City Council voted recently to deny an extension of time to the developer seeking to build a 35-story tower at 708 Church St. The relatively abbreviated debate – “relative,” given the fact that the project took about two years to gain initial approval – stopped short of replaying the tortured late-night meetings of five years ago.

Instead, the debate brought out a problem that the City needs to address. Through its attorney, Focus Development admitted that the project it would build would be different from the one Council approved in 2008. That admission begged the obvious question: Why were they seeking an extension for a plan they did not intend to develop?

The driving force behind the developer’s decision to seek an extension, it seems, was a fear of having to return to the Plan Commission and go through the approval process again. The problem here is two-sided, and both sides should be addressed so that future projects get the time, attention and careful examination the City deserves, while developers get decisions in a fair, timely and carefully reasoned manner.

The current approval system is broken. Debate should not last two years, holding a downtown hostage to a single project that sucks all the oxygen out of any other development proposals within a four block radius. Once approved, Council should carefully consider the length of time a developer has to pull a building permit. Five years is too long, particularly for proposals in the heart of downtown.

Council should also rethink its recent approval of significant modifications to plans approved two, three, four, or five years earlier. Alderman Mark Tendam was right to publicly question this – calling it a “trend” rather than a “precedent” – during the tower-extension debate.

We think the Council erred by approving the Central Street development, the Emerson Street development and the Focus development on Ridge, all of which changed significantly, rather than sending them back to the Plan Commission.

At the same time, it is perfectly understandable that developers do all they can to avoid a Plan Commission process that can take, as shown, up to two full years. The City needs to find a way to streamline the process so that developers get answers, and approval or denial, quickly. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, beginning with a time limit on debate, after which a vote must be taken.

The tower extension request shows that both sides of the process need to be changed. Council must respect its own rules and respect the Plan Commission. Specifically, Council must apply, rather than ignore, rules dictating when projects need to return to the Plan Commission because of significant changes.
At the same time, the initial approval process needs to be less arduous and more coherent.

The tower debate showed us something else. Five years is too long, as the areas around the proposed tower site remain vacant and underdeveloped while the future of the block sat in limbo, awaiting a two- to three-year construction project. Everything needs to move more quickly and fairly.

Both sides of the process must be changed.