Thursday, February 14, 2008

Scalded by Degrees

Readers may remember the story of the mythical man in a warm bathtub who was slowly scalded because he didn't realize the heat was gradually rising, one degree at a time.

The Growler has been musing about how steamed the neighborhood was by the density and heights proposed by the City's consultants at the final meeting on the Braddock Road Metro small area plan on January 24. It appears we woke up just in time to avoid a serious burn — but when and how did the City start heating up the water?

At the heart of the controversy is the amount of density the City is proposing for the Braddock Road Metro parking lot, the Andrew Adkins public housing project, and the Jaguar site in the Braddock Metro area "Gateway" north of the train station.

The June 2005 community charrettes — the original charrettes — reflected the community's broad thoughts about development. And those thoughts were consistent with the ICCA's unanimous vote in January 2000 to oppose rezoning for higher density around the Metro.

It wasn't until a public meeting in the fall of 2005 — the first in the now endless succession of Braddock Road meetings — that former Planning & Zoning Director Eileen Fogarty started boiling the bathwater, albeit gently.

At that November 2005 meeting, Ms. Fogarty floated heights of 70 to 80 feet at the Metro lot. In the P&Z meeting notes published afterward, it was observed that there was group discussion of "limited development, redesigned circulation allowing [a] large public square [and] development on block frontage west of station" versus a "larger development with smaller public square."

The minutes concluded "We have not yet reached agreement on future development at the Metro Station and locations of open space."

Further meetings in late 2005 and early 2006 discussed the Metro lot generally, but without more specifics on height and density. By March 2006, there were alternative sketches for the Metro parking lot: one with two buildings occupying much of the lot, the other with only one structure on the north side of the lot, with open space fronting on Braddock Road.

In May 2006, Ms. Fogarty made a presentation at a work session with Planning Commission in which the Metro site heights were modified to "50 to 77 feet," while Adkins (which had just been tentatively added to the Plan) was marked "90 feet?" with a question mark.

Significantly, one slide was labeled "Affordable Housing," and suggested "Potential for taller buildings at Metro and Gateway [today's Jaguar site]." But no specifics on height and density were forthcoming yet.

Fast forward four months. In a two-part work session with Planning Commission in September 2006, Ms. Fogarty — who was on the verge of leaving for a new post in California — made the following suggestions for the Metro lot: "Provide an 180 x 300 sq.ft. civic open space on the southern portion of the site," "locate mass next to the existing office buildings on the northern portion of the site," and "maximum height of 77 feet."

A rendering of the Metro now displayed two office buildings pushed up to the north end of the Metro site, with a substantial park to the south.

As for Adkins, the 90 foot height limit and the question mark had disappeared. Heights of 50 to 77 feet (the maximum) were now prescribed for the Adkins site, with a stepdown to the adjacent residential neighborhood. Ms. Fogarty concluded by recommending an FAR of 2.0 for both the Metro site and Adkins.

And when it came to the northernmost Gateway property (now the Jaguar), the recommendation was for 90 to 120 feet heights for the buildings closest to the 150 foot Meridian. No FAR was yet mentioned for the Gateway.

In late September 2006, the draft Braddock Road Metro plan was released. Although it is no longer available on the City's Web site, the Growler printed a file copy. The recommendations on page 5-6 of the draft were consistent with what Ms. Fogarty had presented: new maximum heights of 77 to 90 feet at the Jaguar, 77 feet at Metro and 50 to 77 feet at Adkins (or Metro East as it was then dubbed). The density in terms of FAR was now set at 2.5 for the Jaguar but remained 2.0 for both Metro and Adkins.

After Ms. Fogarty's departure, there were further Planning & Zoning presentations at work sessions with Council and Planning Commission — sessions at which the community was not permitted to speak.

It was then that things began to quietly change and the heat was turned up.

"Affordable housing" was now the Council's mantra, and a slide for the December 5 Planning Commission work session discussed "Affordable Housing Strategy," declaring the density at the Jaguar as 2.5 FAR, while reiterating a 2.0 FAR for Adkins and the Metro lot.

But the recommended height for the Jaguar was now "90 to 140 feet," some 20 feet higher than Ms. Fogarty had recommended three months earlier.

At the December 14 public meeting on the Braddock Road plan, planning staff used much of the previous presentation material. But now the open space had silently disappeared from the Metro site and there was a new table discussing different "tiers" of affordable housing attainable with the various FARs.

The Growler can't recall any community meeting in which the neighborhood was consulted regarding removal of the proposed open space at Metro or increasing density to maximize affordable housing. Yet there were now slides boasting about how many community meetings had been held to date, implying the neighborhood had been consulted every step of the way.

Later, in December 2006, planning staff held another work session with City Council. The open space mysteriously reappeared on the Metro lot, and the new heights of 90 to 140 feet for the Jaguar were retained as well as the previously proposed FARs for Adkins and Metro.

There the matter rested until March 2007, when the process began falling apart. The City's presentation was whittled down for the community meeting, with little detail specific to density and height. But rising like a Phoenix from the Metro site was a new drawing of a massive HUD-like building with some open space (but no park). The community's displeasure was now audible and the dialogue with City staff was heated.

As the Growler noted in a posting at the time, attendees were angry about the density at Metro as well as the prospect of 40% of the Jaguar's increased density going for "affordable housing."

The following month in April 2007, the process broke down completely. As readers and participants will remember, the new draft plan was being issued chapter by chapter, but significant sections had been withheld. A partial document was heading to Planning Commission and Council shortly afterward.

P&Z's April 2007 presentation now showed the Metro park reduced to 1/4 acre, and proposed "higher height adjacent to Metro Station, ranging from 77-100 [feet] and the Northern Gateway from 77-150 [feet]." There were also plans for up to 100 feet on the block of N. West Street facing the Metro.

With the firestorm of controversy that now engulfed the plan, the City backed off.

Or did it?

Enter Faroll Hamer ... In the summer of 2007 Kramer & Associates was hired to conduct a "listening" exercise and, once completed, the City launched yet another interminable a series of charrettes lead by David Dixon of Goody Clancy and other paid experts.

The result: on January 24, 2008 the consultants proposed even higher densities and buildings heights than those which halted the plan the previous year. At the meeting it slipped out that the densities were now up to 3.0 FAR with heights of 90 to 120 feet. The latest word is that some of those densities now exceed 3.0 and that at the Jaguar the heights will rise to nearly 150 feet.

Meanwhile, the open space has disappeared complete from the Metro lot, reduced to a swatch between two massive buildings on the north and south sides of the site.

So ask yourself this question: if the City's new 2007 Braddock Metro strategy was to better hear community concerns why did Goody Clancy and staff simply tag team the previous proposal and then go one step further, shoveling in so much more density and height that the neighborhood is once again doing a slow burn?