Council Reopens Downtown Building Height Debate

Mayor Carpenter and Ron Packard say they regret earlier decisions that opened "Pandora's box" to allowing taller buildings.

Expressing regret over earlier downtown zoning decisions that allowed for taller buildings, Mayor Val Carpenter and Councilmember Ron Packard successfully convinced the council on Tuesday to reopen the debate over building heights on Main and State streets.

“I am absolutely opposed to three-story buildings in the core of our downtown,” Packard told council. “I’ve supported, and was heavily involved, in opening Pandora’s box in the outside areas. But when it comes to the core, I am absolutely opposed to three story buildings, and I want no question about that.”

While some council members were hesitant to change downtown zoning, the council unanimously agreed to have staff begin the process of possibly tweaking codes by bringing recommendations to the planning commission, and later to council, allowing for public discussion on the issue.

In years past, both Packard and Carpenter led the way to change downtown zoning codes to "form-based" codes, considered by many a more modern way of engaging in city planning. In form-based codes, the emphasis is on a structure’s form and relation to the surrounding city area, and not on specifics like floor area ratios, setbacks, parking ratios, and other aspects, including how many stories are allowed.

There is a 30-foot height limit in the downtown core, but Carpenter lamented what she called “height creep”, the process by which developers are able to exceed building height limits through variances for certain aspects of their projects, such as towers.

She said she is “sad” about the four-story project on First Street on the site of the old Post Office, which is outside of the core of the downtown, where a 45-foot limit is allowed.

“I am concerned … that with some of the applications we’ve seen, or will see, that we’ll get increasing pressure to work around the 30-foot height limit,” she said.

Councilmember Megan Satterlee, who agreed she did not want to see a downtown full of three-story or more buildings, argued that by restricting developers to only two stories, it would cut off the city’s ability to negotiate for items that may be of public benefit, such as paseos, or pass-throughs, from parking areas to the street.

“The language proposed here really shuts the door on the conversation,” she said.

She said she would support reopening the issue if ways to preserve form-based zoning were pursued, making it “crystal clear” to developers what the city wants in terms of preserving most of the core of downtown.

“Let’s not throw out the change, let’s solve that piece that isn’t working to our expectations and address it,” she said.

Councilmember Jarrett Fishpaw was in agreement with Satterlee on the issue. Councilmemer David Casas, who was open to the possibility of three stories for some buildings, said he thought it would "serve the community well to have this discussion."

Several speakers told the council they were in favor of the earlier changes made to the zoning, and urged the council to not eliminate those changes.

Brooke Ray Smith of Passerelle Investments said it is important for building codes to remain flexible.

“If the framework is too restrictive, the resulting projects are uninspired, or even worse, no one will want to build at all.”

Val Carpenter May 10, 2012 at 06:03 PM
To be clear, I am not "sad" about the design of the condomium development located on the site of the old post office on First Street - I voted for it, and continue to support the zoning changes that created the form-based R/3 and CD zones in the north and south triangles of the downtown area, including their 45-foot height limits. What I meant to say about that particular project is that I anticipate that its height, particularly where it is 4 stories, may not be welcomed by some Los Altos residents - we'll see once it's built. Meanwhile, I am pleased that Council unanimously supported the recommendations in Mr. Packard's and my report. As I stated in the meeting, I am open to keeping the form-based zoning in the CRS district for Main, State and the middle section of First Street if the height limit is reduced to less than the current 30 feet, so that no structures taller than two stories can be built in this area. I look forward to more public input when the Planning Commission considers these issues and it ultimately returns to Council.
Marya Keeth May 10, 2012 at 10:37 PM
I think we need to go back to the previous height limits and 2 story limits in town...anywhere! The monstrous 3-4 story going up on First is awful and the building that practically covers little Akane Restaurant is a big, ugly box. The building on the site of the old post office will be as bad. How this stuff got thru the city I do not know. There will never be enough large buildings in town for merchants or Developers. Enough is enough!


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