Feelings ran strong Monday in this self-proclaimed City of Good Neighbors as the City Council scaled back and approved on 3-1 vote a long-awaited and hotly debated set of new building standards intended to moderate the impact of rapid apartment construction.
“I bought to develop and I will do it. God bless America!” declared one opponent of the proposals. On the other side, resident Agnes Vanderveer said stricter development standards were needed because the current attitude at City Hall favors developers too much. “I can’t blame the developers. They could not build their atrocities if they did not have the consent of the Planning Commission and the City Council.”
A crowd of more than 600 filled the auditorium at the Hawthorne Memorial Center. Some speakers, including former Mayor Guy Hocker, received both verbal support and reproach.
Sentiment after the meeting remained divided.
“I think it is a step in the right direction toward improving quality in residential construction,” said Mark Subbotin, acting planning director.
“I commend the council,” said Batta Vuicich, chairman of a developers’ lobbying group.
But Eleanor Carlson of the Moneta Gardens area, a development opponent and rent control activist, was bitter: “The developers got it handed to them on a silver platter again. I know for a fact that people are talking recall.”
What the council did was approve by resolution an amended version of a complex package of building standards that are the result of six months’ study by the Planning Commission and more than a year of complaints that intensive apartment construction was destroying neighborhoods of single-family homes. The standards set new restrictions on building height, density, recreational space, parking, storage facilities and landscaping.
In two key amendments, the council softened the restrictions proposed by the Planning Commission, bringing the final package close to a compromise reached March 3 in a private session involving Vuicich, Councilmen David York and Chuck Bookhammer, acting planning director Subbotin and two planning commissioners.
“I didn’t expect to get the thing 100%,” said Planning Commissioner Barbara Workman. “That would not be good politics. But it is a good beginning and it will get better.”
The measures could go into effect as early as Monday if the council adopts them in an emergency ordinance at that time. Adoption on an emergency basis would require the unanimous vote of the four sitting members of the five-seat council.
Ginny McGinnis Lambert, who on Tuesday won the special election for the fifth seat, will not be sworn in until Tuesday.
The vote on the development standards was not unanimous on Monday, and the split occurred on an amendment that eased a proposed height restriction.
The existing code limits buildings to 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet, measured to the roof peak. (Taller buildings are permitted in the two highest-density zones, if building sides are narrowed by one foot for every two feet of height above 35.)
The Planning Commission had recommended that construction in all but the highest-density residential zones be limited to two stories or 20 feet, measured to the top ceiling level, which is typically 5 to 8 feet below the roof peak.
Councilman Bookhammer made a motion, seconded by York, that buildings be no higher than 24 feet (measured to the top ceiling level) or 2 1/2 stories.
The 20-foot limit would require more expensive construction, officials say.
Mayor Betty Ainsworth objected to easing the proposed standard, arguing that it would not eliminate the intrusive effects of apartment buildings constructed next to single-family homes.
Buildings with eight-foot roof peaks, which official say are common in the city, for example, could be as tall as 32 feet under the height amendment approved by the council.
The amendment passed 3 to 1, with Bookhammer, York and Councilman Steve Andersen voting for it and Ainsworth opposed.
Voted Against Package
Ainsworth again cited her objection to 2 1/2-story buildings when she voted against the entire package of development standards at the end of the 4 1/2-hour meeting.
The council was unanimous on an amendment that eased a proposed cut in density.
Existing density standards in the R-3 zones require 800 square feet of lot area per unit for large lots.
The Planning Commission recommended a new requirement of 1,000 square feet of lot per unit. Anderson and Bookhammer suggested that the new limit be set at 900 square feet per unit, the same density that the Planning Commission recommended for the highest density (R-4) lots.
Developer Vuicich acknowledged that the two amendments on height and density are close to the compromise proposal worked out in the March 3 meeting, which called for a 25-foot height limit and a minimum of 900 square feet of lot for each one- or two-bedroom apartment.
That private meeting was criticized at the subsequent council session by Carlson, who said it showed that developers were too close to the council. York defended the meeting, saying the compromise was just a proposal and that “nothing was cast in concrete.” At the Monday meeting, Vuicich urged the council to consider the compromise proposal.
Will Slow Development
Vuicich said after the meeting that, even with amendments on height and density, the proposed standards will slow development. He added, however, that apartments constructed according to the new standards will be of better quality than much of what is now being built.
The Monday meeting attracted a host of Hawthorne figures.
- With one day remaining in the special-election campaign, the eventual winner Lambert and third-place finisher Dick Mansfield both attended.
- Former Planning Director Jim Marquez showed up, to the surprise of a number of officials.
“Did you see what I see?” whispered Planning Commissioner Maurice Lee as Marquez walked up to the podium to speak. “I don’t believe it.”
Marquez pleaded no contest last week to a conflict of interest charge connected to the council’s passage of a revised parking ordinance.
(In court documents, a city investigator said that Marquez pushed through the ordinance in 1984 in order so he could build a 15-unit apartment building.)
At the meeting Marquez argued against the proposed standards, saying the height limitation should not be applied uniformly to the entire city because taller buildings are appropriate for some neighborhoods.
- Former Mayor Hocker, a real estate agent and developer, got a mixed reception when he argued against the standards as “so broad-brushed” that they would hurt development.
“The people who bought R-3 knew exactly what they were buying,” he said, in a reference to single-family homeowners on R-3 lots who have complained that recent apartment construction came as a surprise.
“No,” many voices called out, while developers applauded Hocker.