Thursday, April 17, 2008

Leaders say Cottage project largely unchanged


Despite pleas from neighbors and concerned citizens that recent changes made to the 115-unit Cottage Hospital workforce project represent significant alterations since the City Council’s approval in 2006, members of the Planning Commission agreed during a special hearing Thursday that the project is substantially the same.
Among the aspects of the altered plan most criticized by community members is an increase in total floor area and paved surfaces, along with a reduction in landscaping.

Architect Brian Cearnal, speaking for the hospital, allayed those concerns, saying the changes grew out of refinement of the site plan during extensive meetings with the Architectural Board of Review.
“Rest assured, this has not been any diabolical scheme to get more square footage out of this project,” he said. “It’s been all about design.”
While merely a cursory review by the Planning Commission to aid Dave Gustafson, the city’s acting community development director who is ultimately tasked with deciding if the project has changed significantly, the hearing gave credence to the argument of city planners that the project has not been considerably altered.
Without Gustafson’s signature affirming that the project is largely unchanged, referred to as a substantial conformance determination, Cottage Hospital’s proposal to build workforce housing on the site of St. Francis Medical Center would have to return to square one in the city’s planning process.
Cearnal, while not denying the project has changed, said the alterations have been minor and are a great improvement over the previous plans.
“We believe we’ve made it more compatible with the neighborhood,” he said.
Along with eliminating seven of the 32 zoning modifications requested for the project, Cearnal said his design team trimmed down the number of buildings and created a more pedestrian-friendly roadway through the center of the site.
On the other hand, he argued, there have been no alterations to the number of units, bedrooms or parking spaces.
However, many of those speaking during public comment took issue with the increase of net floor area, including Jim Westby, president of St. Francis Friends and Neighbors.
“This is a very dense project,” he said. “…We shouldn’t be supporting any increase in square footage.”
Others decried faulty project statistics — related to square footage, landscaping, paving and the overall building footprint — that were presented to the Planning Commission and City Council as they considered the proposal.
“This project is very messy,” said Tony Fisher, an attorney representing the neighborhood group. “…A lot of these errors came up very late in the process.”
Cearnal accepted criticism for providing incorrect data, calling it extremely troubling and offering his apologies. He explained that due to poor calculations, the building footprint, net floor area, and paved area were larger than figures presented by project staff.
Mistakes included not counting decks over garages and accidentally skipping over one building, he said, in addition to leaving indoor stairways and sidewalks out of the final totals.
When comparing new changes to the reconciled figures of the original plan, however, Cearnal and city staff said the project does not exceed the 10 percent limit required for a substantial conformance determination.
Net floor area jumped 4 percent, paving rose 8.9 percent, and landscaping dropped 4.8 percent, city planner Irma Unzueta said.
On the other side of the coin, Unzueta said total grading required for the project dropped by 9,800 cubic yards due to recalculations. She said the proposed changes don’t pose new impacts, while they reduced 19 modifications and improved a fire turnaround area.
“It can be found in substantial conformance with the original proposed project,” Unzueta said.
Four members of the Planning Commission in attendance agreed, saying while the miscalculation of figures is troubling, the changes are in line with polishing and refinement.
“The shock of this project or this hearing today has to do with the miscalculation of landscape,” Harwood White said, saying that figure is extremely important to the public and city leaders when examining a project.
“We hold it dear,” he said, urging staff to be extremely careful with calculations.
“For goodness sakes, hold it in that high regard.”
Commissioners John Jostes, Charmaine Jacobs and Chairman George Myers all found in favor of substantial conformity. Jacobs also asked staff to look into several concerns raised by the public, including proposed shuttle service along Micheltorena Street.
Gustafson said he should receive a draft of the proposed changes within a day and will take the weekend to mull over the project.
“I really want to go back and digest their comments and concerns,” he said.
He expects to have a decision by Monday, adding that having a ruling on the substantial conformance determination will be helpful to the City Council during their hearing into an appeal of the Architectural Board of Review’s preliminary approval of the housing project. That hearing is scheduled for April 29.
Fisher, during his public comment presentation, questioned Gustafson’s authority to make a decision on conformity for a project approved by the City Council, saying he is being empowered by the city as an environmental and planning “czar.”
But City Attorney Steve Wiley said that argument is contrary to Planning Commission guidelines, which allow the community development director to oversee substantial conformance determinations during the final tinkering of a project.

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