Maureen Curtin is a real trooper to whom we all owe our appreciation. For years she has worked to help protect neighborhoods in our city from the pressures to build projects that threaten their character.
The Unified Development Ordinance is an extremely ambitious undertaking that is supposed to incorporate the city’s zoning ordinances, plus design review, and pretty much everything else associated with regulating development into one grand document.
The original contract to develop the UDO , as Maureen notes below, called for a technical advisory committee made up of representatives from the city’s departments, representatives of the land use boards and the city’s planning department to both monitor and contribute to the document’s development. As Maureen describes, this part of the process has been badly abused. Instead of having an on-going role, this committee has only recently (after over a year) been created. Maureen does an excellent job of describing the dubious character of what has emerged.
Most troubling in this UDO process has been the development of something called a “diagnostic” that was supposed to lay out what issues needed to be addressed. The original document that Behan Planning submitted to the Planning Department was rejected and the Planning Department then rewrote it.
To give you a flavor of what they came up with I will identify a couple of items. Of particular interest is that these items came out of some mysterious ether. Comments that had been submitted and the outcome of the one community event that was held were posted on the UDO website. None of the following items were identified as problems in the public process.
The “diagnostic” calls for an end to specific footage height limits for structures. They want to change the height requirements from being measured in feet to floors. This, they say, is to address the problem of buildings being too uniform in height. Aesthetically, they think it would be better if there were variations. Now I am sure, dear reader, that this has been a sore point for you. You probably are appalled as you walk through the city at the boring uniformity of building heights (my attempt at humor). Apparently, the drafters of the diagnostic were not concerned about the kind of abuse that some developers might exercise when they design their “floors.”
There is indeed a problem with building heights. A central theme in today’s urban planning has to do with human scale. In the case of building heights this has to do with avoiding the canyon effect when a narrow street is wedged between very tall buildings. There is little sunlight and the street is extremely pedestrian unfriendly. Most planners understand the need for proportionality between the width of the street and sidewalks and the height of the buildings.
Compare Railroad Place with Broadway. Railroad Place is a poster child for bad streetscapes. You would think that high on the list of concerns for the “diagnostic” would be this height problem rather than the need for uneven roof lines.
The diagnostic also wants to dispense with the current minimum lot size in our zoning laws and replace it with some sort of average for some sort of so far undefined “neighborhood.” Again, no one brought this up as a problem in any of the submitted comments or the community meeting.
Here is yet another hitherto unknown problem. There is currently no transitional building height between zoning areas. At the risk of sounding cynical, where will the transition buildings that will be higher than one zone and lower than the other be built? Might this be used as a wedge to build large buildings in our neighborhoods adjacent to downtown?
Continuing to sound cranky, I would guess that the development community quietly asserted itself in the crafting of the “diagnostic” by the planning staff.
Here is Maureen Curtin’s email:
February 1, 2017
To: Members of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC)
From: Maureen Curtin, On Behalf of Residential Homeowners and Neighborhoods
Re: Understanding the purpose of the TRAC
We do not understand the purpose of the UDO Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC) that was set up by the Mayor’s office. The voting members of this TRAC include six members of the Mayor’s staff and three members from the Land Use Boards, who the mayor appoints, for a total of nine votes.
The chair of TRAC is Bradley Birge, the director of the Planning Department for Saratoga Spring. Three of his staff members serve as voting members: Kate Maynard, Susan Barden and Tina Carton. The Deputy Mayor and City Attorney are voting members. All six of these people work in the Mayor’s Department.
It would be one thing to state that the Mayor’s Office is setting up an internal committee to address the UDO, but that does not appear to be what is being portrayed. The TRAC committee’s purpose and responsibilities in their By-Laws state (See link above for UDO Agenda for link to the TRAC By-Laws):
“The TRAC provides the technical input to carry out the continuing, cooperative and comprehensive planning process for the UDO. The TRAC provides technical review and guidance on draft regulations. The members of the TRAC will participate as representatives from and technical experts of their department and/or Land Use Boards; and as a whole the TRAC shall serve as the technical advisor to the City Council and the Contractor.”
“The Technical Review Advisory Committee will review consultant draft documents as well as public comments and then provide advice to the consultant. If the TRAC cannot reach agreement on a particular issue or if a significant policy change is being considered, the committee will request direction from City Council as the legislative body to pursue.”
“Each [TRAC] Member shall vote on all agenda items….” “…if a quorum is present, an agenda item must be approved by a majority of the Committee Members present at the meeting.”
Since six of the nine votes are from the Mayor’s Office, what is the purpose of a vote? It could hardly be considered democratic.
We appreciate the Mayor’s Office trying to move the UDO process forward.
We appreciate the meetings discussing the proposals being open to the public and the public being able to make comments.
However, voting on issues when the votes are stacked, and presenting these votes and decisions to the other city council members and the public as anything other than internal agreements by the Mayor’s Office is simply unfair and misleading. Thank You.
cc: Mayor Yepsen,TRAC members for whom email addresses are available: Vince DeLeonardis, Megan Kelly, Brad Birge, Kate Maynard, Susan Barden, and Tina Carton,Michael Allen, Behan Planning, City Council Members
The next TRAC UDO meeting will be held on February 7, 2017. The Agenda is provided at the link below. The meeting will be held from 4-6 PM in the Music Hall of City Hall. The public is welcome to attend and may speak for two minutes each at the opening of the meeting.