Bainbridge planning commissioners set themselves up for a fact-free vote against the controversial Winslow Hotel, architects for the project said in the days before the advisory board asked that the proposal be rejected by the city’s hearing examiner.
The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission unanimously voted 7-0 last week on a recommendation of denial. The advisory opinion will now go before the city’s hearing examiner, who will make the final call on whether Bainbridge’s first full-service hotel gets permits.
In their recommendation, planning commissioners said the project should not be given a conditional use permit, and said the potential parking, traffic and noise problems from the hotel “have not been adequately analyzed or are incompatible with the project’s surroundings.”
The planning commission also said the hotel was “out of scale” for Bainbridge’s downtown and would serve visitors at “the expense of island residents,” and added that traffic from the hotel would “overwhelm” downtown and “do irreparable harm to Winslow’s small town atmosphere.”
But in an interview following the recent string of public hearings and planning commission meetings devoted to the hotel, the two Bainbridge architects behind the project said commissioners appeared to be largely uninformed about the details of the hotel proposal and were simply repeating oft-wrong assertions made by opponents to the downtown development.
Jim Cutler, an architect with Cutler Anderson Architects, said many of the claims made by opponents of the project were simply false.
“There were some exaggerations and there were some statements that were simply not true,” Cutler said.
Some of the exhibits given to the planning commission by opponents were also false, he said, and noted that the development team was not given an adequate opportunity to set the record straight.
One major problem area, he noted, was the project’s compliance with the city’s comprehensive plan, Bainbridge’s 20-year plan for managing growth and development. Planning commissioners said the hotel ran afoul of those policies set for downtown as well as ones in the Winslow Master Plan.
Cutler, however, noted that he and fellow architect Bruce Anderson made an extensive listing of city policies from both plans that related to the hotel project, as well as the objective criteria that the planning commission was supposed to use to make a judgment on the project.
Cutler also noted how he’s had transcripts prepared of the planning commission meetings, and that the design team has scoured those comments looking for ways to improve the hotel project based on the concerns of neighbors and Bainbridge officials.
“For instance, one of the commissioners mentioned that we were too close to a neighbor on the southeast corner of our property with our parking lot,” Cutler said.
They met with the neighbor, he added, and resolved the issue. Now the neighbor is supporting the project.
“Likewise, one of the commissioners said we really need affordable housing and this hotel — the people who are going to work here are not going to be able to afford to live here, and they are going to have to come from off-island,” Cutler recalled.
“We thought about that,” he added. “That is a dilemma. Obviously, in areas that are growing like the Seattle area … affordable housing has become a huge issue because of the demand.”
The hotel proposal was then changed to include six efficiency apartments that will be rented to hotel employees.
That idea, along with the criteria for the project’s approval, was sent to the planning commission before their vote.
“They did not acknowledge it. And when we went to the hearing, to our genuine chagrin, all that we heard was a reiteration of the statements that were made by opponents of the project, many of which were simply not necessarily not true, but were ignoring the facts,” Cutler said.
The architects for the project said they did not expect a decision from the planning commission that would be fact-based.
“We’ve realized, belatedly, that this is a political process and not one based in fact,” Cutler said. “This is a political struggle as opposed to one of just getting everybody to agree on facts.”
Despite the claims that the project will hurt Bainbridge, the architects said the opposite is true.
Anderson said the hotel will benefit other businesses, many on the island, and lead to additional jobs that are created off the hotel grounds.
He cited an analysis from Columbia Hospitality, a hospitality management and hotel consultant company based in Seattle, that the project would add to the island’s economy.
“For every $100 spent at a hotel, $211 are spent in the community. That’s more than double,” Anderson said.
“There’s a job component to that, too,” he said, and added that the hotel is forecast to create up to 90 secondary jobs beyond the staff that will work at the Winslow Hotel.
“Some will be on the island, and probably some will happen with suppliers around the region,” Anderson said.
Cutler said he found it dismaying that the planning commission would make a recommendation that looks subjective, rather than one based on the city’s approved guidelines and regulations.
It occurred to him after he heard multiple commissioners make statements about the hotel during earlier commission meetings that were baffling.
“At that point, belatedly and kind of naively on my point, I realized that this has nothing to do with facts. It has to do with politics.”
Cutler recalled one commissioner calling the hotel “an events center.”
“No, it’s a hotel. It’s not an events center,” he said. “I don’t even know where that comes from.
“What do you say when someone says, ‘That’s a window,’ when it’s a door? You’re speechless.”
Another commissioner, Cutler recalled, said the project would be built in the heart of Winslow’s “residential district.”
“It’s in the downtown core,” Cutler said, noting that the hotel property has offices and retail stores across the street, and more office buildings to the west.
“He said, ‘residential district.’ I went, ‘Huh?’”
Anderson said he was disturbed by the lack of consideration given to the review of the hotel and how it actually is supported by the city’s comp plan.
“They don’t have a deep understanding of the planning documents and policies that they are supposed to be thinking about. I’m saying that in as nice of a way as I can,” Anderson said.
“I don’t want to say it’s like people who quote the Bible but haven’t read it, but I think they have not deeply immersed themselves in the comprehensive plan. They are not looking at things like the economic policies that carry just as much weight as any other policy in the plan,” he said.
Also a false notion is the claim that the hotel will be an “exclusive” destination won’t be used by islanders. The restaurant, spa and other amenities are expected to draw residents, as well as the hotel itself.
“How else would we do business? The island has to support it,” Cutler said.
Mike Burns, the owner of the property and the developer of the hotel, came upon the idea to build a hotel when he couldn’t find accommodations for a wedding in the family that was held on Bainbridge. He wanted to build something that would be a benefit to Bainbridge, Cutler said.
Hotel occupancy declines to 40 to 50 percent in the off-season, Anderson added.
“They don’t survive without community support,” he said.
Commissioners’ comments on traffic problems were also off, Anderson said, despite professional traffic studies that were provided to planning commissioners that analyzed the area from hotel site downtown to High School Road.
What’s more, Anderson added, is that the city has already reviewed the project as in compliance.
“They can talk about traffic, and speculate it’s bad and ignore the traffic reports,” Anderson said. “But the city has already issued a Certificate of Concurrency, which is the city saying, ‘There is nothing you need to do to our system of infrastructure related to traffic. You are not creating an impact that you need to correct.’”
In fact, he added, the hotel site attracted more traffic when it was once home to a restaurant, a barbecue place and another business with 35 employees.
The city has determined, because of the lower traffic levels forecast, that the project will not be assessed traffic impact fees if it goes forward.
Cutler said the commission was “impenetrable to facts,” and when he asked that the project be judged using objective criteria, the response came that the hotel would get a subjective look.
“If it is subjective, how can anyone do anything on this island? How can you do anything if you don’t have objective criteria to work with? That’s my complaint,” Cutler said.
“In my world you look at all the facts, and then you dream and do everything to fulfill all of the requirements of a place, and work within the restrictions that are given you. And it all has to do with the tangible, real world.
“Otherwise, you completely defeat the whole planning system. They literally defeat the whole planning system because nobody can trust the rules,” Cutler said.