Update: SPAARC OKs Upsized Eastwood Project

The Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee, with little discussion by members, on Aug. 31 approved the revised version of the Eastwood project, meaning that the plan will move to the City Council's Planning and Development Committee, likely on Sept. 26. The developer rollout concentrated on similarities between the current iteration and the project approved four years ago, but the concept still contained some surprises.
Dodge Capital's Bob Horne and architectural team reviewed the project, consisting of a 4-story retail-residential building on the 1-acre site. The project would have much the same lot-filling "building footprint" as the 2007 version, but instead of a 52-unit condo building would be a 78-unit rental project, given that the condo market had "cratered." Whereas the condo version had approximately 100 parking spaces, this would have only 81 parking stalls. A "green roof" terrace would straddle much of the roof over the first-floor rear parking garage, creating more windowage for south-facing units and less of a "towering" effect for property-owners on Harrison.
The reduction of parking space allows a 5' wider alley in the rear, something neighbors had been concerned about in the past, and facilitating truck and fire truck access. Theoretically, less parking should also mean more room for retail, since the former version's 35'-deep commercial spaces were, in the eyes of many who looked at it, unrealistic for most uses (and one of the drivers of the feature in the Central Street Plan requiring greater active use on street-facing sides).
However, whereas Eastwood v.2007 had 11,250 s.f. of retail and the June, 2011 presentation of the project promised an increase to over 12,000 s.f., this new version has only 10,600 s.f. -- less than in even the 2007 plan. The main reason for this is that two spaces on Central Street, on the west end of the project, would be dedicated to what the developers called "project amenities," a residents-only fitness room and a cybercafe.
The retail spaces themselves would be 50 feet deep, which Horne agreed would make them more usable (and leasable) than the 35' previously projected. Horne indicated some interest by potential tenants, as well as by existing businesses east of Green Bay longng for more activity.
The developers also called for changing Eastwood St. itself from one way to two-way north of the rear alley, to facilitate access/exit from rear parkers. The project would essentially fill the lot and would have the "same" sidewalks (unclear if this meant the same as at present or the same as in the last plan).  
The physical appearance is concededly duller than what was marketed in 2007-08.  There are some sections along the Central Street side, recessed about 10 feet, with different colored brick. The building is intended to meet LEED specifications, i.e., be a somewhat green building, accomplished in part by lighter construction method, using masonry for the first floor and then frame construction atop that, with generous use of HardiBoard® (a brand of cement board).
As of the SPAARC meeting the Board of CSNA had, obviously, not had chance to review the plans. Having been involved in many of the public discussions when this project and subsequent re-zoning were originally moving through the City, I offered these following general observations and concerns:
Benefits: the larger alley, burying of utility lines, deeper retail, and green features are all pluses for the community.
Aesthetics: the Central Street Plan was adopted by the City over four years ago, and the Central Street overlay ordinance became law in January 2008, over 3-1/2 years ago. Many of the Plan and ordinance features meant to preserve pedestrian-scale retail feel, such as the requirements for upper-story stepbacks, and greater surface variety (articulation) of facades, were in response to concerns that arose during the last Eastwood discussions, and both the law and the Eastwood project approved were the result of hard-fought discussion and negotiation (the last Eastwood project was approved by the Council over the Plan Commission's negative recommendation). It would seem incongruous to now not only fail to meet the ordinance requirements, but actually retreat from the outcome negotiated in 2007 and move in the opposite direction toward a blockier, more vertical street wall.
Use:  this site was originally zoned B2 and is now zoned B1a. It remains primarily a business district.  In both cases the focus is supposed to be walkable retail, although B1a comprehends multi-use, that is, relatively low-rise residential atop retail. Devoting 20%-25% of the streetfront space to private residential use isn't consistent with the "active use" concept. "Active use" means engaging the neighborhood through spaces that invite shoppers and pedestrians to stop in. Being able to peer in at a fitness center or cybercafe not open to the public doesn't really fit that concept. While deeper retail is a good thing, the community would benefit more from a cybercafe and fitness facility open to public consumers rather than an overall shrinkage of business square footage.
Parking: the developer is correct that, at night and on weekends, there is plenty of parking for restaurants envisioned for the project ground floor, mainly in the metered spaces on Broadway that commuters vacate after evening rush. But the tenet that there is, during the daytime, an "excess of parking" in the neighborhood is something that neighbors might argue with. Currently the number of spaces available has more than a little to do with the fact that an entire block of theater and retail was demolished and stands empty. Put in a block of stores and 78 units of residences (who do get visitors and who will not always park in their rear spaces) and that won't be the case. This project has no parking for employees of any of the retail businesses, and any resident or merchant west of Green Bay can testify that lack of parking for employees is an ongoing problem.
Process:  The difference between what is now proposed and what was originally proposed -- a 50% increase in units coupled with a 50% reduction in supplied parking, a change from condo to rental, and essentially a complete  aesthetic overhaul, is not a minor difference. It suggests that a new planned development ordinance rather than a simple "amendment" is in order. The Central Street re-zoning was meant to eliminate the ad hoc and divisive process of "site development allowances." While the stalled-and-grandfathered nature of this project is near-unique, its magnitude will dominate the block and set a tone and possible precedent for future projects. Already we are seeing a simultaneous request by the would-be re-sellers of 2500 Green Bay (the stalled Arcadia Green project) for a similar upzoning of their project, agaain for a result inconsistent with the hard work City and neighborhood put into the Central Street Plan.
One SPAARC member expressed some concern with how different this project was from that originally proposed, but still voted for it. City staffer Dennis Marino asked the developer for some assurances on window materials. Other than that, there was little to no discussion and the committee vote was unanimous.
Almost everyone would like to see this property returned to active use and a contributor to tax rolls and neighborhood vitality. However, the current economic conditions are, we hope temporary, whereas buildings last a long, long time. Developer Horne and his group have expressed openness to working with the community to craft a mutually beneficial project. Sensitivity to the principles involved, and mutual respect by all concerned, should produce such a result.