City Council votes to accept final downtown waterfront design report

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

It’s been a long road to travel, but the downtown Sandpoint waterfront design competition reached a critical juncture Nov. 15, when members of the City Council voted to accept the final report from design team GGLO-Bernardo Wills.

But that wasn’t before lengthy deliberation by the council and public testimony over what, exactly, the document represents and whether it was even necessary to accept it in order to have discussions related to design guidelines, historic preservation and code changes determining the future direction of the downtown core, Sand Creek and City Beach.

“Our town looks the way it does and feels the way it does because we haven’t acted,” said Councilor Justin Dick.

He ultimately made the motion to accept the report, which both City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton and Portland, Ore.-based architect Don Stastny — who the city contracted to manage the competition — said establishes a vision and framework for future conversation and planning.

“Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’re implementing,” Stapleton said, going on to describe the report as, “a visionary document pulling together all of your existing master plans.”

“It is not a plan; it is a framework for further discussion,” Stastny added.

Stage three concept plan. Courtesy photo.

That came after more than a month of revisions — which began Oct. 10 when GGLO-Bernardo Wills went before the competition jury with its Stage III design — taking comments and suggestions, which were then incorporated into a final draft presented Oct. 18 to the council.

During the Oct. 18 meeting, Councilor Jason Welker focused on the timing of implementation for a number of projects contained in the plan — dubbed “The Blue Necklace” — with particular emphasis on identifying building height restrictions in the downtown core.

GGLO-Bernardo Wills took that into consideration when coming up with its revised final draft, zeroing in a recommendation for a 55-foot height restriction with a 20-foot setback after 35 vertical feet.

Councilor Deb Ruehele pointed out that no downtown building along First Avenue is currently higher than 40 feet, and asked design team representatives how the 55-foot recommendation came about, to which she was told by GGLO Principal Mark Sindell that it had to do with “complications with the soils” on the east side of First Avenue.

“The more you have to put in the ground abnormally, the harder it gets to make it work above ground,” Sindell said, later adding, “If you reduce that [height] much more, it is going to be perhaps unlikely that anyone can make that work given the cost of developing those buildings with the soils you have.”

Design team members said the 55-foot limit is an attempt to strike a balance between maintaining consistency with the current downtown character and giving developers the flexibility to build structures that will be profitable enough to recoup the costs of their construction.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad, who initially did not participate in the meeting either in person or remotely — apparently due to technical difficulties — did chime in later in the meeting over Zoom to say that the current code is that buildings are a 35-foot maximum but can go up to 65 feet if a developer will provide parking and residential above or behind commercial uses and it would be “a travesty” if the council didn’t accept the report.

“This additional bonus of 30 feet was created as an incentive,” he said, intended to spur developers to integrate parking and residences into their plans.

“We don’t want to lose these incentives,” Rognstad said, later adding, “I just want to make sure that that doesn’t get lost in the discussion here.”

“I do not give two hoots about accommodating the economic feasibility for developers and I don’t think the City Council should either,” said lifelong Sandpoint resident, retired longtime city clerk and former council member Helen Newton, advocating for the council to hold off on accepting the report until Mayor-elect Jeremy Grimm and Councilors Pam Duquette, Deb Ruehle and Kyle Schreiber are sworn in after the new year.

That was a consistent theme among those members of the public who testified — which included Duquette and Schreiber, as well as Tara Brady, who said, “There is a lot of distrust for the current council.”

She also added that she felt it to be “unethical” for Rognstad to have served on the design competition jury “all while managing an investment real estate company.” Brady’s comments apparently referred to Watershed Equity, managed by Rognstad, which seeks to offer real estate investment services in the downtown core and waterfront.

“This seems to be a conflict of interest,” she said.

Councilor Joel Aispuro contributed much to the deliberation over accepting or holding off on the report, but ultimately opted to vote for the former, saying, “We need a vision,” and the report’s recommendations will help put the city “in the driver’s seat.”

“I don’t want to see developers define our downtown,” he said.

Aisupro, Dick and McAlister all voted in favor of accepting the document, while Ruehle voted against.

A number of workshops focused on height restrictions, design guidelines and code changes are expected to be scheduled in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, height restrictions are due to come up on the Sandpoint Planning and Zoning Commission agenda at its regular Tuesday, Dec. 5 meeting at City Hall (1123 Lake St.).

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