"Oregonians hate two things," Councilor Victor Chudowsky said, referencing a quote from former Metro Executive Officer Mike Burton that appeared in National Geographic magazine. "They hate sprawl. And they hate density."
It was a fitting summation of a lengthy debate over a proposal to reinstitute the prohibition on height variances on the west side of Brooks Street between Franklin Avenue and Newport Avenue.
Current city policy allows property owners to request a variance in the 35-foot height limit for the downtown buildings closest to the river. But it hasn't always been that way — the City Council only moved to permit variances in April, following the recommendation of the Planning Commission at the time.
But in the months since then, the commission reversed course, and now recommends that the prohibition be reinstated.
After a lengthy consideration of the overlapping zoning issues involved, public commentary revived familiar arguments. Tensions centered around density versus sprawl, economic development versus environmental protection, growth versus preservation.
Councilors and community members attempted to put a number on the line between these competing ideals. How many feet does it take to accommodate development? And at what point does a building's height threaten the character of downtown and the enjoyment of the river? Is it 30, 35, 40, 45?
"I don’t think the sky is the limit," said Councilor Jodie Barram.
Proposals included keeping the existing variance policy, returning to a hard cap at 35 feet, and allowing a variance with a cap (at 40 or 45 feet) with the requirement that it be considered by either the Planning Commission or the City Council.
Brothers Bruce and Noel Erickson, whose family company Erickson River Properties owns most of the block in question, expressed frustration over the challenge presented by the many restrictions imposed on the property. After being rejected by about 12 developers, they said they just want to see something go in the space they can be proud of — not a two-story box.
"You can’t go up, you can’t go down, you can’t go toward the river — you’re stuck," said Noel Erickson. "We are trying to partner with a developer. The more difficult it gets, the harder it is to develop. There's a lot of emotion in this. I've been maintaining [the property] over 6 years and I’d like to see something go in there."
Jan Gifford, who emphasized she was not speaking for the Old Bend Neighborhood Association, was among those concerned that granting variances could lead to a slippery slope.
"If you allow a variance to increase the height on one piece of property, it’s only a matter of time before the guy next door wants a variance to increase his property. We’ve talked for years about preserving the character of Bend. It has this magical old town feel; we need to be valuing that," Gifford said.
But Chuck Arnold, Executive Director of the Downtown Bend Association said that to deny properties on the west side of Brooks Street a variance is unfair.
"I think there’s a property rights inequity issue," Arnold said. "How do we want development to happen? We want to grow smart and dense. I think it’s a great opportunity to have density in our core."
Much of the discussion focused on how attractive the hypothetical development would be. Those is favor of the variance argued that the extra height would allow for greater creativity and beauty in the design, while those opposed expressed concern that a mammoth development would overpower smaller buildings and Drake Park.
"I think we’re trying to legislate good taste and that’s always a difficult thing to do," said Councilor Mark Capell. "I think its sad we’re ignoring the Planning Commission's recommendation…I don’t think enough councilors feel like I do."
Though it was only the first reading, a poll of the councilors at the end of the night seemed to confirm Capell's suspicion. Fewer than half of the councilors appeared to favor restoring the prohibition.
Councilor Doug Knight moved for the first reading of the ordinance to allow variances and that the variances be a procedural type 3, class B variance and limited to 5 feet in height. Councilor Sally Russell seconded. Knight clarified that requests for variances would be submitted to Planning Commission for review.
A majority of councilors voted in favor of the motion. Among those opposed were councilors who support the variance but voted "no" because they objected to making developers jump through so many hoops for an extra five feet.
"I’m not happy with the fact that that lot has been empty for so long," Chudowsky said. "I want this to be black and white and have something happen there as quickly as possible. I would rather leave it the way it is than have an onerous process for five feet."