The Norman Transcript

February 24, 2013

High density dialogue: an update


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

Last summer Norman started a community dialogue about High Density (HD) development. In the fall, however, the City seemed ready to moot that discussion when it considered the Risser/B3 project, a six-story HD apartment building proposed for Campus Corner. (The structure would mostly contain HD housing and parking, but also include a leasing office and the NEDC.) Risser/B3 sought approval to proceed under C-3 (intensive commercial) zoning, with a special use for a mixed building.

HD housing is inappropriate in a C-3 district - it only ‘works’ if the City allows the special-use ‘tail’ to wag the commercial ‘dog’. The real problem with Risser/B3 rezoning, however, is precedent. If the Risser/B3 project qualifies for C-3 zoning then any apartment building could also qualify (e.g., by including an office). This would repudiate the HD process: a C-3-based ‘back door’ would not only ignore previous input from staff and citizens; it would preclude future input since C-3 zoning requirements are negligible.

Fortunately, wisdom prevailed in the fall. City staff recommended postponing the Risser/B3 rezoning request until HD deliberations were completed. Both Risser/B3 and the City Council agreed to put off project decisions until citizen views about HD were codified. Given this civic-minded decision, the C-3 zoning proposal is dead. I cannot fathom that Risser/B3 would dare ask the City to ignore the results of HD discussions. If they were to do so then surely the City Council would turn them down unanimously.

Since the fall, a consensus has emerged that HD has some advantages (e.g., minimizing sprawl) but that current assets must be protected (e.g., neighborhood compatibility). This progress results from common sense and good will on all sides. Sensible completion of the HD process requires continuing on this path. A critical step is recognizing that HD discussion is really an exercise in values clarification for our community. This fact has been obscured, unfortunately, because we are distracted by what developers want. If my spouse and I are discussing a car purchase, we don’t invite a salesperson to join us; we determine our car needs first. Right now, Norman is should not think of itself as negotiating with the development community – we are trying to figure out what we want.

But what if it turns out that developers can't make money giving the citizens of Norman what we want? In that case, it would be appropriate to just forgo HD development. Norman shouldn't force developers to take a loss. Likewise, developers shouldn't force the citizens of Norman to accept projects that they think do more harm than good. Only mutually beneficial deals should be made.

Even though Norman is not negotiating with developers, they have something to add to the HD discussion. They can provide information about projects likely to come forward if certain rules were adopted and even try to ‘sell’ citizens on the virtues of certain sorts of HD developments. If developers rise to object that proposed rules keep them from doing what they want, however, we should tell them to sit back down. The current discussion is not the venue for that point.

Stephen Ellis

Norman

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