How tall should a building on Montesano’s Main Street be? How can city planning ensure Fleet Park remains a focal point? What type of benches should be used at what distances on the streets for a uniform look?
Answering questions like these has been a years-long project for a citizen group dedicated to forming a plan for downtown Montesano. It has been holding informal information sessions throughout town and will hold a formal public hearing at the Planning Commission on Feb. 21. There it will unveil its recommendations for design requirements for buildings and streets, with the hope of eventually molding them into an ordinance to add detail to existing zoning requirements in the downtown area.
Member Will Foster, a Montesano-based architect, says the goal is to guarantee the continuation of Montesano’s unique look and personality, both for business owners and residents.
“We’re trying to take the things people like about downtown and what they seem to respond to and make sure they’re carried forward,” Foster said. He added the designs are “both extremely simple and very straightforward and what I’d call a very light touch. … A lot of these are kind of common sense things … they aren’t going to be anything outlandish.”
Mayor Ken Estes said the plans are anything but simple, and has voiced reservations on putting the plan into law.
“It’s very specific, right down to what kind of benches will be on the streets and garbage cans and everything else,” Estes said.
He also questions whether it’s Montesano’s character in the designs.
“I think the goal is to make downtown Montesano look like downtown Port Angeles or downtown Olympia, where people have metal tables where they drink their lattes. I’m not sure Montesano is big enough for that,” Estes said. “I’ve talked to so many people who say they moved to Montesano because they like it the way it is.”
Estes did have high praise for the work of the committee, particularly Foster.
The street plan has specific brands and models for a variety of street furniture that may be needed, from bicycle racks to garbage cans, but Foster said the implementation of the street standards are far from decided. The City Council will be able to draft any ordinance it eventually considers to fit whatever standards the city wants, he explained. The group does hope the council will see the merit in consistency.
Standards recommended for city streets include: several bump-outs on street corners, trees every 40 feet, benches every 200 feet, trash cans 5-10 feet from benches, rain gardens combining vegetation with drainage functionality on First Street, and brick pavers along a rolled curb on Marcy Avenue.
“Things like the bump-outs have already been started on Main Street down to Wynooche. In many ways we’re just continuing that,” Foster said.
The group has no cost estimates for implementing the suggested changes. Foster said in the group’s ideal ordinance, the city wouldn’t be obligated to make any changes until it was already planning on rebuilding a portion of a street, rather than filling potholes or repaving. The plan has already undergone many changes since its introduction in 2011, Foster said, and cost estimates will come as it gets further along.
“That’s something we’ll have to work through as the plan evolves,” he said.
There’s a specific plan for buildings, too. The plan breaks downtown into Downtown Overlay Zones: the Civic District near the Courthouse, Residential Mixed Use along the Northeast corner of downtown, Town Square surrounding Fleet Park, Arts and Entertainment District from about Fleet Street to Sylvia Street, the Gateway District on the southern side of the railroad track and, of course, Main Street on Main Street and East on to Pioneer Avenue.
Each zone has its own requirements, which would be triggered for brand new buildings, site developments larger than 3,000 square feet, any construction or repairs over two years the cost of which totals 60 percent of the building’s value or more.
It would also require replacing all signage, alterations or additions of awnings, marquees, sunshades projecting over the city’s right-of-way, improvements located in the city’s right-of-way, or alterations during any two years to more than 30 percent of a building’s facade exposed to one or more improved city streets.
In Main Street, for example, buildings must be at least 26 feet tall but not more than 40 feet tall, the first floor must be at least 75 percent transparent, as well as at least 30 percent of the upper floors. Buildings must front on the sidewalk. The list goes on.
It may be more specific and spelled out than people are used to considering on a stroll down Main Street, but Foster said it’s mainly articulating what’s already there.
“The standards ask you to build future buildings right up to the sidewalk, to maintain the character of that part of downtown, and you have glass so people can see into your business and it gives it a friendlier atmosphere,” Foster said. “We’re not dictating a style or telling you what color you have to paint your building or things like that.”
Estes said he’s heard concerns from real estate agents about selling properties with such restrictions, but his own concerns focus mainly on the street requirements.
“There are street standards that are going to be very difficult for the city to comply with,” Estes said. “Right now we have hardly enough money to even fix the streets.”
Estes added that he’d be more supportive if the goal wasn’t to make laws, but to provide guidance for future development.
“I think it’s got some good to it, but I would like to see them remove the portion that says it’s code, it’s law,” he said.
“If you leave them as a so-called vision statement or guidelines, it creates a couple problems,” Foster said. “One, people will just ignore them, so you’ve really just wasted your time. And the other thing is if there really is an attempt to enforce them or if they’re used as a tool to grant building permits, it tends to lead to very un-uniform enforcement, and that makes people angry. We felt if they were part of the code, things will happen for one thing, and we’ll find a lot of predictability for the building owner. They know what’s expected of them.”
As mayor, Estes does have the option to veto an ordinance passed by the council. The council would then be able to overturn his veto with a supermajority vote.
Foster said he’s not worried about that happening.
“I’m not too concerned about that. I think it needs to be something that works for the city. Certainly it’s not the Planning Commission’s intent to do this in a vacuum, or introduce something that is not representative of or beneficial to the community. So, of necessity, it has to pass this test. I think it’s fair to say (Estes) has a different philosophical point of view, more of a laissez-faire approach, which is fine. We’re just coming at it from two different perspectives.”
The Planning Commission hearing on the plan will be held 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 112 N Main St.