It seems the decision by the Planning and Development Committee earlier this month to table the vote on the Fountain Square tower until after the approval of the draft downtown plan left a 38-story elephant looming over the May 14 Plan Commission meeting – one that was impossible for the commissioners to ignore.
The meeting, which focused on specifics of the draft downtown plan, ended abruptly when three commissioners walked out, negating the five-member quorum necessary to continue the meeting.
The contention among the commissioners, who appear to be split evenly between those who support the 42-story height limit in the draft downtown plan and those who favor a significant reduction in the maximum height, reached its peak when commissioner Johanna Nyden motioned to reduce the maximum height in the draft to approximately 25 stories.
The height reduction, Ms. Nyden told the RoundTable, will keep the downtown core, which the plan has identified as the Fountain Square block, on scale with the bank building across the street, Sherman Plaza and other downtown buildings. “If the plan is to have any credibility with the public, it needs to seem in line with the rest of downtown,” she said.
With the absence of James Woods, the commission’s chair, who has favored the higher maximum height allowance in past meetings, commissioners Nyden, Coleen Burrus, Seth Freeman and Robin Schuldenfrei had a majority to pass the height reduction. If approved by City Council, the change would have effectively killed the Fountain Square tower proposal.
“That was the whole point of the move,” Commissioner Charles Staley told the RoundTable. Mr. Staley, along with commissioners David Galloway and Stuart Opdycke, left the meeting to prevent a vote on the matter.
“[It was] set up to take advantage of James Woods being out of town and ram [the height changes] through, and we blocked it,” said Mr. Staley.
“It’s unfortunate Mr. Woods wasn’t there,” Ms. Nyden told the RoundTable. “[But] I would have proposed the motion either way.”
Mr. Staley said the tension heightened when a motion passed earlier in the meeting, by a 4-3 vote, limited each commissioner’s time to speak to five minutes. It was one of a number of “clever parliamentary moves, ” he said, to take advantage of their majority and “create a situation where they could down-zone the downtown core.” By the time Ms. Nyden motioned to vote on the height reduction, he said his only option “was to leave the room.”
Recent Plan Commission meetings have been marked by heated exchanges, and Ms. Nyden said the motion for time restrictions was intended to limit the “personal attacks,” and also to prevent any filibustering. “We’ve been reviewing the downtown plan since last fall,” she said. “It’s time to make a decision.”
Mr. Staley acknowledged the strained atmosphere in recent meetings but questioned whether limiting the time to speak would improve the setting. “People could just be vicious quicker,” he said.
The nine-member committee, which has one seat vacant, appears deadlocked at 4-4 going into their next meeting on June 11. The commissioners said if they cannot reach a compromise, the draft downtown plan could go to the Council without a recommendation or with two memoranda, one arguing each side.
Despite the tension, Mr. Staley said he was optimistic the commission could find a middle ground. “There is a basis for compromise,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re so far apart.”
“We want to have a strong plan – a plan where we get unanimous support,” said Ms. Nyden. “We will not get that unanimous support with this huge tower in the middle of it.”
Mr. Staley also said the animosity among the commissioners over the tower seems unnecessary. “Why are we bloodying each other over this if it seems the Council will defeat it anyway?
“The City Council, sooner or later, will have to deal with this,” he said. “Sending it back to us, they’ve delayed it for awhile.”