City treats its plans as if they're on Kleenex

It was oddly appropriate that the article about a proposed apartment-hotel-office tower project in South End was positioned on the Observer's front-page right next to one about scams and counterfeit Panthers' tickets. You might view the City Council's 2005 approval of a 120-foot height limit for that part of South End as a similar scam, a sort of counterfeit assurance to neighbors.

The proposal, from Harris Development Group, has won a positive recommendation from the development-loving zoning committee of the city's Planning Commission and is due for a July 21 yes-or-no vote from the City Council.

The city planning staff also smiles upon it, because it's near a station on the light rail line. “That site can support that density,” planner Tim Manes told the Observer's Dan Tierney. “Sometimes when you have density you have to have height.”

So what's the problem? Simply this. The 120-foot height limit – which allows 10- to 11-story buildings – is common throughout many city plans adopted for older parts of town. It's the height limit in the city's MUDD, or mixed-use development, and TOD, or transit-oriented district, zonings. It's the limit in the Transit Station Area Principles. In reality, allowing buildings that tall is too lenient to be of any protection to the bungalow-filled neighborhoods such as Dilworth's historic district, that tend to border the light rail line, planned future rail lines and corridors where MUDD zoning is most likely.

City plans aren't legally binding. They're merely merely suggestions to developers. Even MUDD and TOD zoning, binding once applied to a property, offer generous wiggle room for developers who want taller buildings.

Some neighbors of the proposed 230-foot-tall South End tower complain that they bought condos in the 300-foot-tall Arlington (built before the 2005 plan adoption) because of views of uptown, which the new development would mostly block. You can always ask, of course, what else should they have expected in an area of booming development. However, the looming issue of tall buildings blocking light, air and views from existing buildings is one the city should study, and so far it has shown no appetite to do so. Already, uptown is becoming a canyon of shadow and wind tunnels, because of the city's unmitigated glee at over tall buildings. Further, the South End neighbors took part in good faith in meetings that produced the 2005 plan with its 120-foot height limit. Their dismay is understandable and, sadly, not unique to this plan. Why even bother with a plan if it only serves to let developers do what they'd do anyway, without the plan?

If the city approves this violation of the South End Transit Station Area Plan, it will be yet another in a lengthy litany of city decision-makers treating plans as if they're written on Kleenex. Residents all over town should take it as confirmation that even when the council approves an area plan, it might well be as counterfeit as a fake Panthers ticket. You might say it's the city's planning scam.