Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
Photo Courtesy of the Lake Oswego Library

Friday, September 12, 2014

Let's be clear about codes

Clear and Objective Housing Codes

The Planning Commission and then the City Council will soon be hearing testimony about Clear and Objective Housing Standards before adopting new Community Development Codes for developers who want to build multifamily and mixed use housing.  You should know about these codes that appear boring but will have a huge impact on this town.  There are several more sets of code changes that are coming up that are equally important, so stay tuned.  Write to the Planning Commission and the City Council with your concerns and ideas - they really want and need to hear from citizens!    

Shouldn't all codes be clear and objective?  

Of course.  But most cities don't have the (reputed) 900-page encyclopedia of codes that Lake Oswego has.  There is a lot of detail, and a lot of ways one can interpret what the codes mean.  For a large-scale development, the interpretation of codes is first looked at by the planning department who either sends it back to the developer for fixes, or recommends the plans.  The plans are then passed on to the Development Review Commission to interpret community development codes and their application to the project.

This is where things get sticky.  

Builders in the state wanted to do away with the added step of going to the DRC for approval because of the time and cost of the process - also the uncertainty that citizens could appeal the DRC decision. The state legislature enacted rules that told jurisdictions that they must not inhibit housing construction by putting up too many regulatory barriers, and required "clear and objective" standards for housing.  It is up to each jurisdiction to figure out what those codes should look like.

The LO planning department has completed the Clear and Objective codes for single family homes and is in the home stretch for the multifamily and mixed use housing.  In most of the commercial areas where multifamily and mixed use housing is allowed there are design overlays, but even then, codes that spell out how buildings should be oriented or look can get tricky.  This is where things can go sideways very quickly.  Think Wizer Block.

Who makes the decisions?  

Using Clear and Objective Housing Codes, there would be no public input, no DRC, no right to appeal -- all decisions would be in the hands of the planning department.  This would be a ministerial decision.  As citizens, there would be nothing we could do about it, even if part of the building is commercial or traffic is a problem.  All discussions would be between staff and the developer, and ALL  decisions would come from staff..

No matter how the Clear and Objective standards are written, developers always have the right to choose to go through the "discretionary" process which is more public and involves the DRC.  This is the process that gives the city and citizens the best chance at seeing development occur at a scale that will fit.

What to do?  

You can take a code and simplify it in order to make it clear and objective.  This would give developers free reign to design within those codes and the planning department would have to approve the project.  Right now there is a lack of confidence in the Planning Department after they recommended the DRC approve the Wizer Block design on its first (and second) go-around.  Even after a re-design and a new hearing, the DRC denied the project, proving the planners do not judge projects in the same way as the DRC or knowledgable citizens.  If looser codes were in place, this and other big or poorly designed buildings could easily be built with only the Planning Department's approval.

Or ..... You can make a Clear and Objective code that would not result in an offensive or controversial building.  If developers did not like this path, they could use the discretionary path for a different kind of project.

1.  Limit buildings to the minimum 2-stories in the Town Centers.
2.  Limit the FAR to control the mass. (Floor Area Ratio)
3.  Set max. height and height of top floor ceiling to be equivalent to the 2-story max.
4.  Require appropriate setbacks and articulation as normal.
5.  Require "adequate" parking on-site.

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