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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.

Paula Miller October 30, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Once again Obiwan you are so correct in your analysis of how the Planning Commission and City Council bows at the alter of the developers. In the never ending quest for more tax dollars to support the 'chosen' projects of individual council members we, the citizens, are the losers as our quality of life is threatened by overgrowth ( the famous "infill"), increased traffic, and more demand on vital services which are shortchanged by such actions. Keep up the good fight Obiwan and just maybe someday your good deeds will be rewarded with sensible people serving on the council who truly care about the citizens they are supposed to represent.
Pete Johnson October 31, 2012 at 12:16 AM
You nailed it again, Obiwan. There is a constant undercurrent to get around the voter-approved limits. The City Council was ready to give an exception to Neiman Marcus but the developer saw the handwriting on the wall and altered their plans Height limits seem to be flexible. I always wondered about the roof top features stretching above the height limits whether for design or utilitarian (AC units, elevators) purposes and whether there were any limitations on the number or size of these often ugly features. There is a fear to say NO to developers under their threat of "we won't build unless we can maximize the size of the structure". It would be nice just once to have a candidate say they will fight to maintain Measure A rather than say its up to the voters to change it as cover to taking a stance to retain it. My assumption is most city council members and candidates would support busting the height limits if the Chamber ever puts it on the ballot.
obiwan October 31, 2012 at 05:39 AM
The sad thing is that the tax dollars (property taxes and increased sales tax revenue) the City realizes from all the new apartment projects downtown doesn't pay for the cost of services to the new residents. The City's own Economic Development Manager was scheduled to present an analysis of this to the City Council in June, but the scheduled hearing was CANCELLED at the last minute, thanks to pressure exerted by the Council's Chamber of Commerce overlords.
Steve Lundgren October 31, 2012 at 11:48 PM
Obiwan, Pete Johnson and Paula Miller, you shouldn't get too confident about how the residents view measure A. It barely passed years ago and only by the help of outside money. Everyone that I have talk with about this can see the damage Measure A has done and continues to do. The area north of Ygnacio within striking distance of BART sits mostly useless with no hope of smart growth infill where its needed, just mostly dilapidated used car dealerships, some fast food and chain link fence around open fields - not very charming. The one recent development has been the VW car dealership 100 yards from BART - which is utterly pathetic and laughable with regard to its utilization. There should be 5 - 6 stories of mixed use to take advantage of the nearby intermodal system. with 35 ft ht limits, that area will remain marginal and under utilized. Developers are straight-jacketed here and whenever one of them moves a pinky, there seems to be an outrage. Measure A absolutely needs to be repealed so that Walnut Creek can develope and operate in a way that creates the vitatily and energy that this region deserves and can support. Repealing measure A would also lead the way to more parking at the BART station. The 50 ft height limit for the parking garage showed extremely poor stewardship of such a vital part of tranportation along the 24/680 corridor.
obiwan November 01, 2012 at 05:30 AM
(LOL!!!) Yes Steve, I can believe that everyone you know opposes height limits. That's the problem with our City Council too - they're all products of the same Chamber of Commerce cookie-cutter factory and all think alike. But what's this thing you have about car dealers? I'll admit that it's been a while since my Citizen's Institute indoctrination, but car dealers used to account for something like 20% of the City's sales tax revenue.
Julie Jepsen-Grant November 01, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Does anyone know where we can find what kind of business brings in the most dollars in sales tax revenue for the city of Walnut Creek?
Jojo Potato November 01, 2012 at 03:13 PM
This document shows (page 4) which kinds of business contribute sales tax revenue to the city. http://www.walnut-creek.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=7091 Hope my cut and past worked. Autos are the highest with department stores next. Too bad the city makes these kind of documents hard to find. Whose domain is walnut-creek.org anyway? Chamber of commerce?
obiwan November 01, 2012 at 03:39 PM
Actually, I'd like to commend the City for making this kind of info available at all. I found it too by navigating the City website - Homepage > City Government > City Budget & Long Term Financial Plan > Other Financial Reports. I see that 9 of the top 25 sales tax producers are car dealerships and another 4 are gas stations - both of which might be considered under-utilizations of valuable real estate.
obiwan November 01, 2012 at 03:45 PM
"walnut-creek.org" is owned by the city. It redirects to "ci.walnut-creek.ca.us" - which is the standard way some government official decided government domains should be assigned.
Jojo Potato November 01, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Thanks for the other way to navigate to this document. But I don't think counting businesses on the list is of much use. I think we both would like to see the businesses listed in order of sales tax revenue but I think that might be too intrusive. And anyway, Walnut Creek was built on car sales. Ford on the east side of main street, Chevy on the west. Nowadays VW and Nissan and Honda have taken some of these spots. It's the heart of the economy. Whenever I hear talk of improving North Main by getting rid of car lots I just shudder. Kill the golden goose? I hope not.
Julie Jepsen-Grant November 01, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Thanks Jojo and Obiwan for your answers. I love it when people respond to questions asked. Personally, I have always purchased my cars in Walnut Creek. El Camino, Camaro, a couple Cadillac CTS's, oh, and Mom wanted a Toyota, so I went with her to the dealer, but alas, at the end of 2010 I had to buy my Equinox (Chevy) in Concord because Walnut Creek didn't have a Chevy dealer. Based on the sale of the Equinox, I just finished doing the math, and I would need to purchase 60 pairs of Spanx at NM so WC could see that kind of sales tax. Go figure. :-D
Pete Johnson November 01, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Steve Lundgren... glad to see your input into the discussion My strong reluctance to eliminating height limits is based on my preference for the type of town or city I want to live in. I like to be able to see Mt. Diablo and not high-rises. Its appealing to me to drive into WC from Highway 24 and see the mountain and a sense of openness. I want to walk downtown from my neighborhood and not feel like I am in a canyon of buildings. I want buildings with set backs at intersections and plazas for folks to gather. I want pedestrian and bike friendly development. I don't want to see Almond-Shuey surrounded by higher buildings nor my Parkmead neighborhood seeing high rises from our yards. (I look forward to the high rise at 1500 Newell going down this month, something I supported during the review of this project). I hope Broadway Plaza does retain the plaza and pedestrian walkways in its plans (which I spoke and wrote in favor of) and doesn't come in with more mass. City leaders talk of a downtown plaza, but when and where? Dare I say I like the European emphasis on plazas, pedestrians and bikes. (to be continued)
Pete Johnson November 01, 2012 at 06:24 PM
as I was saying... What I don't want is the high rise office towers in Concord or near the Pleasant Hill BART station. Seen from 680-24 or from Mt Diablo, they have zero appeal to me. The area you refer to on auto row and near BART (also near residential Almond-Shuey) could easily be exploited if there were no height limits. You may be correct that there are some areas where the limits are restrictive. I still would resist changing limits there because of a basic lack of trust in what the City would approve under the political realities of who controls things on Walnut Creek. We seem to be doing fine economically compared to other local cities. There are more apartments (over retail or not) in the pipeline and without height limits I'm sure they would soon tower over our vibrant city. Its all in the eye in the beholder and who you trust to ensure your vision.... and your view corridors.
Steve Lundgren November 01, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Pete Johnson. Thank you for your respectful input. I also do not want highrises (10 stories or higher) as you and some others may fear. The repeal of Measure A wouldn't be a floodgate of the sort, just better policy through general plans. It is entirely appropriete to build north of Yngacio with 5,6 or 8 story mixed use development. even the downtown area could handle 4-5 story development here and there and not detract from the feel of the city. Obiwan, Regarding the tax revenue, yes car dealerships provide well, as far as one story developement goes, but can't compare to 5-6 story mixed use developement. That area north of Ynacio is a mortuary during the day and a cemetary at night. Vitality and energy will over come whatever tax shortage may be felt from the relocation of car dealerships.
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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