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File #: 2020-7700   
Type: Regular Agenda Item
Body: Planning Board
On agenda: 2/10/2020
Title: Adoption of Objective Design Review Standards. The Objective Design Review Standards (Objective Standards) consist of a checklist of architectural and site design standards that will apply to housing development projects under State law. Adoption of the Objective Standards is exempt from CEQA pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Sections 15061(b)(3), the common sense exception that CEQA applies only to projects that have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning
Attachments: 1. Exhibit 1 Draft Objective Design Review Standards, 2. Exhibit 2 Public Comments, 3. Exhibit 3 Draft Resolution, 4. Item 7-A Public Comment as of February 10, 2020

Title

 

Adoption of Objective Design Review Standards. The Objective Design Review Standards (Objective Standards) consist of a checklist of architectural and site design standards that will apply to housing development projects under State law. Adoption of the Objective Standards is exempt from CEQA pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Sections 15061(b)(3), the common sense exception that CEQA applies only to projects that have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning

 

Body

 

To:      Honorable President and

 Members of the Planning Board

 

From:  Allen Tai, City Planner

                      Heather Coleman, Consultant

              

Date:                     February 10, 2020

 

BACKGROUND

 

On September 23, 2019, the Planning Board held a public hearing to consider a draft of the Objective Design Review Standards (Objective Standards). The Objective Standards were prepared in response to a growing number of provisions in State law that limit local jurisdictions’ review of housing projects to “objective standards.” The Housing Accountability Act restricts the City of Alameda’s ability to deny or reduce the density of all housing development projects that are consistent with objective development standards, and SB 35 provides that multi-family residential projects meeting affordability and other criteria can only be subject to “objective” planning standards. The staff report for the September 23, 2019 Planning Board study session contains background information on this effort and is available online at:

<https://alameda.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4134326&GUID=60800532-E1D6-4287-9C21-2D080937440A&Options=&Search>.

 

At the September 2019 hearing, the Planning Board directed staff to revise the Objective Standards to address public comments from the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society (AAPS) and the development community. This staff report summarizes the revisions made in response to this directive. 

 

DISCUSSION

 

Revisions to Date

 

The revised Objective Standards reflect input from the Planning Board and AAPS. After the September Planning Board study session, AAPS sent staff an extensive set of recommendations. AAPS’s recommendations are included in Exhibit 2 of this report. Staff reviewed the recommendations and incorporated those that are most appropriate given the scope and purpose of the Objective Standards. In developing the current draft, staff also received guidance from Planning Board members Saheba and Ruiz, both licensed architects. In addition, staff solicited comments from developers and architects who have projects in Alameda. The following discussion summarizes the most important changes from the version of the Objective Standards that the Planning Board reviewed in September.

 

Applicability:  The introduction to the September draft of the Objective Standards stated that they would apply to all multi-family residential development. The revised introduction clarifies that the Objective Standards apply to housing development projects, which is defined in State law to include residential units only, mixed use developments where at least two-thirds of the square footage is designated for residential use, and transitional or supportive housing. Where California law requires that the design of a project be reviewed only against objective standards, such as in the case of housing projects invoking streamlining under SB 35, the Objective Standards will serve as the sole criteria for design review.

 

The revised introduction also highlights an option for developers who want to propose creative design solutions: if a project diverges from one or more of the Objective Standards, the applicant can elect to go through the usual discretionary design review process. In such case, the project will be reviewed for conformance with the Citywide Design Review Manual (DRM) and any other design guidelines that apply to the project site.

 

Objective Language: State law defines an “objective standard” as one that involves no personal or subjective judgement and can be uniformly verified by reference to external and uniform benchmark criteria. Therefore, the Objective Standards must be measurable and have clear criteria that are determined in advance so that staff and an applicant can communicate about a project’s compliance with the standards within specified timelines under the law. The revised draft restates a number of existing Alameda design guidelines into objective and measurable standards that meet the State definition.

 

The September draft Objective Standards already drew from the Citywide DRM and other existing design guidelines. At the suggestion of AAPS, staff incorporated additional topics found in the Citywide DRM and the Webster Street Design Manual. For example, staff added standards on exterior materials, balcony railing transparency, and storefront bays.

 

Checklist Format: For applicants seeking streamlined review, State law requires that compliance with standards can be determined at staff level rather than Planning Board level. State law also refers to objective standards as “checklists” of requirements. As such, Alameda’s Objective Standards are now formatted as a checklist that can be used by staff and applicants in the Permit Center.

Menus of Options: The September draft included some standards organized as menus of options for compliance. This menu approach is expanded in the current draft. For example, staff replaced a residential façade transparency requirement with a list of several features that can be used to break up blank walls. This approach to organizing the standards makes them less prescriptive, as recommended by commenters.

 

The Objective Standards are not a recipe for and do not guarantee good design; rather, they establish basic minimum requirements that can facilitate good design while preventing characteristics commonly recognized in poor design. The menu approach offers choices to project applicants representing a range of design choices that can be applied to a project, ensuring flexibility and variety in architectural design.

 

Design Principles: Staff received input that it would be helpful to include statements of design principles to help orient document users to the concepts behind various standards. The Objective Standards document is organized into seven topic areas related to site and architectural design. Each section now includes a statement of design principles, followed by specific standards related to the principles. The principles are provided for orientation and reference only; they are not standards or criteria for design review. By contrast, the standards are requirements that must be met. Other cities, such as the City of Fremont, follow the same format. 

 

Additional Topics: At the request of the Planning Board and AAPS, additional topics were added to the standards to address the following:

 

                     Neighborhood Context. Standards for establishing neighborhood context and architectural elements for new infill development.

 

                     Surface Materials. Standards for various types and qualities of materials and finishes used on building exteriors.

 

                     Architectural Detailing. Standards for various types of architectural features.

 

                     Commercial Storefront. Standards for storefront components, transparency of doors and bays, and bulkhead materials.

 

Removed Potential Conflicts: 

After further review, staff removed standards that addressed building length, height stepbacks from adjacent properties, and the minimum area for children’s play areas, because they function as development standards and are more appropriately located in the Zoning Ordinance.

 

Another notable deletion is the previous section on street connectivity, which had the potential to conflict with an existing section of the AMC on subdivision design. Staff determined that design standards pertaining to street and road design should reside in the Subdivision Regulations rather than in design review standards.

 

Future Updates to Design Guidelines by Staff

 

Many of the suggestions that AAPS made (Exhibit 2) on the draft standards pertain to alterations to all residential buildings, including single family dwellings. For example, staff received elaborate comments on windows and porch and railing design, issues that often come up in the context of residential home remodels. These standards could be evaluated further for incorporation into the existing Residential Design Guidelines instead of the proposed Objective Standards. AMC Section 30-38.5 assigns staff the responsibility of preparing a design manual, including making revisions as appropriate. Staff plans to use AAPS’s comments as part of future administrative revisions to various design guidelines as well as to update Permit Center information handouts, as appropriate. 

 

PUBLIC NOTICE AND COMMENT

 

This agenda item was advertised in the Alameda Sun, and public notices were posted as required by the Alameda Municipal Code. Christopher Buckley of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society and the West Alameda Business Association provided significant input that were incorporated into the current draft standards.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

 

The adoption of Objective Design Review Standards is exempt from the requirements of CEQA pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Sections 15061(b)(3), the common sense exception that CEQA applies only to projects which have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment and 15183, projects consistent with a community plan, general plan or zoning. 

 

RECOMMENDATION

 

Adopt the Objective Design Review Standards with conditions set forth in the draft resolution (Exhibit 3).

 

Reviewed by,

 

Andrew Thomas,

Planning, Building and Transportation Director

 

Exhibits:

 

1.                     Draft Objective Design Review Standards

2.                     Public Comments

3.                     Draft Resolution