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Circumventing Height Limits

Voter-approved development restrictions, like the Measure A height limits, are needed because the City Council can’t be trusted to reflect the values of our City’s residents.

The City Council views height limits as an inconvenience, not a reflection of community values.  Well, that’s not quite true… 

Height limits reflect the values of the City’s residents.  Walnut Creek voters passed Measure A in 1985 because they didn’t want to see tall buildings sprouting up all over town.  And no developer yet has been willing to bet that the voters feel any differently now.

It’s the Chamber of Commerce and development interests who chafe at height limits.  And that, unfortunately, is the only “community” whose values our City Council cares about.  Those are the people who put them in office. If you don’t believe this, just look at the way the City interprets height limits…

For the Homestead Terrace project, derisively referred to by the neighbors as the “Homestead Hilton”, the City chose to measure the height of the building from a high point along the property frontage, not the base of the building.  An argument could be made that the proposed building, which sits in a bit of a depression, wouldn’t be any taller than a building at the allowable height limit constructed on a flat lot.  But if height-from-street-level is the standard, then shouldn’t buildings constructed on an elevated lot be held to a lesser height?  That definitely isn’t the case.   The City measures height from the high point of the lot frontage or the base of the building – whichever is most advantageous to the developer.

For a rather extreme example of the City’s bias, consider the proposed Arroyo Apartments, now under review.  The site, just around the corner from the DMV, is close enough to the creek to sit within the 100 year flood plain.  No living spaces can be constructed within the first 7 feet above the sidewalk due to FEMA regulations.  The City has chosen to measure the height limit from that high water mark.  Thus, if we have a catastrophic flood, and you’re paddling your rowboat down Arroyo Way, you can be assured that the building won’t soar any higher above you than the height limit allows.  In the meantime, those walking down the sidewalk will wonder why the building is so tall.

And then, of course, there’s the exception for “architectural features”.  The City interprets a 50 foot height limit as really allowing structures up to 62 feet tall in places, in order to accommodate each architect’s need to add enough turrets, spires, battlements, rooftop gardens, or clerestories to give their buildings a sense of grandeur  and extravagance appropriate for a world class city such as ours.  A new zoning change currently under consideration for part of the traditional downtown would allow this height exception on up to 80% of a building’s horizontal roof area.  The height “limit” will only apply to 20% of the building.

It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that the voters’ INTENT in passing height limits was to limit heights.  The intent of the City Council is to cater to the interests of their developer friends and circumvent the law whenever possible. 

Some contributors to this site have advocated for the repeal of Measure A.  If anything we need MORE voter-approved development restrictions, because the City Council can’t be trusted to reflect the values of our City’s residents.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Julie Jepsen-Grant November 02, 2012 at 03:46 AM
"Vitality and energy will over come whatever tax shortage may be felt from the relocation of car dealerships." And you know this, how?
Pete Johnson November 02, 2012 at 03:39 PM
Steve... I see good news-bad news in your response. Good in that you don't want 10 story plus high rises and bad in that you want 4-5 story downtown and up to 8 north of Ygnacio. I am assuming, perhaps erroneously, that your opinion is reflective of others in the "Chamber of Commerce Party" that runs things. I oppose stretching the height limits anywhere downtown. We already have a wall evolving along N.California with plans to fill in the gaps (1500 N. Calif at Bonanza and some day at McDonalds) and around Almond Shuey. Why do we need that? There are 1400 apartments in the pipeline (per the CCTimes). The City is struggling with police services/costs and traffic (especially around BART with the transit village coming). Do we need more? I actually support some infill but with limits on height and a preference for openness as in plazas, pedestrian and bikes. And I prefer government doing its job over governing by propositions. However in this case I am glad Measure A is in place... my cynicism and lack of trust in who runs this city creeps in.
One more time with feeling November 02, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Obiwan, I agree that ""walnut-creek.org" is owned by the city". It seems the decision to work with and publish a URL that is like most other government entities is out of reach (cutbacks, you know). As I understand it, ".org" *can* be used by government entities (though *most* choose to use ".gov" or the ".ca.us" domains as you point out). Then I remembered that "walnut-creek.com" is the Chamber of Commerce. Let the obfuscation continue!
Julie Jepsen-Grant November 04, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Oops! Typo alert. Should have read 600 pairs.
michael frederick November 05, 2012 at 07:43 AM
Last time I checked, car sales are 32% of city sales tax revenue. They generate this revenue / sq ft, comparable to Broadway, by selling big ticket items that don't create a lot of traffic and congestion ("vitality"). This is particularly important due to the area's proximity to regional arterials, particularly YV Rd. Unlike any retail anchored "smart growth", the city's cost to service this income stream is practically zero ... along the lines of a "mortuary" or "cemetary". The NET income to the city is undoubtedly better than even the city-fixated Broadway (add promotional expense) for a given area of land. To me, such insight qualifies as something smarter than a group of pin-heads at ABAG whose "smart" ideas begin and end with a compass and a map of the area. I agree with people like Mr. Lundgren and Skrel that it would be best if WC could put height in areas where it delivered the most benefit with the lowest impact. Unfortunately, as long as we have a city that organizes political groups into commissions, to elect Art and Library advocates, incapable of even participating in this discussion, to exercise their discretion in exactly the arbitrary manner Obiwan points out with height limits -- it is probably best to have things like Measure A in place. That's what necessitated it and nothing at City Hall has changed, as height limits and all manner of other examples of undue development influence, including campaign contributions, still attest.

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