How tall should buildings be along the river in downtown Bend?
The public will get another chance to say after the Bend City Council reversed course last week on an earlier decision. Last month, after very little public discussion, the council voted 4-to-3 to allow variances to a 35-foot height limit for some buildings on Brook Street in downtown.
In the past, buildings on the west side of Brooks Street, including The Pine Tavern, Bend Brewing Company and any planned construction on the long-empty lot between the two, have been strictly limited to a height of 35 feet. The point: Protect the river corridor; buildings get shorter the closer to the river.
But the question of what should happen along the stretch isn't that simple. Two ugly fenced lots have marred the street, and the broker trying to sell them says the 35-foot height limit has been a barrier to finding a buyer.
"When you have those hard and fast rules, that stifles creative projects," said broker Paula Van Vleck.
She was pleased when the council approved variances last month, saying it could finally pave the way for development.
"There is a hotel operation that has been seriously looking at the properties," but needs four stories to work, said Vleck, adding that she was surprised and disappointed to hear the council will be reconsidering the question.
Other city residents, though, feel the change was something of a Trojan horse, which was slipped through without a robust public discussion. Mention of the change to the variance rule was made inside a 60-some-page development code tuneup, and most people with an interest in the issue missed two public hearings held by the city in March.
"I didn't know you guys were going to be voting on this until I read it in the paper," said Jan Giffords, chair of the Old Bend Neighborhood Association.
Like a handful of others who came too late to comment, Giffords felt the council was throwing away the results of a vibrant debate held several years ago about how development should occur along the river, and possibly opening up the riverfront to looming buildings.
"I've been around for awhile," said Giffords, "and I remember the discussion five or six years ago. We specifically said 35 feet along the river and we then would terrace up ...toward Third Street. It was a good compromise then. I still think it's a good compromise."
At the council meeting on Wednesday evening, Councilor Doug Knight, one of the councilors who voted in favor of allowing variances, conceded, and told the council that he may have made an error in judgment.
"I've said before, when I joined council, I would not be so prideful not to admit a potential or possible mistake," said Knight, "and to have the courage to revisit an issue if I felt that may have been the case."
Along with councilors Mark Capell and Sally Russell, and Mayor Jim Clinton, Knight went on to vote to reopen a public discussion on the question. Jodie Barram and Scott Ramsay both said the council got it right the first time. (Councilor Victor Chudowsky was absent from last week's session.)
"It seems unfair and not uniform to say, 'You can have a variance. You can't. You can,' just along this one side of an alley," Barram said.
But she and Ramsay were outvoted. The issue will now go to the Bend planning commission and back again to council in several months. Until then, because 30 days have passed since the council's decision to allow them, variances are up for grabs. SW