Council could change density, building rules for downtown

August 5, 2011

By Tim Pfarr

The City Council is reviewing elements of the city’s downtown code, and it could make changes to density requirements, minimum required distances from storefronts to city right of ways and maximum building heights.

Only new or reconstructed buildings would be subject to the changes.

Council members already reviewed sections of code relating to drive-thrus and remodeling requirements in the downtown area, and they will continue their work on the downtown code likely through September, Mayor John Dulcich said.

The Planning Commission reviewed each issue and made a recommendation to the council regarding what changes to make.

Planning Commission Chair Rob Lemmon said the commission’s recommendations — which ease density requirements, eliminate distance requirements and lower maximum building heights — largely center around giving developers flexibility in their design options. He said they also aim to make Newcastle more developer friendly and create more incentives for developers to include public amenities on their properties.

The council will hold public hearings on the matter before approving any changes, although the Planning Commission already held public hearings of its own.

“It’s always a good idea to make sure it’s fully vetted,” Dulcich said.

The City Council directed the Planning Commission in November to review and evaluate the five specific topics within the downtown code, and the council will take action on all five items together.

The commission recommended the city reduce maximum building heights from 75 feet to 65 feet. The tallest building in the city is Regency Newcastle, 7454 Newcastle Golf Club Road, which stands at about 57 feet, Director of Community Development Steve Roberge said.

Lemmon said the commission felt 75 feet was simply too tall.

“The height limit at 75 feet seemed too massive to the downtown corridor,” he said. “It just seemed out of scale to the scope and scale of the downtown.”

The commission recommended the city scrap its code requiring 80 percent of a building’s ground floor to abut right of ways. The code was intended to create a pedestrian atmosphere and a traditional main street.

Lemmon said that was a matter of allowing for more creative design options and not forcing developments that bear resemblance to The Reserve in Renton, with high rises up against city sidewalks.

With respect to density, the commission recommended that the city do away with minimum floor-area-ratio requirements (typically referred to as FAR requirements), and reduce the maximum density allowed. FAR signifies the amount of developed floor space on a lot with respect to the lot’s total land.

For example, a single-story building would have a .5:1 ratio if it occupied half of its lot. Additional stories increase the ratio, allowing some buildings to reach FARs of greater than 1:1.

As is, city code requires buildings to achieve a FAR of exactly .75:1, and hitting that ratio is difficult for one-story buildings, Roberge said. To build lots denser than .75:1, developers must provide certain amenities, such as plazas. With each amenity, a developer is allowed greater density on his or her lot.

If the council adopts the recommended code, developers would be free to attain a FAR of anything less than 1:1. Public amenities would be required for denser development.

Lemmon said the commission recommended eliminating the minimum FAR requirements to allow for more design flexibility for developers.

“Without it, we maintain design flexibility and encourage development,” he said about the minimum FAR requirements. “The lack of it doesn’t discourage good design.”

The commission also recommended the council lower the maximum allowable FAR from 4:1 to 3:1. In lowering the maximum density requirements, Lemmon said the city ensures it won’t have any massive, ultra-dense developments that are out of place.

When the council discussed drive-thrus and remodeling requirements, it spoke in favor of overturning the city’s drive-thru ban and easing remodeling requirements.

The five topics

The City Council is reviewing five topics within the city’s downtown code:

  • Allowance of drive-thrus
  • Remodeling requirements
  • Density requirements
  • Distances from storefronts to right of ways
  • Maximum building heights
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