Student housing on Glenn Avenue

The Downtown Design Review Committee continued its discussion of updating the city's design standards for downtown at its meeting last week. 

The committee heard a number of proposals from Planning Director Forrest Cotten, including changes that would affect allowable building length, percentage glazing and minimum floor height. 

"The work session we had last week was really my first crack at putting some things out on the table for the rest of the committee to consider in terms of different ways we could in some cases be more flexible and in some cases be a little more explicit, with the end goal being to try to get more desirable development outcomes aesthetically and architecturally," said Cotten, who added that most of the proposals put forth were based on benchmarking other primarily form-based ordinances in peer college town communities, like Knoxville, Tennessee and Athens, Georgia. "I try to pick what I think would make the most sense for us, with the idea that somebody's probably dealt with it before. It may not be exactly what you need, but you can probably take what they have and then modify it to meet your own needs."

One proposal deals with regulating the story height of new developments, as opposed to just structure height. It would establish a minimum height for the ground story of 18 feet. The minimum height required for upper stories would be 11 feet. 

"The big issue is to make sure we had a reasonably good high ceiling at ground floor level for nonresidential uses," said Cotten. " I thought it made some sense to at least set forth some minimums so that we at least get marketable, viable ground floor space for nonresidential uses. That's been a concern of some folks — can we fill up some of this retail space that we're requiring."

DDRC member Dan Bennett cautioned of against creating unintended consequences, but supported the measure after hearing Cotten explain that the 18-foot minimum for the ground floor generally mirrored the height of recent developments and would hit the "sweet spot."

Another proposal would increase the minimum required fenestration, or glazing, for new developments. It would increase the minimum from the current requirement of 30 percent to 60 percent. 

"I was going into it pretty well knowing that folks were wanting there to be more transparency at ground floor," said Cotten. "I benchmarked where we were at with a 30 percent minimum and we were definitely on the low side of things, with typically the average being 50 or 60 (percent)."

Bennett voiced some reservations about requiring 60 percent.

"I tend to think 60 (percent) is a little high just in terms of limiting what the use might be," he said. "I would argue for a little less, certainly not below 50."

Cotten said he expects that the committee will take a closer look at glazing at its next meeting on Feb. 11, when they will also look at updated designs for the planned Wright Street Parking Deck. 

"The percentage of glazing is one important guard rail, but also the scale of the glazing is another important criteria because I could come up with a lot of ways to get to even 60 percent that you wouldn't want, so it's not just gross percentage areas —it's the scaling of the fenestration," said DDRC member David Hinson.

Minimum fenestration on the second story would be 30 percent, with upper stories above that set at a minimum of 20 percent. 

A third proposal would set requirements for uses on the ground story. Retail, office, commercial or institutional uses would have to comprise 80 percent of the length of any street frontage, while 20 percent could be residential offices, amenities or service uses. The proposal sprang from the concern over recent student-housing developments using ground-floor space to meet student needs and not offering many uses for the general public. 

Another proposal would deal with maximum building wall length, with the maximum set at 200 feet.

"We never contemplated that someone would actually be able to assemble an entire block for one uniform development," said Cotten, referring to the The Hub, a planned student-housing project that would feature a long parking deck fronting West Glenn Avenue. "You don't really have any breaks in the space or in the facade. It can result in not the best pedestrian experience.

"When you break it up, what do you actually mean? Do you mean an entirely separate structure or could it be an alcove that's a certain depth that provides the same effect? I didn't feel like we came down on a firm position on that."

Whatever proposals eventually get proposed by the committee to the Planning Commission for consideration could apply to more than just the College Edge Overlay District. 

Cotten said that it makes sense to apply the same standards to Urban Neighborhood–West, which has seen many of the larger developments constructed recently. 

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