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The new rules for downtown

The good and bad about the regs we Benicians agreed to
by Steve McKee on October 25, 2009

Owning a house or a building in downtown Benicia has long had its own set of extra rules that govern what you can and can’t do with your structure.

In 2006 those rules were revisited and rewritten when the city hired an outside group of planning consultants to come in and lead a series of “design workshops” in which interested citizens could participate in discussion groups that would allow the planners to gain insight into the priorities of Benicians. Based on this input, as well as the planners’ own observations about the physical dynamics at work in Benicia, the planners then proposed new zoning rules for the downtown area. The city council then made these the official new regulations in 2007.

I myself didn’t attend these workshop sessions, though I wish I had (if only for curiosity) especially now that I’m living with the results as a practicing Benicia architect and also as a member of the Historic Preservation Review Commission who gets to see the effect these rules have on our downtown structures. I’ve read the document twice and have begun making notes in the margins because it’s becoming apparent that, though mostly good, a few of the new rules are a little screwy in my opinion (examples to follow) and may require revisiting, a process that my colleagues and I on the HPRC can initiate in the form of recommendations to the city council. I should mention that opinions expressed here are my own.

These new rules are called the “Downtown Mixed Use Master Plan” (an accurate if clunky title) and are viewed in the form of a magazine-like document consisting of some eighty pages comprised of five different chapters with occasional color diagrams and photos. Portions of it are downright readable; others are loaded with data and tables. It can be viewed at City Hall or online. Just Google “Benicia Downtown Mixed Use Master Plan.”

Four different zones are named and allocated for the Benicia downtown, each with a slightly different set of rules (these zones are shown on a colored map on page 4-3.) When they say “downtown,” they mean it, as only First Street and the next block and a half on either side are affected. By the middle of the 200 block of the cross streets we have worked our way through all four of these special zones and are back to the usual zoning that we’ve had for decades.

The new rules are “form-based zoning” which is a new phenomenon in the world of city planning in which the form or shape of buildings is emphasized, with less focus on appointing and separating the land uses. This creates more architecturally cohesive environments than the previous way of zoning. It’s a new approach to achieve an old-time result: pedestrian oriented downtown areas.

In yucky spread-out cities like you would find in Texas or Orange County California the switch to form-based zoning can help create a noticeably different “downtown feel” in a city where there once was very little. In our own Benicia, whose downtown formed prior to the diffusing impact of the automobile, the classic old-time “Main Street” feel is already present and the impact of such zoning will be less noticeable.

For the most part, aside from some irksome little requirements here and there, I’ve found these new rules to be beneficial to downtown owners because the rules allow for slightly more development of their properties than before. Parking requirements are less rigorous for small projects. The former limit of forty percent lot coverage is now gone for residences. These are happy changes on behalf of property rights, which is a good thing for downtown owners because for years they have had more rigorous review and more stringent requirements for the development of their property than owners have had in the rest of town, namely a formal design review process and a meticulous evaluation of the impact of any remodeling on the building’s historical integrity that limits their options. These rigorous reviews were already in place before the new zoning came along and will continue to happen mostly unaffected by the new zoning.

Of the four new zones created, the most urban-esque zone is called “Town Core” and occurs mostly along First Street and its goal is to achieve an urban character. In my opinion, the new rules for First Street are not all that different from the previous ones. But one new requirement is that buildings are required to be built to the sidewalk edge or at least provide a fence or low wall to maintain a continuous edge to the street-front all along First Street. Seems like a good strategy at first, but I question the value of rigorously and unthinkingly enforcing the idea that the line of the street needs to be maintained without relief. How about the occasional alcove type of space that is friendly to sidewalk dining? This rule should somehow allow some intelligent flexibility. Perhaps in the design review process the case for worthwhile exceptions could be presented and either accepted or rejected by design reviewers without need of a formal variance. It’s another layer of livability we could be adding to our city.

The other three zones radiating out from First Street require slightly more and more space be left open around the structures, until we’re back to our usual residential zoning by Third Street. These rules are also not significantly different than what was in place before, but there are these little notes tucked in here and there. It’s said that the devil sometimes lurks in the details. In our case it’s the footnotes.

I’m not convinced that the “stakeholders” in downtown Benicia who attended the workshops in 2006 knew they were signing on for rules like this: It is now a requirement that all rooms on the first floor must have ceilings at least ten feet tall. No exceptions. Even a tiny Half Bath must have this soaring ceiling height. This ties our hands and eliminates options. Think about how unwarranted that requirement is: deep in your home, unseen by anybody, you are being required to give up your right to shape your rooms as you wish, and for no perceivable benefit to anybody else, certainly not to passers-by. I can’t wait to see this rule revised.

Here’s another questionable rule: Let’s say you want to build an addition or a new house that extends further back on your lot than your adjacent neighbor’s house does. Any windows in the portion of your addition that goes further back from the street than your neighbor’s house (and is within 10’ of the side property line) are required to have “privacy” glass that is obscure. That’s right: your windows in these locations (whether it be Bedroom or Living Room) must have glass that you cannot see through. Yikes.

How about this one: Any decks on the rear of homes greater than two feet above grade must have a “privacy screen” toward neighboring lots. There is no definition included of what the phrase “privacy screen” means, and that might be what saves the day for us. Can a row of trees planted near a property edge be counted as such a screen? Let’s hope so. Ten years ago at my house we placed a pergola and some vines along a fence at a position that would screen the view going back and forth between my window and a neighbor’s window. It worked out great to increase privacy for both houses.

Expect to hear more on these possible revisions later. Whatever happens, you can be sure the process at the city will be open with everybody getting a chance to weigh in.

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