As best I can tell, the City Council intends to gut the Vertical Mixed Use ordinance on Thursday.
O.K., O.K. That's hyperbole.
But one of its "housekeeping" ordinances (Item 71) seems to take dead aim at the bargain that gave us VMU zoning. This was the deal the City struck with the neighborhood associations; the City agreed to leave neighborhood interiors alone and the neighborhoods agreed to increased density on the transit corridors.
One of the best features of the VMU ordinance is that it opens up hundreds of properties to dense residential development without property-by-property haggling. The VMU Overlay District includes all commercially zoned property on core transit corridors (with minor exceptions). Hundreds or thousands of properties suddenly are ripe for redevelopment.
Before VMU, all of these properties would have needed rezoning. We all know what rezoning means: months or years of haggling with the neighborhoods, multiple trips to the planning commission, stormy City Council meetings. The ordinance eliminates all this. Instead, it protects neighborhood interests (really, all of our interests) by imposing some pretty strict design guidelines. These ensure that VMU buildings will contribute to a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly environment without unduly inconveniencing the adjoining neighborhoods. Developers who can live with the design guidelines get to work without local micromanagement.
Neighborhood associations have an "opt out" option, but it applies only to the density bonuses available as affordable housing incentives. Nothing in the ordinance gives the neighborhoods the right to pick and choose which properties are eligible for VMU zoning.
Or at least until Thursday.
On Thursday, Council will take up amendments to the VMU ordinance that restore neighborhood control over VMU zoning. Neighborhood planning teams will be allowed to "request" that certain properties be removed from the VMU Overlay District.
It's not hard to guess what will happen. You don't even have to assume bad intentions. One property will be "de-VMUed" because it's too close to a block of single family homes. Another will be removed because it'll block someone's view. This one will be removed because of "environmental" concerns, or the need for a "buffer" or "transition." (The Chronicle even suggested that de-VMUing could be used to protect the local coffee shop . . . )
Oh, I know. Neighborhoods can't get away with that because Council will have to approve the requests. If they turn obstructionist, Council will deny their requests and they won't get anything. And property owners will have every incentive to stick up for themselves.
But I don't see how Council, or the city planning staff, can give serious scrutiny to all of the neighborhood requests. Dozens of opt-out applications will be developed all at once over a 90-day period. Then dozens of applications will be turned in all at once, each proposing to remove a slate of properties. Will our overworked city planners really have time to weigh the pros and cons of every specific request?
Property owners may be entitled to object to the neighborhood request. But then we're back to resolving zoning disputes property by property, which means notice, hearings, multiple levels of review.
This seems like a pretty bad deal to me. I didn't think this is what the density "bargain" (itself a pretty bad deal) was about.
I'm sure the neighborhood leadership will argue that we need some customization. And I'm sure they'll be able to identify some pretty compelling examples.
But is it really necessary to gut the ordinance's strongest provision? Here's my suggestion. If the City Council is hell-bent on letting the neighborhoods cherry-pick, give them an incentive to keep it to a minimum. Require that the neighborhood "replace" each parcel of land removed from the VMU District. They can do that by rezoning a similar piece of property in the neighborhood interior for multi-family. I guarantee that you won't see a property de-VMUed unless it really deserves it.
Update: Council approved the amendments last night on all three readings. Martinez and Dunkerly seemed to understand the problems, but Brewster repeatedly gave his personal assurance that this will not "unwind" the VMU ordinance. How he believes the Council or staff can adequately scrutinize all of the forthcoming requests is a mystery to me. But I hope he is right.
On a related note, ANC's president was asked to give examples of properties that a neighborhood might "withdraw" from the VMU overlay district. One of her examples: three small lots with individual businesses that are at risk of being aggregated into one large development. This is the exactly the type of development VMU zoning is supposed to encourage, or so I thought.