Saturday, November 20, 2021

City Council, November 22nd - More on MUHTIP

On Monday Council has not one, but TWO applications for the housing incentive and property tax abatement, the MUHTIP, which was just extended earlier this month.

One of the applications, for the project at the former Nordstrom, was expected and does not seem to present anything worth comment. It seems fully to meet the intent of the program.

The other is interesting in small ways. You may recall a proposal for a wine bar a few years back in the northern third of the Starkey-McCully block of 1867:

Abandoned proposal for a new wine bar (2017)

That appears to have been abandoned, but the apartments in back of the old building are still moving forward. The Staff Report says the Certificate of Occupancy has been issued, so construction is complete.

Initial plan: Later additions on alley demolished,
replaced by three new apartments in a modern style

At Council is a MUHTIP application for "two new 1,100 square foot residential rental units and the rehabilitation of the existing 5,800 square foot of commercial space." 

I have not followed the project closely, but in 2017 it was for three apartments, so it may have been scaled back slightly to two. The wine bar appears to have been abandoned also, though it could certainly return in a different form, as "commercial space" is quite generic.

What about that MUHTIP? Duplexes are eligible for the MUHTIP, and this is a duplex. Is the incentive really necessary or useful for a duplex? Maybe it is, but it has seemed like the incentive was really intended for larger-scale projects, and that in this case it might not operate as an incentive as much as extra slush. The apartments will rent for approximately $2,000 each, also. Affordability is not at all a requirement, but a duplex priced like that isn't a very large increase in downtown housing.

Additionally, the application comes after construction is complete. So like with 990 Broadway, the MUHTIP does not seem like it is functioning as an incentive to start a project that would otherwise not get completed. It was not necessary, and again may be slush.

But it is also possible that since an historic building is involved, any financial benefit from the MUHTIP flows indirectly to historic preservation rather than to the new housing. Given the relative antiquity and importance of the building, that would not be trivial.

As a kind of footnote, it might be worth pointing out that two of the "public benefits," the second of which is essentially redundant, duplicating the first, involve parking: "The Project created two indoor parking spaces on a previous surface lot at the rear of the building." That's also little circular, new parking stalls on old parking area! And may not really be very much of a "benefit."

Since Council just reauthorized the MUHTIP, they might not be able to make any changes, but they should at least consider whether this project actually meets the intent of the MUHTIP.  There is no unambiguous critique to make, but it is a kind of edge case and worth at least a little bit of thought.

Code Update

Also on the agenda is a First Reading of the code amendments, with a Public Hearing and Second Reading proposed for December 6th.

In the packet are letters mostly from the round at the Planning Commission, including support from Cherriots.

Support from Cherriots

Eric Olsen, developer of the Fairview Addition project, also has a lengthy letter and it is a little interesting. At least for a non-expert, the letter does not contain enough information to understand all the criticism, and perhaps in advance of the Public Hearing he will say more. Because of the nature of his developments his comments deserve to be taken seriously.

He writes about alleys:

The City proposes the following: Require alley access for new single family, two family, three family, and four family uses on existing lots abutting an alley

Response: As developers who incorporate alleys in 95 percent of all lots we build, we oppose this limitation. Topography, duplex, triplex and fourplex designs can be improved dramatically if vehicular access is permitted from both the street and the alley. We would, however, not object to limiting the garages on the street side to exclusively single car garage door which might help the aesthetics of a neighborhood.

It's got a great front porch! Also a driveway and garage

At first Fairview Addition had only porches in front, and a lot of the marketing had been oriented around "The Front Porch is Back!" That slogan appears to have disappeared, and after several blocks were filled, a new front driveway appeared on one of the houses (above from 2018), and apparently Olsen feels it is necessary to keep that going.

That seems like an odd objection. A front driveway does not help aesthetics at all! Because the developments have not yet reached the tipping point to go past full autoism, perhaps buyers still want front garages. But is that really helpful to get to where we want to be? The criticism may tell us more about current market and not about the future market we need to create.

He also objects to the "cottage cluster":

Item 2: The City proposes the following definition: Cottage cluster means a grouping of five to twelve detached dwelling units, each with a maximum building footprint of 900 square feet, that are located on an individual lot and include a common courtyard.

Response: Our company has built numerous cottage clusters of which most would not survive this definition/limitation. A small 1200 SF single story fee simple ownership home with a two car garage, for instance, would be a good housing type for cottage clusters. For this to occur and in order permit fee simple ownership, we recommend cottage clusters not be limited to a single lot nor have a minimum number of units....

We recommend consideration of the following change to the definition of Cottage Cluster: "Cottage cluster means a grouping of three to twelve detached dwelling units, each with a maximum building footprint of 2000 square feet and minimum density of 6 units to the acre, that are located on an individual or multiple lots and include a common courtyard or amenity of no less than 20% of the total area of building lots."

Is a 2000 square foot house really a "cottage" in the concept of a "cottage cluster"? That seems like a real stretch. Perhaps there are regulatory advantages to shifting some PUD development to a cottage cluster under code, and it would be helpful to have the argument made more explicitly.

Finally, on the tree conservation changes, he says "Our fear is that the critical root zone requirement will ultimately lead to more trees removed that might otherwise be kept by developers."

Olsen is one of very few developers here who is trying something new, and his thoughts deserve careful consideration.

See previous notes when the code amendments were at the Planning Commission and on the earlier Work Session.

Other Items

Finally, there is the selection of new Council ward boundaries. After Council shows their preference, Staff will write an ordinance and return to Council with a First and Second Reading. Others will have more to say on that.

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