Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Weaving The New and The Old Together

Last night the City Council gave final approval to two downtown condo projects – the 16-unit project at Palm & Poli, up the hill from the 71 Palm Restaurant, and the 15-unit project that will be built as part of the Elks Club renovation. The Elks Club was unanimous; the Palm & Poli project passed 6-1, with Councilmember Andrews expressing ongoing concern about how traffic on Poli and Palm will work with the new project.

I was pleased to see both these projects go forward. Both projects show that we are making progress in weaving the new and the old together downtown. What a difference this is from the situation in 2004, when we all watched the Mayfair Theater be demolished and felt that there wasn’t much we could do about it.

The Elks Club project has the potential to be terrific. You may recall that the Elks Club sold the building to a group of investors a couple of years ago and it has been vacant since then. This project has two parts. The first is the 16 condos, which will be constructed in the current parking lot (without losing any parking – they’re going underground on the parking). The second is renovation and reopening of the Elks Club building itself (with its fabulous dance floor, which takes up almost the entire third floor) as a venue for events and probably some office space as well.

The Elks Club is one of our architectural treasures, built in 1928. The renovation has the potential to be spectacular. Further, in this case the developers dumped their original design for the condos, which was a pretty bulky 3- and 4-story project along Main Street that clearly compromised the integrity of the Elks Club building. The new design is much lower scale along Main Street and puts the taller floors toward the back of the lot, away from Main Street. In this way, the new condo building is more compatible with surrounding buildings on Main Street and still allows the Elks Club to stand out – as it should!

The Palm & Poli project is a little more complicated but still represents progress.You may recall that last fall this project came to us for final approval and we kicked it back, primarily because we felt that the question of the compatability between the new building and adjacent historic buildings had not been adequately analyzed.

This site contains the Hartman House, an historic landmark, and is adjacent to 71 Palm (the Norton Ranch House), which is another historic landmark. The original plan – years ago – was to move the Hartman House altogether. The more recent plan was a definite improvement but I personally felt we had not addressed the question of “adjacency” – the setbacks, for example, between the Hartman House and the new condo building -- adequately in the environmental review.

Subsequent to our council discussion last fall, the staff did a more detailed review of the compatability of new and old buildings. This led to some minor changes in the project, including greater setbacks between the two buildings and the retention of an addition to the Hartman House which had been slated for demolition under the previous plan. There are also a few other new protections in place, and the “Historic Protection Plan” for the Hartman House will now include the Norton Ranch House as well. It was great to see Didier and Nancy Poirier, owners of 71 Palm, reach agreement on all issues with the developers at last – and Nancy, in particular, gave kudos to our City Manager Rick Cole and his current special assistant Rick Raives (on assignment from public works) for sitting down and helping to work those issues through. (The two property owners reached a separate agreement not involving the city on some issues.)

The Palm and Poli project may not be perfect, but it’s very good – and noticeably better than it was last fall. We’re definitely getting better at this stuff.

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