Citygrapples with building standards

Published on Thu, Mar 2, 2006 by eg Olson

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City grapples with building standards

By Meg Olson

A measure to throw wide open the development possibilities in Blaine’s downtown has created a rift in city council.

“This opens up a whole can of worms,” said city council member Charlie Hawkins at a February 27 work session. “What’s the point of us having rules if you can say you don’t have to play by the rules?”

At the suggestion of city manager Gary Tomsic council is considering a new conditional use process in the central business district that would allow developers to skip the recently updated development standards for the zone. The project would be reviewed by the city planning commission and then city council who could approve the project if they found it fit with the “vision” of downtown Blaine outlined in the comprehensive plan and contributed “substantially” to public amenities. “You can come up with a project way out of the box and if you as a city council say it’s good, it’s good,” said Blaine community development director Terry Galvin. Current development standards, such as height restrictions and design guidelines, would remain in place for those developers who felt they could build an economically feasible project without going through the long and more costly conditional use process.

“If we’re going to develop at all we have to allow the developer a certain amount of creativity or we won’t have development,” city council member John Liebert said. “Otherwise we won’t develop and downtown there’s nothing.”

Liebert and fellow council member Ken Ely felt a stagnant downtown and too restrictive development regulations were discouraging those developers who did look to Blaine as a place to invest.

“You can’t legislate development,” he said. “It has to be as flexible as possible while still having the ability to put the brakes on.”

Hawkins, however, felt the rules were there to protect community interest. “We make rules for developers because they come and make money and leave. They don’t have the best interests of the city at heart they have the interest of their pocketbook,” he said.

“We’re being way too paranoid about unscrupulous developers,” countered Liebert. “There are some good examples of that out there,” Hawkins said.

Council member Bonnie Onyon agreed that greater flexibility in the rules was needed, but said she wanted to retain some limits. “I agree we need some change – I just don’t see it as so open ended. It’s going to be too subjective,” she said. Galvin said that the planning commission had expressed reservations about the proposal because it offered too much flexibility and too little accountability for the developer. “One of the issues we have here is a consistency issue. If you approve one but not another are you opening yourself up to appearance of fairness problems?” he added. “It seems to me with this kind of rule you’re setting yourself up for lawsuits,” Hawkins said.With limits on building height Onyon indicated she could support conditional use process. “There needs to be some sort of caps,” she said. “I’m not advocating three or four stories, we do need to go up higher downtown,” but she felt a 20-story building was too tall. “I don’t like the sky’s the limit,” she said.

“But we determine where the sky is,” answered Liebert, insisting that with city council review a project wouldn’t go ahead if it didn’t fit with Blaine’s downtown.

“People don’t usually build the Empire State Building in the middle of nowhere. We terrorize ourselves with the specter of a wall on Peace Portal Drive,” Ely said, adding that if it took tall buildings to bring growth into Blaine’s core, he would support it. “I don’t know it that’s a scale I’d care to support,” Onyon said.

If carefully applied, Galvin said the proposed conditional use process could lead to some good projects in Blaine’s downtown that wouldn’t be possible under current regulations, such as one developer’s idea to but a six-story mixed-use building on the former gas station property abutting the freeway at F Street and Peace Portal Drive.

“There were some positive things that came from our discussions and that would be an example of where this would work,” he said, by buffering freeway noise and giving downtown Blaine a prominent landmark to attract travelers.

In a public hearing during regular session half a dozen Blaine developers, business and property owners spoke in favor of the proposed amendment. “I like Blaine, I’ve done well here,” said Ken Kellar. “I’d like to continue to invest here but with the present attitude of hesitation I’m not willing to.”

“Our hands are tied by current regulations,” said Steve Lawrenson. Onyon asked him what kind of height he would need to build a successful project on his Peace Portal Drive properties. “No one knows at this point what height is needed,” he said. “It would be a bargaining process.” For example, he suggested, they could build a taller building on the site of the Café International but leave the property they own across the street as public open space.

Galvin agreed if the process works as it should, there would be mutual gain. “It allows us to team up with the developer and come up with something more exciting, more creative, and a win-win solution for the developer and the community,” he said, “but there are downsides.”
With council members unable to agree mayor Mike Myers suggested they table the issue for further discussion but Liebert objected to leaving it open ended. “These are local people who have invested time and money to make Blaine vibrant in the old days and they’re still here to make Blaine vibrant again and these local people are saying let’s do something now,” he said. “We need to at least have an ending in sight.” Galvin suggested staff would suggest another work session as soon as possible working towards a solution within a few months.

Local developer Rick Osburn said afterwards he was disappointed in the lack of a decision. “That will have a huge impact on us,” he said, adding that his Harborside building proposal on Peace Portal Drive and H Street is not economically feasible unless they can get around city height restrictions and have three full floors of residential units above ground floor retail space.