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Democracy at Work 
February 2009 | by Mark Whitehead, Santa Fe

An overflow crowd of community members at the January 12th City Council meeting reacted passionately to a proposal by Acting City Planning Director Brian Mooney to replace current zoning in the business district with a new "Form Based Code.” According to Mooney, the proposed code, to be fleshed out by a committee of “stakeholders,” would preserve important community values, e.g., view corridors and architectural quality, yet would provide incentives for property owners to redevelop, e.g. increases in allowable square footage and building heights.

A subcommittee of the Finance Committee while supporting increased commercial density, decried the suggested Form Based Code complaining that consultant costs would be too high and the process too slow. Citing economic exigencies, they urged a faster method whereby the current 45% FAR would be eliminated allowing larger and taller structures than are currently permitted. Finance Committee members pointed to the former Wells Fargo building next to Union Bank an example of the increased density needed to encourage redevelopment. That building, currently one story with a parking lot would, according to their calculations, need to be three stories high and the parking required for the increased density would need to be purchased off-site for redevelopment to be profitable. Parking could be provided by redeveloping the City Hall site with an underground lot and mixed-use retail. The suggestion that, accordingly, City Hall facilities could be moved to the Shores site provoked objections from fund-raisers and donors to the Shores who envision the future of that site as predominantly open space and not including city facilities.
Community residents argued that increases in commercial district density should not be driven by the current generalized economic downturn since investment capital is scarce and any objectionable consequences to the built environment of zoning changes will be long lasting. They also questioned whether the Finance Committee had developed or approved their alternative with proper public noticing and at the Council's request. On the other hand, business owners said there was urgency to act fast, complaining some are mere months away from failure in light of high rents and unwillingness of property owners to renegotiate lease terms.

The Council decided to pursue a Form Based Code planning method. The costs, e.g. for environmental consultants, were described as unavoidable, and the time for community involvement was judged as necessary. Costs could be defrayed by a Smart Growth grant that will be sought. The makeup of the committee that will explore features of such a code will be revised to include more representation from residents familiar with village core issues.



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