Building height and density, 3/16/2019

Posted on March 16, 2019

After attending every public meeting on this topic for the last two months, I would like to present my summary of the extent to which the Town has engaged in serious discussion, so far, about changing the height limit and imposing density (dwelling units per acre) limits for MAC buildings.

Here is the audio from the 3/15/2019 Board of Architectural Review meeting.  After an hour and a half of discussion about the details of the MAC “visual guidelines”, here’s the extended discussion of certain Town Council members’ concerns about building height and density:

So, the BAR says:  Not our problem.  We’re only discussing the “visual guidelines”.   Limits on height and density (dwelling units per acre) are part of the MAC code. Those are problems for the groups discussing amendments to MAC code.

So, because the Planning Commission is discussing MAC code — the Board of Architectural Review punted that discussion to the Planning Commission.

Now, at last month’s 2/27/2019 Planning Commission meeting, they actually did have a some discussion about the 54′ height limit.  You can hear that at 2 hours 37 minutes (to 2 hours 54 minutes) into the Town’s recording of the meeting (only works with Chrome, for me, and not other browsers).  (I found it hard to hear parts of the Town’s audio, so you can access my “over-amplified” version of that section by clicking this Google Drive link.)

The first few minutes consisted of Town staff making the first version of their specious argument that MAC zoning is just like Church street. But after that, there was some genuine give-and take, although it’s clear that several commission members consider 54′ to be unquestionable.

But, at the 3/13/2019 Planning Commission meeting, where the purpose of it was to discuss amendments to MAC code — there was zero discussion of modifying the height limit or having a density limit.  So, in effect, the Planning Commission had some conversation last month, took no action, and punted this issue to the Town Council.

If you listen to enough of this, you realize how totally ad-hoc and confused the reasoning about height limits is.  The rationale offered at the 2/27/2019 meeting of the planning commission appeared to be that we must have four-story buildings or “the Town will not grow”.  (Why we want the Town to grow, I don’t know.)  And that 54′ is the absolutely minimum for four stories.   Fast forward to the 3/13/2019 meeting, and those same people are arguing hard for removing any reference to a four-floor limit — because it’s clear that builders can profitably squeeze five floors into the 54′ height limit.

So if you listen to those two meetings together, the “logic” reads like this:

  1. We considered and rejected five floors.  (You can hear that said in the 2/27/2019 audio).
  2. The minimum that would work is four floors.  Less than that, and “the Town will not grow”.
  3.  54′ is the minimum height that will work, for four floors.
  4. Builders should be able to put anything they want within the shell of the 54′ tall building, as long as it looks like four floors from the outside.
  5. So now we need to remove that four floor restriction, to allow builders to put in a fifth floor.
  6. And for gosh sakes, call it anything but a 5th floor.

Anyway, if there is going to be any significant discussion, at this point, it’s all up to the Town Council.  There was discussion but no followup at the 2/27/2019 Planning Commission meeting.  There was no discussion by the BAR, and the chair that made it clear that to him, 54′ is not to be questioned anyway.  If there is going to be any reconsideration of this, it’s all up to Town Council.  It appears that they will get no material help on it from their various Boards or from Town Staff.

Actually, the only scenario under which this MAC revision process makes any sense is if Town government manages to quash any serious reconsideration of height and density.  Otherwise, as I pointed out on this page, item 2, this whole process makes absolutely no sense.  It’s either “bad faith or bad management, take your pick”.  They will spend months discussing the tiny details, and only discuss the big-picture issues like height and density at the end?  That’s only rational if you know, up front, that any discussion of height and density is merely for show, and that there will be no substantive discussion of or changes in those basic MAC parameters.

So, at this point, if I had to choose between bad faith or bad management as a way to characterize this process, I’d lean toward bad faith. Sure they’re going to reconsider height and density (wink wink).  This isn’t incompetence, it’s skillfully managed theater.  There are a handful of people that would like to have some sort of fact-based discussion.  But there are even more who are doing their best to prevent that.  Not only are they working hard to prevent any meaningful re-assessment of the (always mis-stated as) 54′ height limit, at the same time, they’re working hard to get any limit on number of floors removed.  And they will tell you out of one side of their mouth, 54′ is the absolute minimum for four floors.  And out of the other side, they’ll tell you why we need to remove the four floor limit, because builders want to put more than four floors inside that 54′ exterior.