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Easier? Or harder?

It’s no secret that Ashland is low on buildable space and affordable housing for the workforce. Seeking to resolve this, the City Council Tuesday heard the public’s thoughts on a plan for infill on the “Transit Triangle” formed by Ashland Street, Tolman Creek Road and Siskiyou Boulevard. Not everyone was happy about it.

Developers have been building too many big units over the past decade and need to be “incentivized” to think small, hopefully with multi-story buildings that have commercial space on the ground floor, rentals on the second, third — maybe even fourth floors and create hang-out spaces, said city Planning Director Bill Molnar, where neighbors can “stop after work, take a break, build community and watch the world go by.”

The main part of Ashland is “done” and doesn’t offer a lot of space for this, but the Transit Triangle has many spaces that are either vacant (think the northwest corner of Tolman and Ashland Street) or are ripe for redevelopment, such as that long-vacant tire shop on the south side of Ashland Street, near Faith Street.

Consultant on the project Scott Fregonese of Portland showed many photos to the council and crowd, with these dog-eared sites crowned by impressive brick structures, much like recent development on Lithia Way and, he explained, making good use of setbacks, required landscaping and “articulation” that gets rid of boring flat exterior walls, while giving builders enough rental space for profitable ROI (return on investment).

At the public hearing, business owner Trina Sanford said planners assured her the infill overlay plan “won’t be imposed on our property or change the zoning but I can’t wrap my head around why this benefits our community. It seems to degrade the area and overload the infrastructure, traffic, parking. I appreciate the affordable housing but it doesn’t align with our zoning, business model or future plans. It will be dangerous for residents with big trucks, increased traffic.”

Longtime developer-builder John Fields bashed the increasing complexity and overlapping rules that force builders, if they can find lots, to deal with a cascade of “exceptions, problems and things to work out Someone has to make these tradeoffs. It’s not our job.”

Fields faulted the costs of many planning consultants and studies and the amount of city employee time that goes into them. “What is the cost of this study, all the employee time? Does it all go into a big pot as general overhead of running a Planning Department? Are we buying into development or creating a big house of mirrors?”

Pointing to ever-increasing requirements for parking, landscaping, storm water detention, garbage-recycling enclosures, elevators — “you map that out and your footprint (for housing space) drastically reduces and even meeting the goals of this (plan), you can’t get there” with good ROI.

Mayor John Stromberg responded, “This is the best I’ve heard anyone describe the problem and I appreciate that a lot.”

Fregonese, son of the late John Fregonese, who designed the modern Ashland downtown plan decades ago, said, in an interview that the overlay is designed to allow planners “flexibility to put in more units in a smaller site.”

In response to comments of Fields, Fregonese said Ashland’s planning and zoning rules are indeed complex and difficult. “The city is trying to make it simple and more flexible. This overlay will identify problems to get the desired outcomes.”

The plan, according to its summary, gives owners more flexibility on zoning, allows taller buildings, incentivizes more mulitfamily housing, gets rid of residential density requirements, requires less commercial-employment space in commercial and employment zones, and reduces parking and landscape requirements.

The hearing on the plan was continued to Oct. 2.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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