Narrower building setbacks approved

Changes in street setback rules approved Tuesday would allow new buildings on Lithia Way to look like the rest of downtown &

only 15 feet from the curb.

The Ashland Planning Commission approved the change, dropping a wider setback that had bedeviled developers and planners for decades. It passed with only two dissenting votes and now must be approved by the city council.

Commissioner John Fields, a developer, said wider gaps between streets and downtown buildings cause pedestrians to lose interest in shops and reduce the vitality of downtown, while a uniform fa&

231;ade, closer to the street "supports the urban part of our lives" that helps create jobs and culture.

In her presentation on the controversial topic, Planning Manager Maria Harris supported amending setback requirements and street standards for the north side of Lithia Way, the main arterial being considered for downtown development. It would include a 10-foot wide sidewalk and 5-foot "hardscape" by the curb, where trees can be planted.

The change, she said, would support urban design principles, preserve Ashland's downtown character, be consistent with site design and use standards and transportation goals and provide clear direction on land use applications.

Opposing the change, Commission Chairman John Stromberg said the city council needs to hammer out a new downtown plan that maximizes sidewalk space for big trees. Tom Dimitre also voted no.

Testifying in favor of the change, Ron Roth, owner of Geppetto's Restaurant, said the post office, the just-demolished Copeland's Lumber and the new fire station, all on or near Lithia Way, cozied up to the curb &

and that the restrictive setbacks have let valuable Lithia Way properties be used for gas stations and a city parking lot instead of more vital shops.

Calling Lithia Way a "second downtown," historian George Kramer said the present 20-foot setback "makes no sense," adding that "people don't like vacant land" and the historic zero setback reflects the kind of downtown people want.

Commissioner Pam Marsh said it's time to end the tangle of confusing laws around setbacks that have allowed standards on one side of Lithia Way to be narrower than those on the other side.

"The setback should be the same on both sides or people feel uncomfortable," Marsh said. "In a city trying to get away from the car, creating a good pedestrian environment should be at the top of the list."

The present setback was one of the obstacles a few years ago for the proposed Northlight office and commercial development, which ended up being denied by the Planning Commission.

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