Ben Kaiser’s proposed 85 foot tall building on the SE corner of Williams and Fremont went for a “design advice review” by the Design Commission October 24th. The Design Commission only reviews projects upon appeal or through Type III permit procedures. Ben could have avoided this review but he agreed to it during the Council hearing on his zone change request. Exactly what he agreed to is in dispute. I believe he agreed to Design Commission review and approval but the Planning staffer assigned to the case, Hillary Adam, told the Commission he didn’t need to consult them further. We are seeking clarification. Decisions of the Commission can be appealed to City Council, otherwise it is Hillary’s call and Type II permit reviews don’t provide much protection to neighborhoods.
Ben Kaiser is a member of the Design Commission, which presents an obvious conflict of interest. That was acknowledged at the outset of the meeting. Despite statements by Ben leading up to the meeting that he didn’t have final designs for the Land Use and Transportation Committee to review on Monday, he presented plans that were complete with design details at the hearing. The Commission is composed primarily of design professionals. Consequently, they focused on those design details while generally praising them and the project as a whole, betraying any pretense of objectivity. Ben went out of his way to say he worked closely with the neighborhood and incorporated our comments into his proposal. He also went to great lengths to suggest he reached out to the black community and this and his other projects would “save” area churches and help retain black residents. That seemed to impress the Commission Chair. Ben’s statements are ironic given the fact Ben purchased the property for his developments from black owners and his current proposal drove one of those affected by it to sell out. That doesn’t sound like a friend of the black community.
One person spoke in favor of the project, a person associated with a prospective tenant who wants to occupy the top three floors of the south project for co-housing. He was clear in his statement that they only wanted to be a tenant and did not want to get between a fight with the neighborhood and Ben. Ironically, the speaker and some of his fellow tenants live in Irvington, which would never allow either this building or this use.
After Ben spoke a dozen or so Eliot and Boise residents spoke in opposition. I testified on behalf of the Eliot Land Use and Transportation Committee to make the following key points. In a previous Commission hearing their initial comments about the 115 Cook building were that it was out of character for a historic neighborhood, but at least it was separated by Williams. I said I expected to hear something similar in their reaction to Ben’s proposal and was disappointed I did not, which led me to question their objectivity. Further, the Rx zone is designated as a “Central City” zone. This site is 15 blocks from the boundary of the Central City at Broadway. In the current Central City Plan process the interface between higher density zones and development along Broadway and the Eliot and Irvington Historic Districts was debated at length. The plan that was finally adopted by City Council includes a “hard” limit on building height of 75 feet along the south side of streets facing the Eliot and Irvington Historic Districts. That both limits the height of adjacent buildings, but provides a buffer between them and historic homes the width of a city street, or roughly 100 feet. I asked that the Commission at least apply a similar standard to Ben’s project, namely cap the height and provide a substantial buffer, although 100 feet wasn’t expected.