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Apartment/hotel complex delayed

Even the developers admit that their apartment-hotel complex wouldn’t fit in with today’s High School Road.

But, they argue, the project sets the tone for the future.

“It is out of character today,” said Franco Mola of developer Base Capital in Bellevue, “but the zoning was created so that this area would redevelop, and it is consistent with that zoning.”

Mola made his presentation to the Bainbridge Planning Commission Thursday night, asking for the go-ahead despite an unusual recommendation to deny the project from the planning staff.

The plan calls for a 60-unit apartment complex and a 51-unit “extended-stay hotel” on the front portion of vacant land on the north side of High School Road, between American Marine Bank and the gas station/convenience store near the highway.

Wetlands areas on the rear two-thirds of the lot would not be developed.

The complex would contain a small amount of retail space, but would have a public plaza and two landscaped interior courtyards. Parking would be in an underground garage.

Public input – rather sparse considering the magnitude of the project – argued against looking too far ahead.

“This is out of character with the existing neighborhood,” said Ryan Vancil of nearby Blue Heron Court.

Much of the opposition came from residents of Virginia Villa, an apartment complex for senior citizens, many of whom live on modest incomes.

“We don’t want to see the trees go,” said Villa manager Linda O’Neill. “That is where the birds and animals live that our residents feed.”

Another Villa resident questioned whether the project was realistic today.

“This might be appropriate in the year 2012, but not in 2002,” she said.

The commission agreed with city staff that the project has problems, but members said those could be fixed relatively easily. So the hearing was continued to give the proponents a chance to redesign the plan and come back for final approval.

Originally, the plan called for a single building. But after hearing concerns from the commission about the mass of the single structure, Base Capital redesigned the project to create two buildings, leaving a visual corridor from the street through to the wetlands at the rear of the property.

The principal remaining concern, primarily responsible for the staff rejection of the plan, involves the parking garage. At the west end of the project, the roof of the parking garage would be just above street level. But as the street slopes downward to the east, more and more of the parking garage would be visible from the sidewalk.

From the east side, in fact, the complex would look like a two-story garage topped with three stories of hotel, whereas along the sidewalk, almost two-thirds of the length would be occupied by parking garage, utility rooms and driveway, according to the report from planner Bob Katai.

“The building would provide little of visual interest for the pedestrian,” Katai wrote in his report.

To address the problems of visual mass, including the parking-garage problem, the commission asked Mola to “drop the buildings down” by digging deeper for the garage, and to calculate the heights for each building individually, instead of calculating an average height for the two and evening up the levels of the two roofs.

“That will have the effect of lowering the east building by a full story,” said Planning Commission Chair Sean Parker.

To Parker, the importance of the project is that for the first time, the commission was trying to pay close attention to the design guidelines in the municipal code, not simply to the zoning.

“The zoning requirements address things like size and number of units,” Parker said. “The guidelines deal with all sorts of other things like pedestrian access, connectivity to other projects and breaking up visual masses.

“We are trying to say with this project that those guidelines really mean something.”

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