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Thread: Need some comments on height of condos

  1. #1
    Cyburbian munibulldog's avatar
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    Need some comments on height of condos

    I work in a small resort town on Lake Michigan, about 2.5 hours drive time from the Chicago Loop. We have been getting hit with concept proposals for "highrise" condos of 6, 7, 8 and 9 stories. Right now the highest building in town is a 5 story senior center, and the ordinance allows 4 stories (I have to check this to make sure it is correct). There are about 1000 condo units in the development pipeline (if you can believe the conceptual plans) in a city with less than 4000 total residential units now. Most current units now are single family homes. The condos are planned in the downtown and in old industrial areas.

    This is looking to be the big issue of the year for our town: how high should we go? The issues are loss of character of the historic downtown, negative opinions on highrise buildings on the skyline, traffic, and opposition to new residents. From my side, I want to promote lots of pedestrian activity downtown, create taxable value, and I kinda like the Chicago skyline. But my future employment depends on me landing on the right side of this issue. I expect the next elections will be growth/no growth in debate.

    I'm wondering if anyone has any advice or comments how to approach this "problem" (its a great problem to have).

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    My approach is to maintain as much objectivity and neutrality as possible. Let the debate get played out in public discussions among the citizens, rather than between staff and citizens. Make yourself available to all parties. Listen more than you speak. Ask more questions than present answers. Explore ideas with people. Show that you understand their perspective. If people see you as open-minded, concerned, and sympathetic, they will typically respect you regardless of which decision gets made.

    We are not hired to make the decisions, but to provide advices. As I see it, this could mean putting together a matrix of the potential outcomes of different decisions. Lay out the good and bad in a side-by-side comparison of different choices, and facilitate the discussion rather than come out advocating a position.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  3. #3
    Cyburbian brian_w's avatar
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    The City I work for is dealing with some of the same issues. We have a vacant city block in a brownfield redevelopment area right on the lakeshore that is soon to be coming up for development. The approach were are taking is a computer simulation that we can use to see what a 3, 4, 5-story etc. building would look like on that site. The program is still being created since it involves shooting pictures of all the downtown buildings and inputting them in the program to create a "fly-thru" view of the downtown.

    We were fortunate enough to have money in the budget to do this. If you are not so lucky, maybe I can suggest building a simple model of the development area. Give yourself the ability with the model to change the height of the condo site and you should see what that would look like compared to the exising buildings in the area.
    You only need two tools: WD-40 and Duct Tape. If it doesn't move and should, use the WD-40. If it shouldn't move and does, use the duct tape.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian IlliniPlanner's avatar
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    We just recently completed our Downtown/Lakefront Master Plan and we had been discussing that at length for both on the lake and in the downtown. We are the County seat and the County Building is the tallest in the downtown at just over eleven stories (in feet, not floors). What we wanted to do was take into consideration what the height of the condo buildings would do to the view of the lakefront from the downtown, and the view of the downtown from the lakefront. The city also has an amazing bluff line between the downtown and lakefront. What we decided on was that the area along the bluff would be considered the "face of the city" and that it would be good to have tall condo buildings along the bluff (8-10 stories) so that the buildings are visible from down on the lakefront. While at the same time lowering the height of buildings as you move away from the bluff to no higher than 6 stories along the commercial corridor and no higher than 8 stories along the major gateways/roads into the downtown. Those along the major gateways and bluffline are specifically sited for their height so that a wall of buildings do not block the views of Lake Michigan.

    One developer is breaking ground in March/April for a three building 260-unit condo development that was originally proposed at 6 stories along the bluff line. Now he has increased the height to 8 and 9 stories with less of a footprint and more green space.

    On the lakefront (below the bluff) is where residents passionately voiced that the buildings would be no higher than 4-5 stories to protect the views of Lake Michigan from the downtown. In certain instances you're almost a mediator between what the developer wants and what the community needs. Here the residents voiced the need to protect a natural asset. When working in the public sector, it's safer to vouch for the community then a developer who can come and go regardless of how conforming or obstructive his development is.
    Last edited by IlliniPlanner; 20 Jan 2005 at 3:05 PM.
    One lot of redevelopment prevents a block of sprawl.

  5. #5
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    I like Cardinal's idea to let them fight it out. I would just add that whatever standard does ultimately get adopted needs to have some rational basis (not arbitrary) to support it. Building heights are presumably regulated with an eye towards preserving adquate light, air, space (aesthetic elements can be considered but should not form the sole basis). It would not be advisable to suddenly change the permitted height standards significantly unless there were, again, some rational basis for doing so (and I can't imagine what that would be for the community I suspect you are working for)
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Cardinal has some good advice.

    I would also suggest that a good role for you would be to provide "alternaives analysis" including several renderings of differnet height, bulk, scale, mass, etc. Can you work with an area planning or architecture graduate program to get students involved? UW-Milwaukee is excellent at this approach in our area, and I suspect other parts of the country may be the same.

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