The saga of the Redwood Credit Union’s application for a site development permit to build a new branch in the City of Ukiah has been continued to a date uncertain. But city officials had to come to terms with discrepancies in the code. Council members, planning commissioners, members of the public and staff had widely divergent interpretations as the applicant flailed, presenting half a dozen plans with proposals that verged on the absurd.
In June, the Ukiah City Planning Commission denied the credit union’s proposal to build a new branch downtown, on the grounds that it did not meet the specifications of the downtown zoning code and the general plan. One sticking point was a requirement that new buildings be at least two stories tall. And commissioners were not enthusiastic about a single-use project that dedicated most of the property to parking.
At the Ukiah City Council meeting on Wednesday night, the credit union appealed the commission’s decision before the council, which offered further suggestions on the sixth iteration of the building’s design.
The credit union, currently located in the Orchard Avenue shopping center, bought a property on the corner of Perkins and Main last year. Perkins Street is a focal point of a new plan to revitalize the city’s main corridors, in anticipation of the new courthouse and optimism about property values.
The parcel has two buildings that will need to be demolished before any construction on a new building can begin. The buildings are covered with pressed metal siding that has historical significance for the city’s agricultural heritage and is contaminated with lead. Redwood Credit Union applied for a major site development permit in December of last year, along with the first version of its design for the building.
The Planning Commission then held a hearing that stretched over the course of two meetings in May and June. Redwood Credit Union submitted the fifth version of the design the day before the second Planning Commission meeting, which left one of the commissioners without enough time to review the changes.
On Wednesday, the City Council pondered the sixth version of the plan, leading Council member Douglas Crane to observe that, “The matter before us is for a different building.” Though he worried about “short-circuiting the system,” the council did not return the matter to the Planning Commission.
Michelle Irace, the city’s lead planner on the project, revealed the most significant change from the previous five design plans. “Downtown zoning code also identifies a minimum stories, or height, for buildings, noted as two to three stories for this zoning designation,” she declared. “The project historically proposed a one-story project of approximately 12 feet. With this latest iteration, the applicant is proposing a 25-foot building with a faux second story.”
City Attorney David Rapport shared some information. “The downtown zoning code, which is what creates that two-story requirement, that’s not in the general plan,” he said. “There’s no requirement in the general plan that it be a two-story building. And there’s no requirement in the general plan that it be multi-use. It encourages multi-use, but it doesn’t require each project that gets proposed to be multi-use.”
Mayor Mari Rodin reflected that, “As much as we want to see a mixed-use project there, I don’t think that we can do that. It wouldn’t be legal. I think we could be sued if we denied it and insisted that they had to be mixed use.”
The city council chambers were packed, as they have been for each of the previous meetings on the subject of the credit union. Each of the planning commissioners spoke during public comment to explain their votes, including Alex de Grassi, who argued that the codes are not as vague as city planners and attorneys made them out to be. “The review authority may approve a site development permit application only after first finding the proposed project is consistent with the City of Ukiah general plan, the Ukiah City code, and this code, referencing the downtown zoning code,” he said. “And that was why the Planning Commission finds that the proposed project is not consistent with either the general plan or the city code or the downtown zoning code.” He added that in his opinion, “One of the big hidden issues in all of this is parking,” which he said “eats up a lot of property,” in a part of town with more places to park than there are places to go.
Redwood Credit Union responded to concerns about too much parking by removing some of the spaces from an earlier design proposal and replacing them with parklets, or miniature parks. Council member Susan Sher didn’t think it would be healthy to hang out in the parking lot, due to the possibility of people idling their cars while they waited for their passengers to conduct business inside the bank. “Even in the absence of idling, a parklet in a parking lot is not a great idea,” she opined. “And it also could invite camping.”
Essence Roberson, a small business owner, sympathized with the credit union, saying her experience starting a business in the city was similarly arduous. “I just have to say, the arbitrary reasons for why we don’t want this project approved are kind of ridiculous,” she said during public comment. “Because of a faux top? Because it doesn’t fit the aesthetic of what we want it to look like? Look at the alternative. I can tell you right now, that as a newcomer to Ukiah, I face regret every single day about starting my business here. And that makes me very sad to say. I can’t with good conscience or faith encourage anybody else who’s a small business owner who has an incredible idea to do it here. For this exact reason.”
Doug Hilberman, the architect who is working with the credit union, said he thinks a strict interpretation of the downtown zoning code could have far-reaching ramifications. “You’re asking someone to invest 25-30 million dollars in that property,” he told the council. “Pretty soon, your businesses will not be able to develop properties. You’re going to have to have a developer, a large-scale developer funding these. And when you think about playing that across all of the downtown zoning code, that may limit some of your future.”
Rodin proposed making a list of suggestions for the next design idea until a long-term plan is forged. “Our code doesn’t really align with the plan,” she said, noting that the city is planning to redo its downtown zoning code. “But in the meantime, I think we should do the best we can with the code we have, and try to find a balance between what our code requires and what the developers are able to do.”
Crane concurred, saying, “We have question marks inside our own system that we have to come to grips with.”