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McMansions panel grapples with issues of habitable space
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves
The concept of what an attic is, and is not, was never quite as complicated as it was during a review Monday at the Residential Development Regulation Task Force.
The City Council sent a number of areas of non-agreement within the McMansions ordinance back to the original task force. Ideas about gross square footage – and whether non-habitable space such as an attic should be exempted from that calculation – were among the bigger issues before the task force.
A review from the McMansions task force – made up of developers and neighborhood leaders – is not for the faint of heart. At Monday’s meeting, the group grappled with the concept of what an attic exemption should be – and how developers have gamed the system – in an effort to close another loophole. By the end of the meeting, it was apparent that the group was not any closer to an answer.
This attic issue is two-fold. More broadly, the commission is looking at the concept of gross floor area. Should attics and basements be considered part of a home’s gross square footage? Alternatively, could the ordinance be crafted tightly enough that an unfinished attic or basement space is clearly for non-habitable use.
Developers are a clever lot. Even with limitations on height – no more than 5 feet under the code – a developer can often work around a “habitable” call with a false ceiling. And city reviewers often are not provided elevations, planner Jessica King said. What should be done to stop those developers from trying to do an end run around the ordinance, which is intended to limit extra-large homes?
“Maybe we should write about a half-dozen developers out of business,” joked developer Chris Allen at one point when the conversation had stalled.
Allen said the task force was clear in its intentions when it wrote the ordinance two years ago. They wanted to exempt attic space.
“It’s in the execution and letter of the law where we created complexity,” Allen told the committee. “We might have talked about different concepts if we knew this is where we would end up. All we wanted to do was to be able to exempt an attic. It’s a matter of coming up with language that accomplishes that.”
Developer Terry Mitchell noted that no matter how the commission landed on the attic issue, that home was still limited by its required envelope. An attic might be steep or it might be habitable, but when it came down to how it would be viewed by the neighbor, it always was going to end up being the same size.
King noted the group could drop the height requirement on space altogether, simply rolling the attic and basement space into the overall gross space. In that case, it could be a matter of accepting all space – habitable or not – as being the same and raising the floor-to-area ratios allowed under the law.
That idea didn’t appear to get much traction. By the end of the first two-hour discussion, the group was unable to create a satisfactory compromise. They’ll take up the attic and gross square footage issues at the task force’s next scheduled meetings on May 30 and June 2. The recommendations will go back to Planning Commission on June 10 and the full Council on June 18.Outstanding issues are highlighted on the updated task force document on the city website.
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