The Downtown Master Plan

On the whole, I believe the Downtown Master Plan is worthwhile. The fact that almost no one is entirely happy with it makes it clear that compromises were reached and that the enormous amount of volunteer time that went into the document was well spent. Of course, all it is is a guideline and each piece of the plan will have to be legislated by Council. As ever, the devil will be in the details.

My brief critique:
1. I am inclined to oppose the creation of a separate management entity. All of the functions proposed for a new layer of government should be within the abilities of the current government structure. We particularly cannot tolerate a further insulation of important decisions from the people. City Council is where citizens can go to express their grievances and seek redress, and the further we distance the hard decisions from Council the lower the likelihood that citizens will be heard. I’m not clear why more large scale development decisions should be handed off to appointed boards. In larger cities in other states management entities have been created to focus on separate business districts within municipalities. Our state prohibits such district management, so the proposed entity would cover all of downtown, further reason why it looks like duplication of bureaucracy to me.

2. I question the imposition of a new downtown tax, and particularly oppose the diversion of part of such a tax (if it were imposed) to the Chamber of Commerce or Tourism Board. We need to be planning for an economy that will be almost certainly be less dependent on tourism. While any fees collected by a new downtown management entity would be subject to approval of the businesses involved, I’d like to see a pretty high bar for business buy-in if such a fee is implemented. (Climate change alone will dictate a massive shift in tourism habits, not to mention dwindling fuel supplies.)

3. I don’t understand the height exceptions in the Appendix. If tall buildings are more appropriate for lower elevations as stated in the main body of the document, why is there a loophole created for the tallest buildings to be on the highest ground? Whose plans were taken into consideration on this score? There is the suggestion that tall buildings improve the city’s skyline. I’m inclined to think that seeing the sky and the mountains is the best view we can have downtown and that intrusions into the viewshed should be carefully considered. (This doesn’t mean that I have a knee-jerk opposition to all tall buildings, only that we as a community should be thoughtful in our consideration of radically tall structures.)

4. Reading the original plan I saw more gloss than substance. But the final plan seems to meaningfully address serious design issues and advocate a form-based approach that could favorably affect our city’s future development.
Having talked with people who have worked on the DTMP, I have been assured that the proposed regs are more stringent than they might appear. Apparently the BB&T would not qualify under the new rules, nor would the prospective (but already permitted, and soon to be extended) Ellington Hotel.

5. Any new plan should reasonably include mandatory review and mandatory compliance with planning guidelines; however, NC state law only permits mandatory compliance rules in historic districts. There are two ways to approach this. We could either include designation of the entire downtown as a historic district in the DTMP approval process, or, as a minimal step, include a provision for citizen appeal in the guidelines.

As written, the DTMP permits a developer rejected at a lower level regulatory body to appeal upward to the Council. That seems fair. But fairness also dictates that citizens should be permitted to appeal projects approved at a lower level. Other municipalities provide for such appeals, under reasonable regulations (to prohibit frivolous challenges). We can too.

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