such as open space or trails, frequently not on the project’s site.

But the cost and complexity of the bonus program has discouraged widespread use, Parker said. And if the bonuses are not used, the objective of half the growth downtown can’t be achieved.

“Our whole growth strategy is based on those densities. We can’t reach our objectives without the bonuses being used,” said long-range planner Kathy Cook.

While the planning commission is wrestling with possible ways to make the bonus program more attractive, it is considering one concrete plan to increase close-in density – an ordinance to encourage cottage housing, smaller and presumably more affordable homes.

The ordinance defines “cottages” as projects where at least half the homes are 600 square feet or less, and where none are larger than 1,100 square feet. The incentive for the developer is that one-and-a-half times the number of cottages could be placed on a tract – six units per acre instead of four, for example, on the theory that no more people would live in six small cottages than would live in four larger homes.

The ordinance would permit cottage developments in areas zoned for 2.9 homes per acre or more – basically around the perimeter of Winslow, Cook said.

And the commission is finally tackling the long-overlooked problem of defining Winslow for purposes of measuring growth. Under a proposed resolution, the boundaries would run from Eagle Harbor north along Weaver Road to New Brooklyn, then east to Puget Sound.

While Parker is concerned about the feasbility of channeling growth into Winslow in the short term, he is more optimistic about the long term.

“As the area evolves into more of an urban center, it will take on a life of its own,” he said. “The plan is more viable in the 20-30 year range than in the short range,” he said.

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