How do you get early word of development/construction projects planned for your neighborhood – and if one goes to Design Review, what’s that like? Those were among the questions answered at this week’s monthly meeting of the Admiral Neighborhood Association – which also included other topics such as pursuing a grant to get a long-sought traffic signal:
CITY GRANT FOR THE 47TH/ADMIRAL SIGNAL? ANA is hoping to pursue a Neighborhood Projects Fund to go after the 47th and Admiral signal that they have been long trying to get. (SDOT has told them “no” before.) She pointed out the backstory – the crash that killed Tatsuo Nakata in 2006, and ANA’s ongoing campaign for a light (which included a rally last year – photo above). They’re looking for a pedestrian-activated signal that would bring up a red light if someone were trying to cross the street. They were #13 on the list citywide at last report – SDOT can only fund one or two signals a year. The signal could cost anywhere from $100K to $600K, so the idea of raising the money themselves was a little dicey. Now, the SDOT Neighborhood Projects Fund has come into play. “I think we should have a go at it,” ANA president Katy Walum said. She planned to recruit volunteers for helping write the application. There was also some discussion that there might be a better way to achieve the safety goal than to install a signal at that particular crossing.
CITY PLANNING PRIMER: ANA invited Jerry Suder from the city Department of Planning and Development to come explain the department, its processes, and its accountabilities – particularly, how to find out about developments that are in the works. Not all processes have official public-feedback periods, he said – which means you’re not necessarily going to get advance notice of everything. But as buildings get bigger, other things kick in – say, something doesn’t meet the rules and needs to get an exception approved, or something is required to go through the Design Review process.
Suder cautioned – “The idea isn’t so much to figure out if they’re going to get a permit – they also have to get through design review, a process which allows for the city to tell them to make some changes if they haven’t already designed something that meets adopted design guidelines. … Most Design Review projects are reviewed by a Design Review board of volunteers who know what the adopted design guidelines are, and based on those, they’ll make recommendations to the department. That can cause a building to change a bit. Most developers going through design review, seem to have gone through multiple times and know the drill.”
Some projects also need to go through environmental review – through the State Environmental Policy Act. And environmental impacts even include traffic. “If the project is going to generate so many car trips through an intersection that is already performing badly …” they might recommend to the developer that something be done to keep that problem from getting worse. Whatever is going on, they want comments from the public to help them shape and refine the project, rather than a thumbs-up or -down – “not asking whether it should be approved or not, though if you think it should not be approved, we want to know why it shouldn’t be approved.”
What kind of projects has the city said no to? Suder was asked. One person built a garage in their front yard without pre-approval, and tried to get approval afterward – a “variance” – didn’t get it, and had to tear it down, he said.
Regarding projects going through Design Review, he talked about the steps that are taken – a sign goes up at the site, a mailer goes to the immediate neighborhood. The sign might be one of those big white ones – or a smaller yellow ones. “If I see one of those signs, what can I do?” asked president Walum. “If you see one of those signs, what we want is public comment,” Suder explained.
But that doesn’t mean a meeting is in the works, he added – there’s also Administrative Design Review, which means the review is done by DPD staff (there’s an explanation in this DPD document). Suder says they are doing fewer than half a dozen of those per year.
Permits requests are up, but “not everything permitted gets built,” Suder explained in response to an attendee’s question. The increase in permits, he said, is in large part because “there’s some lending happening.”
He then explained the DPD’s webpage and the “online tools” section – where you can look up an address and find out if a building permit is in the works, for example, as well as finding mapping information about properties, and archives of recent proposals and reviews.
“How do you know there’s a project?” was the biggest question for which people sought an answer. There are project-specific mailing lists – but the biggie that he mentioned is the Land Use Information Bulletin, which can bring the first “official” word of a pending project. It is e-mailed Mondays and Thursdays. You can subscribe to it through the box on the right side of this page – the same page also explains how to sign up through RSS (if you use Google Reader or a different type of RSS reader).
Suder offered to answer any questions people had. One question: The zoning in this area was determined years ago, right? Suder said the process had started almost 20 years ago – “a long process that took a couple of years, (including) to look at the current zoning and ask if we have the right zoning or not.” Overall, Suder acknowledged, citywide, “we are very underbuilt to what the zoning is – ” and he attributed that to economics. “When economics change, when people decide they want to do something different with their property, that’s when (change happens).” Even in single-family neighborhoods, he notes, where most buildings are single-story – the zoning still would allow up to 30 feet, and invariably, when new construction comes in at that height, neighbors are startled, but it’s been in the zoning all along.
He showed a map of California SW through the Admiral District (and some distance south) – most in the 30-to-40-foot limit range. (Here’s the citywide zoning map.) And there are give-and-takes related to how high you can go, if certain other things happen with the project, as one attendee pointed out.
“Is there anything that could be done to work to change the zoning that is currently in place?” Suder was asked. “What would that process look like? … Where would you start?”
He talked about the “urban village” concept – and showed a map plotting them. But he warned that if urban villages were downzoned, the city might not be able to meet growth targets.
To the point of zoning and specific developments, he said, the fastest way for a developer to meet a goal might be “to build a box” – but the Design Review Board is there to tell them that won’t quite work – they would recommend setbacks, or talk about Floor-Area Ratios.
“What about a building fitting in to the existing character?” Suder was asked. “… A lot of buildings are being built (looking the same). … You’ve got places looking like …”
“Cookie-cutter,” offered another attendee.
“…and if you (do that in) the downtown hub (of a neighborhood) … and you sort of make it look like a place that people walk by and drive by… ”
“I hope you made this remark to Design Review Board,” interjected Suder. “… Those sorts of things are exactly what the Design Review Board can affect. They see project after project and it kind of helps if the neighborhood is out there saying ‘We don’t want our neigborhood to look like (that)’ …”
The board might instead seem to be talking about more-trivial details, though, Suder was told, and buildings sometimes seem to be “designed to … the minimum required.”
Suder said, “It takes people to speak up to the board sometimes. It’s amazing what happens … (But) they [the board] spend an hour and a half with a project, maybe twice.” He mentioned that they are trying to get materials (like the “packets”) out to board members in advance, and even encourage them to go out to the site in advance.
But “clear, succinct comments can be amazingly effective – and it doesn’t have to be from a large number of people. And if people think we got this wrong, it can be appealed to the city Hearing Examiner.” One criteria on which a project can be appealed, he said, is neighborhood context – “sometimes the board doesn’t get it right.” Though, he noted, the hearing examiner tends to side with the board.
A variation in boards between neighborhoods was noted by one participant who had been to meetings in different neighborhoods. “Each board is made of individuals said Suder. “We try to get the best pool of candidates we can. At the end of the day, we have the board we have.”
He noted: “The board doesn’t actually decide anyting … They make a recommendation to the departmnet.” However, DPD basically is supposed to accept that recommendation unless it appears the board made an error in interpreting the code. Also shaping their work: Design guidelines for the area. “So there’s a mix of competing issues – and it’s hard to say they erred.” The best they can do is make sure they have a divergence of opinion by having five board members there. And commenters can’t just say they want to preserve a sort of character, he advised – they need to be more specific about what they do want to see.
Walum, noting she had attended a Design Review meeting once, wondered, “Is there a place (at meetings) for someone like me, an Average Joe who doesn’t have eight hours a day to spend researching projects?”
Suder replied, “If you attend a Design Review meeting and have a comment that you don’t feel has been made yet – stand up and make it!” But there are other ordinances that the city planner assigned to the project – who is generally at the Design Review meeting and otherwise reachable by e-mail – can help with.
“Is there a place to say, I don’t want that, it’s going to look ugly?” Walum pressed, saying the process “could become intimidating to people.”
Yes, Suder said, but it’s even more helpful to say what you WOULD like to see – though even the “I don’t like that” could be helpful to the board. “The more you say what you think SHOULD happen sometimes is more helpful than ‘Please, not that’.”
He also talked about searching the Design Review site by date, to find every project that’s been in the Design Review process so far this year – “a way to find out pretty quickly what is going on.” And he apologized that the pages are “hard to drill through” because different workgroups were putting things out there – right now, they’re redesigning their site to emphasize “how to lead people to things,” so next year, the site will be more user-friendly.
FLIGHT PATH/AIRCRAFT NOISE: It wasn’t on the agenda but a neighbor popped in hoping that it would be discussed – she explained that she works at home most of the time and “there were times when there were three planes in like 20 seconds, a big plane, a small plane, and I thought ‘what is happening?’ and I thought there would be all kinds of people here up in arms about this.” Ensuing discussion clarified that the FAA is no longer taking public comment about the “Greener Skies” changes which are blamed for some of the air-traffic-pattern changes, but will have a meeting about aircraft noise/safety issues in the south part of the city – scheduled for October 23rd, as previously reported here – time/location information on this Facebook event page.
ADMIRAL DISTRICT BUSINESS ASSOCIATION UPDATES: As noted here previously, October 26th is the day set for the merchants’ Admiral Treats and Treasures event, 3-6 pm. ANA will be among the groups/merchants participating, with their table set up in front of Quality Cleaners on the southwest corner oF California/Admiral again this year. On December 1st, wreaths will go up in the business district, according to Walum.
ANA NOMINATIONS FOR 2013 OFFICERS: The group is looking for members to run for leadership positions – Walum has served three years as president so cannot serve again (there’s a three-year limit – three one-year terms). Ann Limbaugh has been treasurer for three years. Karl de Jong, vice president, has served in that role for two years. There are four positions on the board – president, vice president, secretary, treasurer. Nobody stepped forward at this meeting – if you would like to nominate someone, Walum says, contact her, de Jong, or Limbaugh before the next meeting, since that’s when they plan to have an election. Could the bylaws be changed? Could there be paid positions? it was asked. That might not be a great idea, it was noted, since historically – while there’s a bit in the bank now, there hasn’t been. But even as an unpaid volunteer position (like most community councils) – “It’s just a year, and you’re already committed to coming to these meetings – what’s a few more e-mails going around?” Walum joked. She said she’s enjoyed her run as president. That drew applause from those in attendance.
ICEBREAKER QUESTION: ANA usually has one (though you can abstain from answering!) – tonight, it was “who/what are you voting for?” Perhaps the most interesting revelation: A few attendees in the room noted that they were voting for one party’s presidential candidate and another party’s governor candidate.
Admiral Neighborhood Association meets on second Tuesdays, 7 pm, at Admiral Congregational Church‘s meeting room (California and Hill)