If you’ve been following the Lafayette Downtown Specific Plan you undoubtedly know that the height and density debate won’t be completely resolved until the final City Council vote on the plan (and probably not even then). But the Planning Commission came to a pretty significant consensus on the issue last week.
Planning Commissioners agreed the downtown height limit should remain at 35 feet, with an additional 10 feet — up to 45 feet total — allowed if certain conditions are met (see below). That’s not much different than what’s been floating out there the past couple of years.
But what is different is they limited the number of stories to three. That’s an incredibly important distinction. Without that limitation, a 45-foot building could theoretically be four-stories tall. With it, a taller building does not necessarily mean a denser building because, even with an additional 10 feet, a developer can not add another floor of apartments or offices.
Nothing here is final. Planning staff still has to go back and revise the downtown plan with ALL of the Planning Commissions recommendations, then bring it back to commissioners for more public hearings and final approval. Then the whole thing heads to the City Council. The city is hoping the council can make a final decision on the plan in September.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation appears to be somewhat of a compromise. Many had concerns that with additional height would come additional density, and with additional density would come traffic and safety problems. At the same time, the business community said developers needed flexibility, particularly to attract high-quality retailers who often demand more vertical space on the first floor.
What the Planning Commission has come up with won’t appease those who worry taller buildings will block views or hurt Lafayette’s small-town charm. But that’s a concern the city may not entirely alleviate unless it agrees to keep the height limit at 35 feet or set it lower.
Want a couple examples of what this could look like? Take a look at the Lafayette Mercantile Building: A taller first story with high-end shops, then two floors of office space. Three stories, 42 feet tall.
Then there’s the Lafayette library, which is an example of a building that needed additional height due to the topography of the land on which it sits. The library is only one (big) story at Mt. Diablo Boulevard, but significantly taller, at least from a perception standpoint, at Golden Gate Way, thanks to the steep decline of the terrain along that block.
Developers, of course, wouldn’t get the added height just by asking nicely. Their plans would have to hold up under the city’s usual general plan and design review scrutiny, plus satisfy additional criteria specifically for buildings taller than 35 feet.
City Manager Steven Falk describes it in his “Friday Summary” last week:
Additional height over 35’ and up to 45’ will be granted only if the building complies with the City’s design guidelines, does not adversely impact its surroundings or views to distant hills, and provides benefits to the community which are significant and over and beyond what is normally required by the City.
It would be up to the Planning Commission to determine whether they can make the findings to allow the additional height.
“The findings for extra height had to be really strict because it is not the intention for the Planning Commission to approve every request for increased heights,” said Planning and Building Manager Niroop Srivatsa.