You’re right to be upset by the drawings Citizens for the Preservation of the Gig Harbor Waterfront has been showing online and around town. I can’t imagine what Council or Planning Commission would approve those plans for the downtown core. Thankfully, there are no plans to do so.
The problem started with an effort to help people understand the context for a minor proposed amendment. As I explained back in March, the proposal is to allow 27′ flat roofed buildings in a small section of downtown where that type of building is reflective of the historic development pattern. Since most people don’t climb up buildings with measuring tape, the staff provided a simple drawing showing a 27′ line against downtown buildings.
The idea was to show two things. That 27′ buildings in this zone are common and not at all out of scale with our vision for Gig Harbor, and that flat roof buildings are also the norm. Despite this being the historic character of the area, 27′ is allowed for pitched roof buildings, but not flat roofs (directly across the street the current standard is 18′).
The Planning Commission held open houses, workshops, and public hearings before the City Council held its own public hearing. Unfortunately, during that time this citizens group decided the staff drawing was the beginning and end of zoning restrictions and filled in the dotted line. This is the result.
To achieve these drawings you have to pretend that there are no square footage limitations, setbacks, or design regulations. To be perfectly clear, the proposal will not allow what this group is claiming it will allow.
However, this gets to another issue. Even if we wanted to keep two story buildings out of downtown, would that improve the view? The answer is in the picture below.
In reality, one story buildings block the pedestrian’s view of the waterfront the same as two story buildings. Height regulations are less about view and more about scale with the surrounding neighborhood and public safety (not smart to allow buildings taller than your fire department’s ladders). So how do we protect public access and views of the waterfront?
The simplest way is to buy property. Since I joined the Council 16 years ago the City has purchased millions of dollars worth of waterfront property. While the lawn at Skansi Brothers Park is probably the first thing to come to mind, everything from the Ancich Estuary to the Maritime Pier parking lot keep space open for the public to look at or touch the water.
The second method is by regulating the space between buildings. University of Washington Professor Jim Nicholls, visiting Gig Harbor with his students’ downtown “Storefront Studio Project” explained it in this week’s Gig Harbor Life.
“height isn’t the issue you think it is. The real key is being able to see between the buildings. Height doesn’t matter as much as the spaces between the buildings — the ‘missing teeth’ that keep the view of the harbor open and available.”
We regulate those missing teeth with setbacks, view corridors, and public plazas. Even driveways and parking lots provide some views, albeit less than ideal ones. Square footage limitations also play a role by preventing the creation of wide buildings. This is where a second story can actually help. A one story 6,000 square foot building is likely to provide less view than a two story 6,000 square foot building. That second floor means half the footprint. I’ve created an animation below to show what the combined effect of these regulations would look like.
First you’ll see an overhead picture of the downtown core. Next, the existing buildings highlighted in yellow. Red shows the footprint that our regulations would actually allow. Finally, I threw in the green sections to show the public property we purchased in the area.
As you can see, our restrictions allow substantially less than what you see in existing buildings in the area. This even assumes some leaps of faith that are pretty hard to imagine. For example, a building is shown on what is now parking for the old Harbor Inn (now Windermere) and the public access for Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard. The Russell Building would have to be torn down to make room for much smaller buildings. The Tides would need divine intervention to do anything more with their property, constrained by shoreline setbacks and tiny road frontage.
But these are the crudest of drawings. Staff has spent a lot of hours working on some actual design mockups showing a street level view of what this proposal would allow. They’ll be presented at our September 9th Council meeting.