The recent circulation of concept plans by the property owner for a new 60’ building at the corner of Erie Street and Franklin Avenue (site of the former Ramella’s establishment) has led to some conversations about the “fit” of that building in that part of downtown.
If you missed the newspaper article about it, the owner is proposing to demo the current buildings and then put a bakery, a restaurant, and a bar on the first 2 floors, with 16 mid-to-high end apartments in the upper floors of a new building.
Functionally, that proposed mixed use would fit well with a vibrant downtown – so I think the question about fit is likely more about the size of the building.
When asked recently for my opinion on the scale question by a City resident, I offered the following reply:
You raise good questions and while I’m flattered you asked for my opinion, the important opinion to get is that of the members of the community like you. My role is to make sure that community consensus (balanced with property rights laws) gets translated into all of our Codes and rules for development and redevelopment.
Right now, the community consensus as reflected in the City’s Zoning Code allows buildings up to 60′ high in downtown Kent so this proposed restaurant, bakery and 16-unit apartment complex matches the current definition of what the community is looking for in downtown Kent — which means it doesn’t require any special City approvals (other than basic building code stuff) to get built.
Whether I like the size of the building or not is largely irrelevant because the property owner has the right to build up to 60′ high in the downtown without the City’s approval — and in turn it is illegal for the City to say, “no, we don’t like that project” and deny it when it meets the Code.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some opportunities to influence the design and to try to optimize the positive aspects of the project and minimize the negative aspects but those are mostly trimming at the edges rather than all-out stopping a project when it meets the Code.
That’s essentially the same situation that the residents living around the former DuBois property on East Main Street became so frustrated with — the Zoning Code allows a coffee shop use on that property — and the neighbors and the City had no recourse to stop it. The Planning Commission tried to vote the project down but the local judge overturned the Planning Commission’s decision and proceeded to chastise the City and Planning Commission for not abiding by its own Zoning laws. It’s a tough situation, we understand the residents’ concerns and we’d like to help but we also have to honor the law which is largely on the side of the property owner when they meet the Code.
Back to the proposed downtown project, it’s probably worth mentioning that the property owner is not a “big city” developer; it’s a small “mom and pop” husband and wife team who decades ago came to Kent from Iran and Kuwait and they are so proud to call Kent home that they want to take their retirement savings to invest in this dream project of theirs. That’s a classic Kent story — and it’s the kind of owner that the Bicentennial Plan said the community wants more of — but I also understand that the idea of a 60′ building along Franklin Street may not fit everyone’s idea of a right-sized dream project.
So where does that leave us?
It’s time to have a review and meaningful community conversations about the City’s Zoning Code. We’re currently in step 1 of a two-step process to first clean up the outdated language in our Zoning Code and second to revisit the Zoning maps and land uses all over town to make sure those rules guide development in a manner that is current with the latest consensus of the community (again balanced against property rights laws).
A lot has changed in the last 15 years and it’s a good time to test the Zoning conditions for things like building height, density and adjacent uses for the very reasons you suggest. Development is all about the context and I think that’s what got your attention with this project — from your perspective the height seems out of proportion with what’s already there and may impact the view shed and change the character of downtown Kent to something more akin to Lakewood which is not something you’re a fan of. That’s exactly the kind of community conversation that needs to happen and will happen in step 2 of the Zoning Code review which will lead us into our Comprehensive Plan update.
Starting those conversations now won’t likely prevent the current proposed project because it takes a good year to fully develop a community consensus on what’s appropriate for Zoning Code changes but it helps to frame the discussions for what comes next and how all of the different parts and pieces of downtown Kent will fit together.
I’m sure you’d prefer to have a more expeditious Zoning intervention but trust me, nothing starts lawsuits faster than changing the Zoning rules for private property which means we have to be very transparent, deliberate and methodical in considering any changes, and that just takes time.
Zoning is a tool for cities to use to help guide investment in ways that line up with the aspirations of the community — so when it comes to Zoning there’s not a right or a wrong answer, it’s all about finding the right fit. That’s our top priority heading in to 2018.
I hope this helps answer some of your questions.