Mayor wants clear downtown-preservation guidelines
Budget disputes notwithstanding, Mayor Bill Bell is giving city/county planners the hurry-up when it comes to drafting new guidelines for Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission to follow in judging downtown projects.
Planners say a draft of the new guidelines should be ready next summer, but Bell says that’s not soon enough. “We need to be more aggressive on that,” he said during a special City Council meeting on downtown development strategy.
The mayor also said he wants it spelled out to the preservation commission’s members that their role in guiding that development is a limited one.
“My concern is that they have a better sense of the overall goals of the city in the decisions they make,” Bell said. “We’re not asking them to design buildings. Maybe they need a clear set of rules, [where] anything outside of that, you leave alone.”
The mayor’s comments got a second from Councilman Eugene Brown.
“The commission needs to understand what the mayor was getting at and it’s very simple: Time is money,” Brown said.
The twin jibes at the commission echoed complaints Bell and Brown voiced earlier this year after Federal Capital Partners, owner of the West Village complex, scaled back plans for adding more apartments to that development.
State law gives the commission review rights over the “appropriateness” of projects in historic districts like downtown’s, be it for the redevelopment of existing structures or the construction of new ones.
Federal Capital opted to scale back its project after receiving what it deemed “unclear” advice from commission members about how to alter its plans to win their support.
Bell and Brown also sounded off this spring after a commission debate on plans for a new, 26-floor skyscraper on Corcoran Street yielded a dissenting vote from a member who objected to the building’s height.
The mayor has argued that it’s the job of elected officials to set the vision for downtown, a view that led directly to the decision to call Thursday’s special session of the council.
The height issue figured in the resulting discussion and it was clear council members are open to the possibility of seeing taller buildings.
“I am OK with the changing skyline,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said, adding she thinks the council made the right decision a few years ago to establish “form-based” zoning rules for downtown giving developers more leeway.
Councilman Steve Schewel added that the height issue ties in with the council’s desire to retain a measure of “affordability” in rents for both housing and commercial space downtown.
The two issues “go together,” he said, and “saying everything is going to be short means fewer people of limited means are going to be able to afford to live downtown.”
Members acknowledged that a budget dispute with the county is affecting the City/County Planning Department’s ability to speed work on the new preservation guidelines.
But the department’s director, Steve Medlin, promised to see if there’s a way to do so.
The affordability issue returned to the fore as council members discussed future strategy for considering business-incentive requests for downtown development.
Members agreed downtown Durham is now a desirable enough location that they can afford to be choosier when it comes to incentive deals.
“We have more ability to set the agenda,” Schewel said, like most of his colleague listing projects that include a measure of “affordable” housing units among those that should merit support going forward.
By affordable, he meant projects catering to families making up to 80 percent of area median income – at most, $54,150 for a family of four, by the federal government’s most recent reckoning.
Other members said incentive policy should support developers who target “underserved” parts of the city or are promising to bring middle-income jobs, paying up to $40,000 a year, to the area.