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Land use commissions face uphill battle to stay at City Hall

Tuesday, November 16, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

When City Council approved plans for a new Permitting and Development Center in 2017, the idea was that all land use commissions would eventually hold meetings there as part of a “one-stop shop” for all things development. But now that the building is finished, the commissions don’t want to move. 

In recent weeks, the Planning Commission, Zoning and Platting Commission, and Board of Adjustment have all expressed a strong preference to stay at City Hall. For one, they argue, holding meetings at the PDC is inequitable because it is not as centrally located and is less accessible by transit. 

“It’s just much more transit friendly (at City Hall),” said ZAP Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa, who noted that there are seven rapid bus routes near City Hall versus just two (plus Red Line regional rail) near the PDC, which is located in the Highland Mall redevelopment at 6310 Wilhelmina Delco Drive.

Commissioners also say that keeping all zoning cases at City Hall – where Council ultimately decides the final outcome of each case – might prevent confusion on the part of community members who want to participate. The planned move affects over a dozen land use commissions, boards and committees, who will all share a 5,000-square-foot, 351-person capacity meeting space that has ATXN streaming and hybrid meeting capabilities.

The Planning Commission, ZAP and BoA have pulled out all the procedural stops to halt the move, including resolutions, rules and bylaw changes, code amendments, and 2022 meeting calendars that stipulate City Hall as the meeting location.

In ZAP’s resolution, safety proved another salient consideration. “If we ever have another contentious case, it could be problematic,” Kiolbassa said. In the past, police have been called in to deescalate heated zoning hearings. While there will be a security guard at PDC meetings, there are no plans for metal detectors, unlike at City Hall. Kiolbassa added that the surrounding area is less active at night than downtown, making walking alone less safe. 

Commissioners also seemed to be caught unawares about the move. “I consider myself a fairly savvy follower of doings at City Hall, and I didn’t know we were moving,” ZAP Commissioner Ann Denkler said. 

Despite firm stances from commissioners and board members, city staff isn’t budging.

A memo last month from Housing and Planning Director Rosie Truelove characterizes the move as a done deal. What’s more, when ZAP recently submitted its 2022 calendar stipulating that meetings would stay at City Hall, City Clerk Jannette Goodall refused the request, stating that meetings after February will be held in the PDC. 

City staffers have mainly justified the move by emphasizing the lack of meeting space in city buildings. The move, they say, would “reduce the reliance on the City Hall Council Chambers and Boards and Commissions Room.” With approximately 100 boards and commissions vying for rooms, scheduling is challenging, especially at City Hall. And given that meetings have shifted back in person, all boards need a physical room in which to meet.

Below is the memo in full: 

Download (PDF, 123KB)

Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar noted that transportation considerations were absent from the memo. “I’m a little disappointed that as our staff put out that memo, it only mentioned the number of parking spaces available at the new location and did not speak to any active transportation or public transportation.” 

Before Council decides whether the commissions stay or go, the question will play bureaucratic pinball. The Planning Commission’s code amendment will first go to the Codes and Ordinances Joint Committee, then to staffers and lawyers, then back to the Planning Commission, and finally on to Council. The bylaw changes from the three bodies go first to the Audit and Finance Committee and then to Council, with city staff and lawyers providing input in the meantime. At each of these meetings, community members can weigh in.

The commissions all framed their request as a matter of public interest. “We are really doing this for the community,” Denkler said.

This story has been changed since publication to correct a typo.

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