Notes from Monday's commission meeting, which you can watch here: https://www.bhamgov.org/online_services/watch.php:
* The vote was 5-2 in favor of going forward with the development agreement. The commission was assured it was "non-binding." Commissioner Stuart Sherman framed it as a decision whether to "continue the conversation," and four of his colleagues bought the argument. Unfortunately, it was unclear whom the discussion is to include or what it is going to be about. So far they have avoided involving the public in any conversations about planning, program or design. I actually consider the vote a minor victory, since the heretofore unanimous commission is now fractured, with Rackeline Hoff and Carroll DeWeese in the minority, making a variety of reasonable arguments against the agreement. As Leonard Cohen famously said, "There is a crack in everything... That's how the light gets in." The light is getting in. (He also said, "But they've summoned, they've summoned up, A thundercloud, And they're going to hear from me.")
* The discussion of the legal document proceeded for quite a while with a site plan of the project, as usual, projected on each side of the commission room. But wait, what? Look carefully. There were changes. A new 12- to 15-space surface parking lot occupied the northwest corner of Willits and Bates, next to the church. The building next to it was stepped down from five to four stories toward Warren Court, and the building at the northeast corner of Willits and Bates had been cut to four stories from five. The changes amounted to a reduction of 20 percent or more to those two private parts of the project -- apparently the "accommodations" to neighbors mentioned but unexplained a week earlier by City Manager Joe Valentine. They remained unexplained until a member of the public, Linda Taubman, took to the lectern. Until Monday night, Taubman had been a vociferous opponent of the project. All that opposition melted away into a pool of sticky sweet praise for her former nemeses as she announced that the development team had saved the view from her penthouse aerie atop the Google building. God Bless Victor Saroki, she intoned. Apparently lost on most of those assembled was the irony -- how willing was the city to negotiate and appease a single wealthy resident when it won't deign to involve we mere residents in the development of this precious piece of PUBLIC PROPERTY! You have to wonder about the profit margins built into the project when the developers are willing to lop off 20% of a building to appease a single resident.
* The city is making it up as it goes along. In addition to the aforementioned changes, it's now being described as a two-phase project, with the parking structure and other public components comprising Phase One, and the rest a Phase Two. Given the opposition, the city administration is quite open about declaring that Phase Two might or might not ever get done, and could look like what is currently proposed, or not. IT WANTS ITS PARKING DECK, AND IT WANTS IT NOW. Consideration for the entire site, whether the parking deck will even work as proposed, or what residents might want, is not part of the calculus. Warren Ct. resident Cathy Frank asked politely when and how residents might get their say. The official response was a bunch of gobbledygook from Valentine about project timing, and when the public might see further iterations of the development team's plans. The real answer is Aug. 6 or Nov. 5 or whenever the commission decides to ask voters to approve a bond issue. That's it. Residents who don't live in penthouse apartments overlooking the site will get an UP or DOWN vote, nothing more. I'm guessing you know how I'll urge you to vote.
the design of the deck and road are as critical to the discussion as any of the elements and should be subject to the same scrutiny as any development.u
* Mark Nickita made a speech singing the praises of the 2016 Plan, asserting that the Bates project fits perfectly within the plan. That's arguable. Although I have been a strong supporter of the 2016 Plan for a long time, I have to agree with Paul Reagan that it has failed in several of its primary goals. It has not brought many new year-round residents into the downtown, and it did not revitalize retail, especially in relation to Somerset Mall. The form-based aspects of the plan have been very successful -- the parts that dictate how big the buildings should be and what they should look like. But in terms of land use planning, the city has failed to achieve balance. Office workers are overloading the parking system, filling otherwise unleased retail space, and there's a glut of million-dollar-plus condos that are mainly dark at night. Retailers struggle. Part of the solution to the city's parking problem (if it even has a real problem), is to tweak the downtown zoning ordinances and expand the parking system into the Triangle District. The zoning ordinances need to do a better job of balancing use (retail/office/residential), and lighten up on parking requirements for residential uses. I guess you could make the argument that the Bates project fits the "plan," insofar as it is corrective of the city's failure to achieve balance in implementing the plan. But Nickita didn't -- couldn't -- defend the massive, above-ground deck that dominates the site, and the lack of an overall program. He seems to be leading a commission with target fixation. There is no vision, nor a desire to explore the amazing opportunities presented by the site -- opportunities that may not be perfectly in line with, but can be perfectly compatible with, the 2016 Plan.