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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: The Uptown Interim Height Ordinance should be extended

The current 24-year old Uptown Community Plan and related zoning allow for building heights of up to 150 feet and 200 feet along portions of Washington Street, University Avenue and 4th, 5th and 6th Avenues in Bankers Hill/Park West, Hillcrest and Mission Hills. However, Uptown is not Downtown, and such taller buildings would overwhelm these lower scale, profile and historic character of the Uptown neighborhoods. The City has embarked on a comprehensive update of the Uptown Community Plan, but if projects were to move forward at the allowed building heights, there would be nothing left to plan.

With the urging of Uptown residents and much foresight, the City Council adopted the Uptown Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) in July 2008. The IHO temporarily caps building heights in the Mission Hills area at 50 feet and in Hillcrest at 65 feet, with a discretionary limit of 65 feet south of Upas Street in Bankers Hill/Park West. Exceptions for rooftop equipment and “green roofs” were built into the ordinance. These height limits were a compromise worked out between residents, many of whom wanted a lower limit and with no discretionary area, and the City’s planning department. The IHO was to remain in place for 30 months with two 6-month extensions, which was believed to be plenty of time for community plan update to be completed. However, the community plan update has moved slower than expected, and with the IHO set to expire at the end of January, the plan update is at least 18 months from completion.

Fortunately, the City’s planning department has begun to process a new ordinance to extend the IHO to be coterminous with community plan update. Strong public support exists for the IHO and for its extension. Over 1,200 signatures on a petition supporting the original IHO were collected in 2007-2008 and within the last several weeks over 250 signatures have been collected on a petition supporting the extension. Additionally, in November 2011 the Hillcrest Town Council voted 29-1 to support the extension.

Nevertheless, a small group of individuals seeks to derail the IHO and is instead promoting an alternative version which includes a deviation process to allow builders to exceed the temporary height limits in all areas, not just south of Upas. These individuals claim that the IHO has stymied all development in Uptown since 2008. They have even claimed that the proposed Walgreens project at the site of 301 University Avenue is a direct result of the IHO discouraging any “quality” development. These individuals want “flexibility” to approve projects over 65 feet.

To suggest that the IHO, rather than the recession, has halted development since 2008, simply ignores reality. And whether or not one supports a Walgreens in Hillcrest, it is preposterous to claim that a one story retail building is the only viable project under 65 feet. The 65 foot limit would easily allow a five-story building, which is still taller than most buildings in Hillcrest. The IHO allows ample latitude for high quality projects in our community.

History teaches us that where a limiting ordinance (whether it concerns height, density, or whatever) has a built-in process for exceptions, the “limit” becomes the starting point and the exceptions becomes the rule. An IHO with “exceptions” will not foster “flexibility” but instead will insure that no project is ever built at or below the stated height limit.

It should also be kept in mind that the height limits of the IHO are temporary, until building heights, densities, setbacks and other development guidelines are sorted out in the community plan update.

Community groups such as Mission Hills Heritage and the Hillcrest Town Council and many Uptown residents strongly support the proposed extension of the Interim Height Ordinance (IHO) until completion of the Uptown Community Plan update, without any further amendment to the underlying ordinance.

Please contact Todd Gloria, Kevin Faulconer and our other elected officials and tell them to heed the wishes of the public and extend the current IHO without changes, to allow us time to plan the community we live in.