Friday, April 12, 2013

Build What You Want, But Also Be a Good Neighbor

In 1964, the first of the Park Lane Towers was built. As you can see in the above photo from the Fort Collins History Connection, the building is surrounded by 1 or 1 1/2 story houses. The southern Park Lane Towers building (the one in the photo) is 11-stories tall. On the positive side, the houses to the north didn't have to worry about solar shading because they were soon torn down to make way for the second tower. But the folks on the south side probably felt a little awkward with multiple units full of people staring down on their comparatively puny houses. 

High Craft Builders now occupies the house on the corner. Adoption Dreams Come True uses the house just to the west of that. Clearly no one wants to live beneath a tower.

It was probably because of development like this that the city devised plans for building height in the Old Town area. This had been a residential block, but with the addition of the two towers the block was irrevocably changed.

Other parts of residential Old Town were starting to see similar multi-family buildings going up, though none nearly as tall as the Park Lane Towers. But even a 2-story apartment building that covers most of a lot can make a big difference on a street where most of the buildings are single family homes.

Two zones were created that encompass most of residential Old Town: N-C-M (Neighborhood Conservation, Medium Density) and N-C-L (Neighborhood Conservation, Low Density). There's also some thin Neighborhood Conservation Buffer (N-C-B) areas between Downtown (D) and these residential areas. And with these zones came rules about what sorts of housing can be built there (single family vs. multi-family for example), how large houses can be (2-story is the stated maximum), and all sorts of other little rules like how far back from the street the house should be, how close to the edges of the lots the house is allowed to stretch, and whether accessory buildings can include habitable space. Essentially, rules were put into place that are similar to the covenants in an HOA. The chief difference is that a covenant is, by definition, an agreement between two parties (in the case of an HOA, it is between the home owner and the Home Owners Association). In the case of Old Town, though community members were involved in decision making, the final decisions had to be passed by the city council as there has never been an association developed to take on that roll. When the residents were concerned about projects in residential areas, they had no association to plead their cause before. The only recourse for residents has been to request help from City Council.

Southwest corner of Maple and Meldrum - single family residence disrupted by 2 story apartment complex

The goal of the zoning code is not to stifle all imagination and free will in building. But it does exist to stifle some projects. Most everyone would agree that a brand new Park Lane Towers would not be at all appreciated at the corner of Mulberry and Loomis, even if it would be a convenient location for students and others. In the debate about Eastside/Westside housing, people have been heard to say things like, "What right does one person have to dictate what someone else builds on their own lot?" Starting with an extreme example, such as the Park Lane Towers and the two little houses to the south, helps to answer that question. There's got to be a limit somewhere. Sure, we can argue up and down about where that limit should be. But when people say there should be no limits, they seem to completely ignore the negative affects that some buildings can have upon others. Whether they're extreme changes to an entire block, or serious changes only to the neighbor right next door, they're still changes and they still need to be reasonably considered and evaluated. How much of a negative effect is too much? That's certainly up to debate. But probably a good rule of thumb is to, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The house at center was built in 2007, but it fits into the neighborhood well in terms of style and height. 

The goal of the new ordinance that was passed by city council in March 2013 is neighborliness. When a family is deciding upon a new addition, there is so much to consider. (How many contractor bids should we get? Will this architect come up with a design we like? Should we add a bathroom to that new bedroom or just go with a walk-in-closet and let the person use the bathroom in the hall?) Taking time out to talk with all of the neighbors about how the project will impact them is often the last thing on the home owner's mind (not on purpose, but because there's already so much else to deal with). And in some cases, new home building is not being done by a family at all but by a speculating developer that hopes to improve the property and sell it at a marked up price. The developer doesn't plan to ever live in the house and therefore may not even know the neighbors let alone take time to talk with them about the changes that are being made. Because of this, some neighbors have been negatively affected, whether through neglect or negligence. These people felt their only recourse was to plead their case before the city council and ask for protections to be put into place so that the damage that had been done to them wouldn't be perpetrated upon others. Essentially, these neighbors were asking city council to build "good neighborliness" into the city code.

Some houses fit in well below limits size-wise, but seem to stand out from the older houses for other reasons. 

So the city council hired consultants that spent time getting to know exactly what it was these neighbors were complaining about. They photographed and analyzed several housing situations within both east side and west side Old Town and played with various ways that the negatives could have been addressed while enabling the owners of the addition or new house to still maintain as much of their original plan as possible. They didn't come up with a plan that pleased all Old Town residents, either those that were the neighbors nor those that were the builders. But they found a middle ground that would enable those building new or expanded houses to still add a fair amount of space and that would protect neighbors to some extent. People would still lose some sunshine. They would still lose some views. They might still have new house looming over their old house. But it wouldn't ever be as bad as some of the worst example out there. That was the goal. That's what the city council is hoping to achieve through this ordinance.

The issue in Old Town is not about control of your own property. Home owners can still expand their houses if their lot has the space. The real issue at stake is neighborliness. The new ordinance puts some modest rules into place that encourage more neighborly building for the betterment of all residents of Old Town.

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