If you have been following the Downtown Design Excellence saga, and you have a taste for detail and complexity, and you would like to understand where we are and where we are going on this issue, and you have the patience for a long post, read on.
On May 10, 2016, the Planning & Public Safety Committee reviewed the revised version of the standards and guidelines prepared by the Design Excellence subcommittee and voted 6-4 to recommend that the revised version be placed on the council docket for referral to the Planning Commission. Planning & Public Safety Chair Jennifer Mossotti had created the subcommittee and tasked it with reviewing and revising as needed the Design Excellence Task Force’s original proposal. You can view that meeting here, its committee packet here, and the design excellence addendum here. The addendum includes the zoning ordinance text amendment (PDF pages 1-57) and the Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide (PDF pages 58-130). For additional context on Design Excellence, including its history, see my blog posts here. All documents from the original proposal are available here for reference. If council approves the committee recommendation, the Planning Commission will be asked to initiate the zone text amendments needed to implement the revised standards and guidelines. The council will then need to approve or modify the version approved by the Planning Commission.
What follows is a summary overview of how the subcommittee revised the original proposal:
Design Standards & Guidelines
The standards and guidelines in both the original and revised recommendations apply to the B-2, B-2A and B-2B zones that encompass the downtown area.
The guidelines remain substantively the same. However, they now apply only when a developer requests public support/incentives for a project.
The subcommittee revised the standards in the following ways:
- Certain building materials are no longer expressly prohibited. Instead, a percentage of those materials is permitted.
- In the original proposal a project could not build parking lots in certain locations. In the revisions an applicant would have the option to seek a conditional use permit, which means he or she must receive design approval from the Board of Adjustment (BOA).
- The height limit for the urban core portion of the B-2 zones was proposed to be 360 feet. The revisions contain no height limit.
- Streetscape requirements are incorporated and include such things as sidewalk pedestrian zone width specifications and amenity zone standards. The Downtown Streetscape Master Plan influenced these changes.
As with any zoning regulations, a developer may seek a variance from the BOA for any of the standards. It is also the case that both Urban County Council and the Planning Commission can initiate further amendments to the zone text deemed desirable. For additional detail, please see the new Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide available here.
In the original proposal all projects in the B-2 zones would have had to follow a design excellence review process by staff or by a newly-created Design Excellence Review Board, with the level of review determined by project type and size. In the revised version only projects that are in B-2 zones and request public support/incentives would have to follow an additional review process. That process would be conducted by the Design Excellence Review Office. Creation of the Design Excellence Review Board is not included in the revised recommendation. All other projects follow existing permitting review processes. You can see charts of the processes in the Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide here.
Projects seeking public support/incentives would work through a negotiated master development agreement similar to that required presently for any project requesting Tax Increment Financing (TIF). In this process, the applicant would work iteratively with the Design Excellence Review Officer through the design guidelines review and approval process. The master development agreement would then require approval by Urban County Council.
In the original proposal, any appeal from decisions by the board would go to Circuit Court. In the revised proposal, projects that follow existing permitting processes can seek variances/conditional uses through the BOA. Appeals from a BOA ruling would go to Circuit Court. As noted earlier, projects seeking public support/incentive would create a negotiated master development agreement with LFUCG. Decisions about a master settlement agreement are not subject to appeal since such an agreement is classified as a negotiated contractual process and not a regulatory process.
In the original proposal the Design Excellence Board would have reviewed and approved any demolition, and a project would not have been able to receive a demolition permit until having first received a building permit. The revised process will now send demolition requests to the Board of Architectural Review (BOAR) for review and approval. BOAR would then follow existing regulations and procedures applicable to demolition within an H-1 overlay. Appeals of a BOAR ruling would go to the Council.
While not perfect from my perspective, the revised standards and guidelines are nonetheless worth supporting. They improve the zoning regulations for downtown, encourage thoughtful and responsible development, preserve opportunities for public review when the public provides support, and offer some protection from the least desirable forms of development. I hope the Planning Commission initiates a zone text amendment consistent with the revised recommendations and that council then approves that zone text amendment. Taking this long-overdue action will make for a better downtown.
If you have read this far you are either a policy wonk, or you have a dog in this fight, or you are an exceptionally concerned citizen. In any case, I thank you for your attention.