Requests from two developers to include public space in their downtown projects in exchange for taller buildings opened a can of worms at City Hall on Tuesday, with several City Council members calling for a complete review of the incentive.
The planned public spaces — relatively small areas featuring seating, water fountains and plants — were billed as respites for pedestrians, but some council members on Tuesday said they were concerned passersby wouldn’t realize the areas were open to the public, and not just building tenants.
Councilman Dave Weaver went so far as to call the incentive a joke.
“As far as I can tell, the public open space is a joke, but I participated in creating that,” Weaver said, referring to his vote to approve a slew of incentives encouraging downtown development in 2006. “Who’s going to go sit there?”
But it’s been difficult to gauge the success of the incentive since the few developments that have tapped it have yet to be built, officials said.
In exchange for the public spaces discussed on Tuesday, the residential developments — Colorado Gardens and Kenwood Terrace — get one more story than allowed in the downtown area, putting them at five stories.
At 124 W. Colorado St. and 203 W. Elk Ave., the 50-unit Colorado Gardens building has been heralded as a harbinger for developments south of the Americana at Brand. The 35-unit Kenwood Terrace slated for 118 S. Kenwood St. will be across the street from a nine-story building.
The projects were originally approved last November with the additional floors, but the developers used an incentive requiring sustainable building practices. However, they faced difficulty getting bond financing due to the incentive, which requires certification by a third party after construction is complete.
“It’s different and unique. [Banks] don’t want risks,” said Rodney Khan, a consultant for both developments.
Instead, the developers proposed using an incentive that requires 5% of the site area to be set aside for public use in exchange for the extra density.
“They’re getting a full story. What is the community getting in return?” said Councilman Rafi Manoukian, adding that the open space for Colorado Gardens is “too small to be relevant.”
Colorado Gardens includes 2,227 square feet of open space split into different areas on the borders of the property that feature benches, landscaping and a fountain. Kenwood Terrace’s 1,627 square feet of open space is also split up and consists of a small garden with seating and chairs near the lobby entry.
Community Development Director Hassan Haghani said the intent of the incentive was to provide a place for people walking their dogs to take a break or for others to drink coffee and chat.
“It was never our claim or intent to say that it was more than that,” he said.
Councilwoman Laura Friedman said she’s seen public space widely used in front of commercial buildings in New York City, but questioned if that concept could translate to residential buildings.
“There is that expectation that anything in front of a residential building belongs to that building,” she said, noting that signs may be helpful to denote what is public.
Demolition has begun at Kenwood Terrace, which may be complete in mid-2014, while Colorado Gardens has yet to get building permits. The project may be completed in 2015.