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On April 17, the Planning & Development Committee decided to hold in Committee a proposed ordinance that would amend the 2009 Downtown Plan by adding five new subareas to the plan. Under the 2009 Downtown Plan, the northernmost boundary is Emerson Street. The proposed 2017 North Downtown Plan would add an area north of Emerson Street, extending at some points west to Ridge and north of Foster Street. It would also add a relatively small triangular area south of Emerson Street to the Downtown Plan. See accompanying map.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, opposed the boundaries of the proposed plan, saying it should not extend west of Maple Avenue or north of Foster Street.
Background on the Proposal
The P&D Committee agreed in April 2016 to consider expanding the Downtown Plan to include an area north of Emerson Street. The impetus to do so grew out of the controversy surrounding a proposal to build a staggered 12-, 11- and 9-story development at 831 Emerson St. Many neighbors opposed the development, because it was north of Emerson, which they argued was a dividing line between the downtown area and residential areas. Neighbors said they feared that a development with a height up to 12 stories north of Emerson would have a domino effect and spawn more development to the north.
City staff subsequently held two community meetings to gather input about the potential boundaries of the proposed plan and development options; they gathered input from some business owners; they presented a draft of the proposed amendment to the P&D Committee on Sept. 26; the City’s Plan Commission held public hearings on the proposed plan and suggested some revisions; and on Jan. 11, then Plan Commission voted, 6-0, to recommend its approval.
Scott Mangum, Acting Director of Community Development, said staff recommend the amendment to the downtown plan, after considering input from residents, property owners, and taking into account current trends in development, possible development sites, and increased demand for housing close to transit stops.
The proposed 2017 North Downtown Plan contains guidelines and a vision for the development of property in five proposed subareas designated – N, Na, O, P, and Q – as shown on the accompanying map.
Mr. Mangum said the proposed maximum range of heights in each subarea, taking into account possible development bonuses and allowances, is as follows:
• Subarea N – 6-12 stories.
• Subarea Na – 4-6 stories.
• Subarea O – 6-10 stories.
• Subarea P – 4-6 stories.
• Subarea Q – 6-10 stories.
Mr. Magnum said these proposed height ranges are “consistent in most of the areas with what’s already allowed with development bonuses for many of these sites.”
The proposed 15-page plan also contains descriptions of existing conditions, visions for development, and suggestions for designs and proposed building materials for each subarea.
Proposed developments in these subareas would still be subject to the Zoning Code and to review by the Plan Commission, the P&D Committee, and City Council.
Challenge to the Boundaries
Ald. Fiske said, “When we first started talking about this as a result of the 831 Emerson project, it was really being driven by the blocks between Maple and Sherman and Emerson and Foster.” She said somewhere along the line the area expanded, and she did not agree with the expansion.
She said the low commercial use at Emerson and Ridge served the neighborhood fairly well, and there was no need to extend the boundary west of Maple, She said she opposed the boundaries going north of Foster, because there would not be a firm dividing line, and by extending north of Foster, “We’re inviting in development.”
She added, “If we don’t cross Foster, we’re saying there’s a priority here. The priority is we’re trying to keep our smaller, affordable neighborhoods intact.”
Other aldermen expressed the view that by making the area north of Foster Street a transitional zone with stepped down building heights, it might provide more protection to the neighborhood north of Foster than having no plan covering that area.
Ald. Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “This is an attempt to define the planning process, what we’re going to allow private developers to do. … It does not change the zoning. This is more the guidance of what to expect.”
Ald. Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said some areas were included because of neighbors’ comments and to preserve affordable housing. … This is just a plan. If there is a plan for people to follow, then it works out so much better for the neighbors than people coming in doing stuff piecemeal. This is a way to say what developers could do. They would have some guidelines.”
Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “I think it’s really critical to have a plan in place rather than to address issues piecemeal because piecemeal doesn’t create a very effective neighborhood or community. I think it’s important to have this in place, so we are sending a signal of what we would like to do.
She added that the proposed plan for the area north of Foster would create a transition zone.
After further discussion, Ald. Wynne moved to hold the matter in committee, saying further discussion was needed about the neighborhoods. The motion was seconded, which operated to effectuate the hold.