Excitement at the Heritage Preservation Commission Thursday

Sketch of the proposed project for 25 Bridge Square

The HPC meetings are not usually very exciting for me as the Council liaison to that body.  Maybe this is because I’m not very enthusiastic about preservation for its own sake.  I don’t like demolishing interesting old buildings randomly mostly because some older architecture has a richness of design and ornament that newer construction can’t match (compare the Central Block and Target, for instance).  I don’t care just because it’s old, though, and I’d like to encourage creative reuse of old buildings, rather than simply preserving them.   So now you know my stance on preservation.

Thursday, the HPC considers several actions regarding the proposed project for the Community Resource Bank building on Bridge Square.  Get the agenda and packet from the City website.

First, the HPC is asked to approve the demolition of the Aldsworth Building which abuts the bank building.  Apparently, the Aldsworth and Community Bank buildings were “merged into one building” at some point in the past so that they share a common elevator as various access points.   Although the HPC is asked to approve the demolition before considering the project as a whole, I’d suggest this is backward.  Unless the Aldsworth Building must be preserved, period (and you can guess that I think this is not the case), then its fate should depend on whether the larger project is appropriate and/or desirable – a much tougher question.

I think it’s important that you know what can and can’t be done by the City to stop the project or change its trajectory. This project meets the current zoning code as a permitted use – no hearing, Planning Commission or Council action is needed.  The HPC must issue a “Certificate of Appropriateness” which only controls the appearance of the project, not whether it is built or not.   The HPC will review the plans to determine whether the project “conforms to” the Downtown Preservation Design Guidelines. Read the staff report and  the Design Guidelines, then come to the meeting on Thursday, 11/19, 4:30 pm in the Council Chambers if you want to know about the design review.

The big issues for this project will not be answered at the HPC, however.  They are (so far in my thinking, anyway)

#1.  Incentives: The Council will get to weigh in if the developer asks for any incentives such as creating a TIF district.  If this happens, we’ll need to decide whether this is the kind of development which is desirable enough to support in this way.  I say: Maybe.   I like seeing investment in the downtown and I especially like this project’s thoughtful attention to its backside and relation to the river and Riverwalk.  It could enhance downtown in several ways.  On the other hand, if this office condo project just sucks tenants from other downtown office buildings rather than bringing in new businesses, then it becomes less worthwhile.

#2. Parking: Development in the C-1 district does not require that the developer provide any parking.  This is, arguably, not wise.   We could adopt the Holland, MI example of a parking assessment on downtown property owners to pay for shared parking…or this could be seen as just one more straw to break the commercial property owner’s back with taxes and fees.  Parking is an issue with the Library and the situation won’t improve if we increase the intensity of development in downtown and take out a small parking lot (the one next to the Community Bank building).  There is no established process for tackling the parking issue – we’ll have to craft one if we feel it’s important.  I hope the NDDC and Chamber weigh in on this one since downtown parking is a long-standing issue and the land development code is under development and could reflect the outcome of decision-making here.

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