Know Your Planning Commission 11.28.12

***This series of articles are recaps of planning commission meetings.  They will run after each meeting and are written by District 3 resident and Planning Commission member Chris McNutt.***

The Planning Commission is a Council appointed yet independent body of citizens who act as a vetting/advisory panel for land use and zoning to the City Council. The following is a personal account and may not reflect the opinions of other Planning Commission members.

The meeting on November 28th, 2012 covered three primary topics.

  1. Downtown Building Heights/Special Tax Valuation

During this fateful meeting, we were to review the results of our building heights survey.  We’ve covered the building heights issue a few times before, but I think at this meeting, more than ever before, we made some real progress. In so doing, we revealed a hint at just how much work it’s going to take to resolve things satisfactorily, but we’re on the right track.

Come with me on this journey of discovery as we delve into the responses from our public outreach.

1 Downtown Building Heights

As I mentioned above, we’ve talked about building heights before.  It’s come up several times since July.  This edition of Know Your Planning Commission is going to be pretty jam packed with my personal opinions, more so than most of my other articles.  We have some factual information to deal with such as the results of the survey, but well… you’ll see.

We received 93 replies to our online survey, and had light attendance and comment at our Open House.  

In general, the majority of the answers received for almost every question was “yes.” The questions were somewhat leading, and non-invasive. The real problem as I see it, is that few of them got to the heart of what we are looking to find out.

This isn’t the fault of the survey creators. It is my belief that until this meeting, we as a group hadn’t come together with a clear direction for what we wanted. We were given the direction from City Council to “review building heights.” Even though the intent of that direction was likely the same as what we finally arrived at on our own, we were caught up in the act of aimless review.  We took a walking tour of downtown. We looked at the codified differences between the CBD (Central Business District) and the CBD-Core. We discussed the appropriateness of nebulous and visually ambiguous building heights.

Ultimately, at least in my perception, during this meeting on November 28th, we hit upon the true meaning of Christmas. It is my view that our charge in this matter is to preserve the “feeling” and “character” of downtown. To me, the downtown core makes up a lot of my mental picture about what Puyallup is.  I want to preserve that.  I think we all want to preserve that.

The preservation of the feeling and character of downtown doesn’t necessarily involve the heights of the buildings. It’s completely possible (though very unlikely) that a skyscraper, if designed correctly could fit nestled into the middle of the city. If designed correctly, the allowed 65ft tall buildings may be completely appropriate. With no practical data in hand, it’s also possible the max is 43ft, or 36ft….  We can’t know until we start working through the permutations.

It is my belief we were given the tasks of looking into building heights, and we would limit them in a single stroke, attempting to preserve the precious downtown character of Puyallup.

While this may be the answer, it may instead be a Historic Overlay, or modification to the design guidelines.

Fully vetting this idea is going to take a lot of time and resources. For practical purposes it may be prudent to limit the allowed building heights while we work to conclusively discover what’s appropriate and what isn’t. No matter what course we take, limiting the heights will be the beginning, not the end of working out this preservation.

Back to the survey…. Given the scope and intent I just outlined, and it’s true discovery on November 28th, I don’t see how anyone could have crafted a relevant survey. For example, question 3;

3.) Should buildings taller than 2-3 stories (25-35 feet) have a place in the downtown? If so, under what circumstances? (e.g., not directly adjacent to single family homes, etc.)

The task of visualizing the results and consequences to this question are staggering. Even more so in terms of lining it up with the preservation of a feeling of character. It’s possible that a correctly designed 400ft building would fit it, but buildings of size come with the consequences of parking, traffic impacts, infrastructure tolls and skyline disruption. Not to mention the fact you’d have to remove many of the current structures which could be keystones in the current feeling of character.

If this was a computer game, and the respondents could see the rippling side effects of each choice before their eyes, maybe we could get some good and usable results. In the end though, we received a lot of answers to the questions we asked. Those questions were largely not targeted towards our then unrealized goal.

How could we have made this process more efficient from the beginning? I’m not sure; sometimes it takes the journey to know the destination. Perhaps demanding “why?” and “to what end?” more often.

1.5 Special Tax Valuation

This request came from the City Council along with that of building heights, and again, our direction was to “review special tax valuation.” Learning from my past, I think the next time, I’m going to demand to know “why” and “to what end” but as it was we travelled on into the land of property taxes.

Ok, so here is the deal. In order to attempt to draw large projects to our city, developers have a mechanism available which gives them reduced property taxes (the cities portion) for a period of ten years as long as they meet certain low income housing requirements within the development.

To me, this coin has two sides (like most actual coins). In one hand (yep, already abandoned the coin analogy) the tax savings by eventual owners is actually not a discount so much as it is a redistribution. The tax money they save is actually paid proportionally by the rest of the city. The way it works is, the total value of property in the city is figured out, and that total is collected. If someone has an exemption or a discount, they pay less, but it’s made up by the rest of us.

On the tails side (coin again) the surrounding properties, and possibly the city as a whole may experience an increase in value due to the project, thereby more than offsetting each of our unwilling investments into the development. It may be worth it, but it’s very hard to calculate.

Strictly looking at city revenue, we lose nothing, and in fact we gain even more because there would be additional, non-discountable taxes from the retail portions of the project, and of course additional revenue due to the probable increase in other property values.

We took no action, and I hope to have some actual data to go by the next time this comes up. No amount of data will be complete, but I hope it will be enough.

Without more information it comes down to two considerations. Does the city effectively raise individual taxes (the amount to a homeowner would literally not be noticed, but that’s a poor justification) in order to increase the overall prosperity and thereby further increase wealth, value and revenue?  Or does the city potentially lose out on big and worthwhile projects, and thereby guarantee no resulting increase in values, but in so doing, not shift the burden of those discounts to our existing population?

What do you think?  Please let me know in comments or by email.

For more specific information about the meeting, please see the following list of resources.

If you have questions or concerns about this (or any other city matter) please reach out to the City Council, myself or any other Planning Commission member. Also, feel free to comment below. I’ll try my best to answer questions.

We are adjourned.

Chris McNutt
District 3
Planning Commissioner


1 Comment

Filed under Chris McNutt, Planning Commission

One response to “Know Your Planning Commission 11.28.12

  1. Pingback: Know Your Planning Commission - Chris McNutt for Puyallup City Council -

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