The Gig Harbor City Council is moving to make changes to building size and height requirements in the downtown business and waterfront commercial zoning districts.
The provision that has been met with the most skepticism concerns changes in the rules for the height of a building. The current municipal code allows buildings to be as tall as 27 feet with peaked roofs. The proposed change would allow buildings to reach 27 feet with flat roofs.
Gig Harbor City Council member Derek Young understands those who have concerns, but he said the changes are trivial.
“Most of these are seen as common sense-type amendments to help with redevelopment in downtown, but not make dramatic changes; the type of thing we can move off the table quickly,” Young said. “Even still, it’s generated some concern. People are worried, because a lot of it deals with building size and height.”
The change is aimed to encourage business growth in the downtown area. Commercial buildings generally have flat roofs, while peaked roofs are more common in residential areas.
“In modern standards, where you have HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units and stuff like that on top of buildings, flat roofs are kind of the norm,” Young said. “So we’re basically saying, you can still go to 27 (feet), but you can do it with a flat roof now. So it’s a very, very minor change. But when people hear that, they immediately think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s gonna be new two-story buildings all over the place and along the waterfront zones.’ ”
Jim Pasin, a city planning commission member, said he believes 27 feet will be enough for new businesses to be built.
“A number of the existing old buildings, such as the old hotel and Harbor Inn (restaurant), are at or near 27 feet, and through the architects on the design review board and the city’s fire marshal, it was basically agreed that 27 feet would allow you to build a modern structure,” Pasin said. “You would have the ceiling and floor heights and sufficient floor space for HVAC.”
Architect David Boe, who has worked on several projects in the Gig Harbor in past 20 years, does not believe 27 feet is enough. He says a two-story building built within a 27-foot blueprint would need very low ceilings, and businesses are unlikely to be receptive to a cramped space.
“I personally don’t believe 27 feet works,” Boe said. “I believe it’s a red herring. Nothing will be built, because you need 32 feet.”
The second proposed amendment would allow current nonconforming buildings to be remodeled or torn down and rebuilt to the same or smaller configuration, a policy commonly referred to as “grandfathering.” The city already allows grandfathering in extreme situations.
“If you have an ‘act of God,’ like a fire, or a truck hits your building, earthquake, something like that, you can rebuild,” Young said. “That’s seen as not your fault, and we’re not going to force compliance of the existing zoning rules.”
The amendment would extend the grandfathering concept by allowing property owners with nonconforming buildings to completely tear down their buildings and rebuild them to the previous footprint.
“Changes recommending would be able to have those heights, square feet, etc.,” Pasin said. “But it would have to meet the building code laws, like electrical and so forth. It could be built to the same shell that currently exists.”
The concept is not without its share of flaws.
“That comforts people, because they’re comfortable with what they already see there, but they want to apply different rules to other folks,” Young said. “In my view, that’s not fair. It sets up two different classes of property owner in the same zone.”
The provision means the city would never get the property to comply with current zoning laws, and Young believes that exposes problems.
“In my view, that’s a signal to me that our rules are too strict,” Young said. “If we’re OK with it for one site, but not for its neighbor, it tells me that we need to work on our rules, rather than just grandfather. I see it as kind of a cop-out.”
The planning commission has spent more than a year to develop its recommendations, including public hearings and open meetings.