Library Plan Goes Forward

Library Plan Goes Forward

City commissioners charged ahead this week with final approval of the site plan for their new library and civic center, despite an advisory board’s concerns.

Earlier this month, the city’s planning and zoning board opted for only preliminary approval of the project because unanswered questions remained, especially about stormwater drainage.

The 4-1 vote on Monday to approve the site plan included Commissioner Greg Seidel, a civil engineer, in the majority. He said he reviewed the stormwater plan and “didn’t see any deal breakers.” Commissioner Carolyn Cooper, who raised questions about the cost of dealing with some of the project’s risks, voted against the site plan.

Commissioners did endorse one recommendation from their advisory board: They agreed to consider tearing down the Lake Island Hall recreation building to add 36 more parking places to the site plan.

Seidel’s support came with two suggestions that were not acted upon. First, he wanted the city to pre-treat the stormwater before it pours into the lake. At the very least, he said, the city should remove trash from the drainage. “It’s not that expensive.” Mayor Steve Leary declined to endorse the idea but didn’t rule it out. “I’d want to know how much that would cost,” Leary said.

Second, Seidel proposed putting a parking garage at the southwest corner of the site where a parking lot is planned, using non-library funds to build it. He noted that a garage there wouldn’t interfere with the look of the two new buildings and could serve area businesses and park users as well. More importantly, he said, it would make sense to build the garage with CRA funds intended for the redevelopment of the central business district. Commissioners were not enthused. “The parking issue won’t be resolved until we have experience with the facilities,” Commissioner Pete Weldon said.

Commissioners felt comfortable ignoring their advisory board after city Planning Manager Jeff Briggs said that board was “not as familiar” with the site-plan issues as city commissioners were. “There doesn’t appear to be a lot of logic bringing it back” to the board after the Saint Johns River Water Management District reviews it, Briggs said. The district in the next few weeks will decide whether to permit the city’s proposal to channel stormwater overflow from Lake Mendsen into Lake Rose, the site of the city’s huge 1981 sinkhole.

The total cost of many elements of the site plan remain unknown. That’s not unusual for developers, but the city lacks deep pockets for the project. Unknowns include, for example: the cost of tearing down the recreation building; the cost of trying to save even a few of the 63 protected trees targeted for removal; the cost of stormwater pretreatment; and the cost of removing more muck if necessary. The placement of the library and civic center had to be shifted after soil borings disclosed deep levels of muck on the site.
Cooper asked if the city has budgeted enough to deal with all the risks. “I’m fine accepting the fact that we can fix it with money. The question is how much [money] and should we?” Other commissioners did not share her concerns. If more costs arise, Weldon said, “trade-offs will have to be made,” as happens to “any developer.”

Is Stormwater the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.  

Is Stormwater the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Guest Columnist Charley Williams

If ever a project needed to hit the “pause button” this one is it—staring us right in the face.

The stormwater component, as outlined in this piece, is the red flag alert.
The designated stormwater basin (of which Lake Mendsen is the receiving end) is already at capacity (Saint Johns River Water Management District). It already serves the Paseo, Winter Park Village, runoff from US 17-92 and 74 more acres. We all know the site at Morse and Denning/Harper floods–badly. Yes, we will experience future rain/storm events. Count on it. Also of note, current conditions offer an irony: Lake Killarney sits higher than Mendsen. That’s a problem. What’s more, Lake Rose, which sits at the other end of MLK Jr Park, is being proposed as the overflow-reliever. Lake Rose is a sinkhole. Lake Rose is not wholly owned by the city. In order for the city to solve the stormwater conundrum, it will need to purchase property it currently does not control. Citizens will lose yet more park greenspace if either lake needs to be enlarged. Is that fair? We are already looking at over 8% of the original park footprint being diverted to development. And now we are increasing that number? Yes!

Which brings me to this wish list: (the good news: it’s not too late, if there is political will)

1. Save the trees on the northwest corner of the library property: Right now, up to 63 trees are slated to be lost. After all, this was a park first. Is the rebranding of the project to “Canopy” an outright taunt?

2. Reclaim the lost square footage chopped out of the library project. The proposal adds only 600 square feet over our current library, with no café, no bookstore. That’s not what the citizens’ were promised—we were promised 50,000 square feet. Get it back. Function over form. Why are we short-changing future generations? Winter Park will continue to grow. Plan for it! We are paying architects $2 million to solve that problem. Have they?

3. Work harder to integrate the structures with the Park experience. Current designs operate as if on two parallel universes. The buildings ignore the park. How can that be? The park is an outright gift—embrace it.

4. Parking: we were promised a garage. Where is it? Priority: Convenience (and safety) for our seniors.

5. Green building standards: where is the solar component? This is Florida!

6. Finally—work to acquire the private holdings along Fairbanks that abut MLK Park. Add these parcels to the masterplan park acreage. The prior CRA made this a priority. (Loss of the Bowling Alley was monumental). Yes, this might just compensate for the loss of park space

In the NW corner of MLK Jr Park: fair is fair.

WP Sinkhole Back in the News

WP Sinkhole Back in the News

Winter Park’s infamous 1981 sinkhole is gobbling up attention in the latest debate over the city’s planned library and civic center.

City commissioners Monday will decide if they share an advisory board’s concerns that the sinkhole – now called Lake Rose – will have to play a major role in handling stormwater from the site.

Stormwater retention was one of two major issues that gave the planning and zoning board pause last week in considering the proposed library plan. Parking was the board’s other stumbling block.

City staff asked the advisory board to make a final decision about the complete site plan, but the board gave it only preliminary approval and added two conditions. First, it wanted more detailed information about the stormwater plan once the St. Johns River Water Management District approves it, a process that could take another three weeks. Second, it wanted city commissioners to explore finding 36 more parking spaces, a move that could result in the demolition of the Lake Island Hall recreation building.

No matter how the advisory board voted, city staff said later in the meeting, the city commission this Monday could override that recommendation and give the project final approval.

At the heart of the board’s concerns is the city’s plan to run a pipeline from Lake Mendsen, which would be next to the new buildings, to Lake Rose. The idea is to allow excess water from the larger lake to drain into Lake Rose during hurricanes and heavy rains.

Board member Bob Hahn pushed for the planning board’s two conditions, saying he needed to see additional study of the water management issue to make sure the idea would work. “I’m comfortable with moving the project through in the preliminary stage, but having it come back [to us} in the final stage.”

Like other board members, he expressed support for the new library but was concerned that unanswered questions remained.

“I, too, feel we’re going too fast,” Chairman Ross Johnston said. “There’s a lot that has been predetermined, much more than is normal for a planning and zoning meeting,”
Public Works Director Troy Attaway said the pipeline would let the two lakes “function together as basically one lake” and increase its capacity to handle storm water. Attaway predicted that the connection also would help alleviate historical flooding along Denning Drive during rain storms.

Lake Rose is named after Mae Rose Williams, whose house fell into the sinkhole in May of 1981. Her heirs still own a portion of the property, as do the city and another property owner. Cheryl Thompson, her granddaughter, objected to the city’s stormwater plan during public comment, citing existing overflow problems. Resident Kim Allen wrote the city that the pipeline may not relieve Lake Mendsen’s current lack of room for stormwater. The city also should be concerned about flushing polluted stormwater down drain wells into the aquifer, she said.

Other residents noted that the plan does not comply with the language of the $30 million bond referendum, which called for a parking garage. City code requires 146 parking spaces for buildings the size of the proposed library and civic center. The city would provide 213 spaces in parking lots, plus 24 parallel parking spots on Harper Street. City Planning Manager Jeff Briggs said the city is looking into tearing down the recreation building at Lake Island to add even more parking places, but no decision has been made. The building is “not well utilized,” he said.

The project will change the look of the park in many ways. In addition to the two new modern structures that will house the library and civic center, the site will lose 63 protected trees, including most of the live oaks on the property. In the mid-1900s, the site was a mucky wetland that gradually was filled in around the edges with construction debris.

Stewardship: In Support of a Land Ethic

Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.  

Stewardship: In Support of a Land Ethic

Guest Columnist Charley Williams

“The earth is common ground and…gradually the idea is taking form that the land must be held in safekeeping….” E.B. White, 1942

There is growing support state-wide and throughout our local communities for the adoption of a formal land ethic.

Why?

Each of us has become witness to challenges never before seen in the Sunshine State. Our beaches and shores are blighted with sea-rise and algae bloom. Climate change spin-offs have brought us increasingly violent storms like Irma. The storms, combined with pollution and over-building, are shortening the life cycle of our tree canopy, which is the critical factor in cleaning the air and protecting us from the sun.

Parks are on Life Support

City and county park lands are vying for survival with the exponential growth now occurring in Central Florida. Cities and counties do their best to balance competing demands for passive vs active use of park lands.

Still Not Safe to Get Out of the Car

Central Florida continues to head the list of the most dangerous communities for pedestrian and bicycle safety. Here in Winter Park, greenspace connectivity is increasingly cited as the single most important step to renewing our pledge to sustain the character of our community.

Green Assets = $$$

While open green lands cannot be measured solely in economic terms, parks and green space are invaluable assets as a marketing tool for our city. Proximity to parks has been proven to increase property values. What’s more, protected park lands do not require costly, full-blown municipal services such as water, sewer and schools.

Momentum is Building

This conversation has been gaining momentum since 2014, when Amendment 1 — known as the Florida Water and land Conservation Initiative — to increase spending for natural lands acquisition programs like Florida Forever passed with an overwhelming majority.

WP Needs an Integrated Plan

Locally, this vision for an integrated plan for greenspace connectivity within our urban core resonates with citizens of all walks of life. It embraces our often-discussed concerns for a healthy tree canopy, a vibrant, connected system of parks and greenspace, an appreciation for scenic beauty, designated quiet zones, family enjoyment, outdoor recreation, community enrichment and sustainable local native habitats.

City Leadership: Join In

I would urge our city and community leaders to take this trend a step further. The time has come to clearly define and articulate a Land Ethic for all of Winter Park. It will serve as our guide for future decisions as well as the definition of our responsibility for this generation and the next. It’s time to stop talking and pledge to take action.

Rollins Halts Expansion Plans

Public Hearings on Alfond and Lawrence Center Projects Postponed

Rollins Halts Expansion Plans

On August 29, Rollins College announced the cancellation of public hearings in September and October on the expansion of the Alfond Inn and the proposed construction on the Lawrence Center site at 200 E. New England Ave.

Phase II of the Alfond

The Alfond Inn expansion has been long in the works as Phase II of the original plan. It includes the addition of 70 hotel rooms, bringing the total to 182, and the addition of a spa and health club, 4,000 square feet of meeting space and just over 300 square feet of retail space. The expansion also called for an additional 153 parking spaces.

Relocation of Crummer Business School and Cornell Fine Arts Museum
Redevelopment of the Lawrence Center site, at New England and Lyman, was a three-phase project consisting of a new parking structure, a new facility for the Crummer Graduate School of Business and new space for the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

In order to complete all three phases, the college was requesting a zoning change from Office (O-1) to Institutional (PQP or Public-Quasi-Public).

Public-Private Parking Arrangement with City

As part of Phase I of the project, Rollins was seeking a Conditional Use Permit to build a three-level parking garage to serve the business school and museum properties. The City of Winter Park was contemplating a public-private partnership to expand the garage to four or five stories. This would provide an additional 120-180 public parking spaces in the Central Business District (CBD) and would require a change in the height map from three to four or five stories.

‘Innovation Triangle’

In a letter from Rollins Vice-president of Business and Finance & Treasurer Ed Kania to City Manager Randy Knight, which was provided to the Voice by the City Communications Director Clarissa Howard, Kania described the three-part expansion – the Alfond, the Crummer Graduate School of Business and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum – as the “Innovation Triangle.”

Kania formally withdrew Rollins’ request for public hearings regarding the Innovation Triangle that had been scheduled in September and October. “We would like to withdraw these requests,” he wrote, “in order that we may investigate other potential parking locations to better meet the needs of the College and the residents of Winter Park.”

Projects on Temporary Hold

“With so many exciting and mission-critical projects taking shape at Rollins,” wrote Chief Marketing & Community Relations Officer Sam Stark, “we are putting a temporary hold on our Lawrence Center and Alfond Inn expansions in order to explore and evaluate some cost-saving and project-sharing opportunities that will benefit the College and the community.”

Winter Parking

Will the City Kick the Old Rules to the Curb?

Winter Parking

For the past year or so, the Kimley-Horn parking gurus have been lurking about Park Avenue, Hannibal Square and the Orange Avenue corridor scoping out parking lots and counting cars. They are scrutinizing parking codes that have remained essentially unchanged since the 1970s.

1970s — Merchants vs. Restaurateurs

The codes weren’t entirely static, however. There was some back-and-forth caused by competition between retail merchants and restaurateurs for parking on Park Avenue. In the early 1970s, there were four restaurants on Park Avenue. By 1982, that number had increased to 18, and the retailers were feeling the pinch.

1980s – Too Many Restaurants!

In response to an outcry from Park Avenue merchants, the city formed a Downtown Parking Advisory Commission to study the problem. In 1983, the Commission adopted their recommendation and passed an ordinance that new restaurants could be approved only when they provided sufficient parking. Bakeries, coffee shops, ice cream and dessert shops were exempted from the new rule.

2000s — Enter Winter Park Village

Move forward 20 years to 2003. Winter Park Village opened with four fancy new restaurants and a movie theater with stadium seating. It quickly became the place to be. Once again, Park Avenue merchants felt the pinch, but this time it was because there weren’t enough restaurants. La Belle Verrierre, East India Ice Cream Company and Two Flights Up had all closed, reducing by 400 the number of restaurant seats. All three locations converted to retail.

2003 – Not Enough Restaurants!

So, in 2003, the Commission saw the wisdom of attracting restaurants and the associated foot traffic to Park Avenue to improve the retail climate. They passed an ordinance that allowed new ‘fine dining’ restaurants (with wait staff and table service) on Park Avenue to open without providing the incremental increase in parking. This zoning change quickly produced the desired effect. Since 2003, 17 new restaurants have opened along Park Avenue – adding a whopping 1,471 new restaurant seats.

2018 – Too Many Restaurants!

Based on the current Central Business District (CBD) parking code of one parking place per four restaurant seats, those 1,471 seats equate to 372 parking spaces. Those 17 new restaurants replaced former retail locations. Compare the retail parking requirement with that for restaurants, and under the present code you end up with a parking deficit of 207 spaces. Basically, this puts the city right back where it was 36 years ago.

2018 – The Pendulum Swings Back

That brings us to the August 7, 2018 meeting of the Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Board. City Planner Jeff Briggs presented a draft parking ordinance affecting the CBD, Hannibal Square and the Orange Avenue corridor.

The draft ordinance, which has six components, was not an action item – it was up for discussion only. A summary of the proposed ordinance follows.

1.Retail to Restaurant Conversions

The ordinance removes the ability to convert retail or office space to restaurant without providing the required parking spaces. This change is supported by Comprehensive Plan Policy 1-G-3: “Preserve Park Avenue as a retail shopping district with complementary restaurant destinations, maintaining existing Future Land Use Map designations and zoning and prohibiting bars and nightclubs.”

2.New Retail & Office Requirements

The proposed ordinance changes parking requirements for new retail and office from one space per 250 square feet to one space per 350 square feet.

3.Large Office Buildings

Requirements for new large office buildings would provide one space per 250 square feet for the first 20,000 square feet. For floor area exceeding 20,000 square feet, the requirement would be one space per 350 square feet.

4.Shared Parking

The ordinance provides for the use of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) shared parking analysis as a reference. Limited types of shared use make sense in Winter Park, such as retail or office buildings with upstairs residential. In a few circumstances, a restaurant might share parking with a nearby institution such as a school or church.

5.Distance for Offsite Parking

The ordinance would change the distance permitted for offsite parking from 300 feet to 450 feet. As Briggs pointed out, that would be going from the length of one football field to one and a half football fields. P&Z Chair Ross Johnston suggested that if employees were required to use offsite parking, that would free up on-street parking for customers who want closer proximity to their destinations.

Johnston also pointed out the difficulty of regulating shared parking. How would the City determine if the people using the shared parking were actually entitled to it, or if they were opportunistic “parking poachers.”

6.Fee in Lieu of Parking

According to the Staff Report, instead of providing actual parking spaces, a developer could write a check to purchase or fund the required parking within a City-owned parking facility.

The City Staff Report stated: “Note that no such fee-in-lieu program can be established without a specific City Commission approved parking facility for which the funds collected are to [be] implemented for either surface or structured parking as to both location and cost and the ability to provide the same number of or more parking spaces otherwise needed to be provided on-site by the property owners electing to pay a fee-in-lieu.”

The Lawrence Center Quandary

So, if the parking must be City-owned, as stated above by the Planning Department, this raises the question: why would the City invest in additional parking decks above the proposed two-story, three-deck Rollins parking facility at the Lawrence Center – if the City is to have no ownership in or control over that facility?

On the other hand, does the City really want to get into the parking business?

“Parking is No Silver Bullet Number”

Although the draft ordinance was discussion-only, P&Z board members appeared squeamish at the prospect of recommending passage in the absence of a more comprehensive plan to deal with parking and transportation within the City. Owen Beitsch stated, “I don’t want to suggest that we don’t act, but I do want to suggest that we think about a package of solutions that constitutes a plan, not just an ordinance that says these are the ad hoc things we want to change.”

Ordinance is One Piece of a Much Larger Puzzle

Briggs responded that there are many aspects to the downtown parking puzzle – such as employee parking, valet parking, parking enforcement, how to create new parking – and the ordinance addresses only the Zoning Code. And that is the purview of P&Z – the zoning code.

Johnston responded to Briggs, “What you’re hearing is that we’re trying to get an ordinance in isolation that has other contingencies attached to it, and we’re not comfortable isolating that part of it. . . . We need to see what the net result of our actions is.”

In other words, will the ordinance alleviate a real or perceived parking deficit? If so, how can we tell?

Where Will the Ordinance Go Next?

Briggs explained that the next step was a similar non-action discussion of the ordinance with the Commission on August 27. The P&Z Board will meet the following day, August 28, for their regular work session, and Briggs will update them about the discussion at the Commission meeting. If the ordinance is still moving forward, there will be a public hearing before P&Z on September 11. P&Z will be asked to vote at that meeting.

If the ordinance passes, it will go back to the Commission September 24 – the same meeting at which the Commission will take up the Lawrence Center expansion. While it is appropriate for discussion of the two matters to coincide, citizens are advised to pack a lunch, as this could be a lengthy discussion.

Who ever said parking was boring?

WPPL Shifts Gears - Focus on Fundraising

Shawn Shaffer Resigns, Interim E.D. Steps In

WPPL Shifts Gears – Focus on Fundraising

Shawn Shaffer has left her position as Winter Park Public Library Executive Director effective August 3. Consultant Cynthia Wood will step in as interim executive. director while the Library Board of Trustees engages in a nation-wide search for Shaffer’s replacement.

Cynthia Wood Named Interim E.D.

Cynthia Wood was Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Rollins from 2002 until 2008. In 2009, she formed a consulting firm, Cynthia Wood, Philanthropy Partner LLC. She has guided various organizations in capital and programmed fundraising readiness, strategic planning and establishing sustainable fundraising systems.

Among Wood’s clients was the Bach Festival Society. Bach Festival Executive Director Betsy Gwinn described Wood’s work as Development Consultant for the Bach Festival Society’s 75th Anniversary campaign. “Cynthia worked with Board and staff members to develop a strategic fund raising campaign,” wrote Gwinn. “The Society has seen a tremendous difference in its development efforts under her guidance.”

Funding Pro Minana Hall Joins Team

The Library Trustees have also engaged Minana Hall as full-time capital and annual development professional. Hall brings 25 years of experience changing the development face of various institutions such as the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg and UCF. She has experience working with foundations and volunteer boards to develop major and planned gifts and annual giving.

Sabrina Bernat to Oversee Daily Operations

Sabrina Bernat, who was Shawn Shaffer’s assistant director, will oversee day-to-day library operations. Since Bernat has been involved with the library design team from the outset, she provides continuity and operational expertise.

A representative of the Library Board of Trustees issued the following statement.
“The board is extremely grateful for Shawn’s many contributions to the organization since she joined it five years ago. With the new facility comes new responsibility for fundraising and related initiatives. We have redefined the leadership skills needed to fulfill the new responsibilities and expectations. The library board is excited about our future library and all that it can mean for Winter Park. The board looks forward with enthusiasm to its role in shaping the future of this important institution.”

WPV Video – Mixed Use Zoning

Unedited Video of July 10 Commission Work Session

WPV Video – Mixed Use Zoning

The Voice has received numerous requests to post the video of the July 10 Commission work session on Mixed Use Zoning. Here it is.

The meeting lasted an hour. The video was made strictly for purposes of documentation. Although you cannot always see the face of the speaker, you can hear what was said. The recording was made on a 10-year-old Canon Vixia HF R300 video cam – nothing fancy.

Why Does It Take the City So Long to Post?

In response to the question posed by “Partly Cloudy” in the Comment section beneath the column on mixed use: “What do they do with the recordings during those two days?” The answer is probably that they are uploading the digital files. It takes a long time. A really long time.

Mixed Use – Mandated in the 2017 Comp Plan

The subject of Mixed Use designation comes up at this time because of Policy 1-2.4.14 of the Comprehensive Plan. In 2017, as the Comp Plan was undergoing revision, the City Commission and Planning Department decided to remove the ‘Planned Development’ designation and replace it with a ‘Mixed Use’ designation. They gave themselves one year to accomplish that. That year has come and gone. You can watch all or part of the video to see how they are going about figuring out how to develop a policy governing Mixed Use Development in our city.

Mixed Use on Orange Avenue

Trojan Horse – or Manna From Heaven?

Editor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.  

Mixed Use on Orange Avenue

Guest Columnist Beth Hall

Citizens of Winter Park: beware the Trojan Horse.

Before she “left the building,” retired planning director Dori Stone may have deployed one. The Orange Avenue corridor is in developers’ cross hairs. Rumors even include a possible new rail station.

Apparently unwilling to develop their sizable Orange Avenue holdings under the strict limits imposed by our current land use laws, Stone said that over the past 18 months, owners of larger properties along the corridor have approached the city about opening the door to development of greater intensity.

With property owners anxious to make big changes to the corridor, planning staff has brought forward to the commission the idea of a “mixed use overlay.” Once in place, this alternative zoning would give land owners the option to develop parcels they own on a scale that will vastly exceed the existing zoning parameters. In return, they would give back to the city in a way that benefits all residents. Is this the rumored train station?

Video obtained of the duly noticed “mixed use workshop” held at City Hall on July 10, 2018, shows the city planning director exhorting the commission that as a “legislative body” they have a responsibility to the community to “make this happen” and to “let the community know what this corridor needs to look like.”

Stone insisted the 2017 comprehensive plan must be a “fluid” document, one that “changes with the times,” noting that some of Winter Park’s most “iconic places” are examples of “mixed use” development done before the city had a comp plan or stricter land use laws. Does this mean the comp plan is now an obstacle on the path to progress?

Taller, more massive buildings would “make a statement.” Land holders on the avenue could choose to re-develop under the new mixed-use guidelines or use existing zoning guidelines. An urban design expert should be hired to devise a master plan for a “mixed use overlay. “

Stone cited the Medical Arts District rising around Winter Park Hospital as an example of this idea. Orange Avenue would serve as a test case.

There was no mention of the fact that Orange Avenue is already a thriving mix of shops, businesses and eateries. City ownership of a large parcel on the Orange Avenue corridor was noted. The mayor’s ownership stake in four other parcels was not. Also, omitted was the fact that West Fairbanks has seen the deployment of many millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, which the City could begin to recoup.

If you think you might like to hear the discussion of mixed use that took place or if you want to hear for yourself how individual commissioners viewed the idea, I fear you’re out of luck.

The audiotape of the meeting posted by the city is very poor quality and the city says enhancement efforts have proven unsuccessful. Had I not obtained a video of the meeting independently, I could not have written this piece. I would not be aware that the posted minutes from the meeting do not accurately reflect city staff in attendance . . . omitting as they do a city attorney who spoke and gave advice.

Mixed use — Trojan horse or manna from heaven? Only you can decide, but as of this writing, becoming informed will not be a simple task.

When Zoning Gets Creative

When Zoning Gets Creative

Zoning rules experienced a creative twist at the July 23 Commission meeting..

Smith Barney Building Will Convert to Condos

Developer Dan Bellows, representing Greenhouse Partnership Ltd., had a simple enough request. He sought to convert the Smith Barney office building at 338 W. Morse Blvd. into condominiums.

But Greenhouse didn’t want to rezone the property from office to medium-density residential to accomplish that. It wanted C-2 commercial zoning, even though no commercial use is contemplated at the site.

The owner got its wish, with a 4-1 Commission vote.

Why Commercial Zoning?

C-2 commercial zoning, it turns out, entitles the owner to much more than R-3 residential ever could. Building intensity can be almost twice what R-3 allows. The developer even could pave over the entire parcel — although Bellows assured commissioners that was not his intention. C-2 also would let the owner avoid the pesky city rule prohibiting short-term rentals such as VRBO or Airbnb.

Bellows said the office building will be converted to five residential condominiums, each with an attached garage that will have a second-floor guest suite. He also plans to build a new three-story building with three residential condominiums in the parking lot next to the existing building.

According to the City Planning Staff report, Greenhouse Partnership Ltd. wants the zoning change to make the property more economically viable, Even though the exclusively residential project could just as easily achieve economic viability if it were zoned medium-density residential R-3.

Staff’s Not Sure Why It’s Still Zoned Office – Except, It’s an Office

The existing two-story office building was built in 1998 and was leased to Smith Barney. In keeping with its intended use, the building was zoned O-2 for office. After Smith Barney merged with Morgan Stanley in late 2012, they moved their offices to a different location. Another tenant leased the first floor, but the second floor has remained vacant.

According to the staff report presented at the meeting: “For whatever reason, this property on Morse Blvd. was excluded from being eligible for CBD [Central Business District] future land use and C-2 zoning. The staff has no specific recollection of the rationale but assume that the authors felt the property was developed with the Smith Barney office building and did not envision another redevelopment scenario.”

The Guy across the Street Got Commercial

But right across the street, architect-developer Phil Kean is completing a townhome development that is designated CBD and C-2, although it is not clear if any of that development will include commercial use. In fact, all of the other properties on Morse, from New York to Capen, are eligible for C-2 zoning. Of course, all those properties include some commercial use, except for Park West condos, which are residential.

Staff’s Not Sure Why It Shouldn’t Be Residential

The staff report stated: “It is interesting that this project, while requesting commercial designations, is actually an R-3 multi-family project, with two variances. Unless the condo owners are planning to use their units for Air B&B’s (sic) or VRBOs, this could just as easily be done via R-3 zoning with no changes to the Comp Plan or Zoning text.”

But if Phil Kean could get CBD/C-2, Dan Bellows thought he should get it, too.

The Commission voted to change the zoning along with the Comprehensive Plan for Future Land Use, with Commissioner Carolyn Cooper casting the dissenting vote.

Discussion Resumes at the End of the Meeting

Even though they had reached a final decision, commissioners rehashed the project again in their discussion period at the end of the meeting.

Commissioner Carolyn Cooper was concerned that, by approving C-2 zoning for a residential project, the Commission had just created future entitlements that far exceed the scale and character appropriate for that section of Morse Blvd.

Commissioner Peter Weldon pointed out the need for the Commission to remain flexible to see where the market forces might take us. “The market drives to what, in the end, becomes the result,” said Weldon. ”And we, as a commission, have to be flexible to recognize where the market realistically addresses the character we’re all trying to create.”

Mayor Steve Leary also did not share Cooper’s concerns, and stated, “I believe we should have the flexibility to hear from our property owners on every one of their applications and not create any barriers to them asking the question.”

Commissioner Cooper’s response is worth watching.