After close to two hours of testimony and debate, Bend Mayor Jim Clinton cast the tie-breaking vote Wednesday night that means the city will let the long-time owners of a vacant parcel near Mirror Pond downtown seek up to a five-foot variance from the zone’s 35-foot height limit.
“I guess I’ll vote yes to wrap this up, because I don’t see us having any ability to form any other compromise here,” Clinton said shortly before 10 p.m.
Councilor Doug Knight had proposed the successful motion, seconded by Sally Russell and joined by Jodie Barram in voting to support the compromise. But colleagues Scott Ramsay, Mark Cappell and Victor Chudowsky voted no, a tie vote that left it up to the mayor to break the tie.
Back in January, the city’s planning commission had recommended the city council remove a ban on variances to the 35-foot height limit on the west side of Brooks Street in the CB (commercial business) zone. Councilors discussed the matter in March and voted 4-3 to adopt a set of code changes that included removing the outright prohibition of variances.
But in May, Knight proposed and three colleagues agreed that the council should revisit the building height issue. The planning commission took it up again in June, and recommended reinstating the ban on requests for taller buildings, and city staff backed that proposed change as well.
At Wednesday night’s public hearing, Bruce Erickson, whose family has owned the vacant parcel for decades, outlined the years of struggle to find a developer partner, waylaid for a time by the building bust, but still a big challenge. He noted the various regulations that come into play that close to the river, from the Waterway Overlay Zone to the height limits; Clinton later noted off-street parking requirements pose another considerable hurdle. A real estate broker involved in the efforts to develop the parcel urged flexibility on the city’s part.
Chuck Arnold of the Downtown Bend Business Association urged the council to let the developers of the prime piece of downtown real estate go through the same variance process the rest of downtown can do, calling it a property rights and equity issue. He called for a “smart, dense (downtown) core, rather than low-slung buildings marching out to Boise.”
Chudowsky drew a laugh when he repeated a fairly famous quote from a Portland Metro official who noted there are two things people hate – sprawl and density. Clinton talked of past council discussions and how they had weighed the proper balance in this special, unique area of the city.
Cappell also voiced a familiar lament, that any government trying to “legislate good taste” runs into trouble. But he also said the downtown’s character and charm deserved special protection close to the river.
“Can you imagine a 45-foot building next to the Pine Tavern?” he asked.
Ramsay said he would have preferred keeping the variance process in place without a limit, saying “the community needs to face we are going to grow.” He also noted, as did many through the night, that any proposal for a taller building will go through a thorough, public process.
When Russell saw that a majority would not support a renewed ban on taller buildings west of Brooks Street, she said she was “willing to entertain some sort of variance.” Cappell soon suggested instead an outright raising of the limit to 38 feet, to give the developers the certainty a variance process doesn’t offer. Clinton called that a “significant concession,” but Barram said that still would mean inequity, since the rest of downtown properties can seek heights up to 40 feet.
Chudowsky said he still believed “going through this onerous process for five (more) feet seems out of balance for me,” compared with the rest of downtown. On the other hand, he said, “I’m not happy that this lot has been empty for so long.”
That led to the tie vote on Knight’s motion and Clinton’s tie-breaker . Any proposed variance on that block still would go to the planning commission first, then to the council.
Earlier, several people showed up to testify about the big headaches caused by this week’s closure of the Tumalo-Riverside-Galveston intersection for a two-month bike-pedestrian upgrade. Garrett Wales of 10 Barrel warned that it wasn’t about the “dust settling,” as city traffic engineer Jeff England had said: “This is people losing their jobs,” due to closing one of the city’s three east-west crossings with no notice or opportunity for input.
Several residents, meanwhile, complained about busy traffic speeding along normally quiet side streets, and the danger it poses.
While England said there will be better signage warning drivers, City Manager Eric King urged merchants to talk to England and other city staff about what can be done quickly He said improvements will be made in the situation, without having to wait for another city council meeting.