Planners Hope for More Attractive Buildings

By CYNTHIA KMETT

It’s not uncommon for members of Troy’s Planning Commission to find the architectural designs presented to them for site plan approval to be lacking. The planners’ comments range from “boring” to “ugly.” But, if a site plan is variance-free and meets all the requirements of the city’s zoning code, they have little choice but to approve it or face litigation for the decision.

The goal: Raise the quality of projects in our community.

While they wish they could say they disapprove because it affects Troy’s health, safety or welfare, that wouldn’t usually be the case. So, last week they began a discussion on how to upgrade the city’s design standards. The meeting started with a photographic tour of many (and there have been quite a large number) of new buildings in the city. The tour did not include any of the many new housing projects that were put on hold when the recession struck but are now going up with abandon.

They were looking for buildings that were “not giving the message that we really want to give.” That would be especially true in the Big Beaver form-based zoning district, where the city’s Master Plan calls for greater density and height. Some of the new plazas have a faux second floor, but no occupants. They did, however, like Sedona’s rooftop dining area, noting it could be thought of as a possible replacement for a second floor.

While there aren’t dozens of buildable sites from Rochester to Coolidge along Big Beaver, there’s still space to the east toward John R and Dequindre. One of the changes the planners recently made was to update the Big Beaver zoning requirement to include making a one-story building a “special use,” and thus allowing the planners greater input to the site’s looks and design. They also added some guidelines on windows heights and placement. They had guidelines, but if you see covered windows along Big Beaver, you’ll know the “guidelines” don’t have the force of law and were being ignored by tenants.

Troy’s Planning Director Brent Savidant did observe that while they couldn’t get developers to do two-story buildings on Big Beaver, by next year there will be three of these building on Crooks, including the recently approved new building to replace Eaton Plaza.

Planning trustee Karen Crusse liked the Verizon building with its public art and those restaurants with outdoor dining spaces. She found most of the recent Big Beaver projects “all pretty good.” Some projects, however, were found to lack “architectural creativity.”

Pedestrian-level lighting that makes an area walkable was favored by Planning trustee Don Edmunds. He added that he doesn’t want to hear, “This is our corporate product” when they come to the table in Troy.

Planning Commission Chair Ollie Apahidean observed that many of these additions to the Big Beaver landscape were modern in design. He asked his fellow planners, “Do we want buildings to blend in or stand out?”

Crusse said she prefers a cohesive look with a “pop of elements and architectural details” to make a building stand out. She said she wants to be flexible, too. That brought nodding agreement at the table.

“I don’t want to undermine the creativity of those who bring projects to the city,” interjected Planning trustee John Tagle, himself an architect. He wants to know how the developer logically got to the design they are presenting. “Show us and tell us why this is the best choice,” he added. He also observed that they have to remove their personal preferences from discussions.

He did point out to his fellow planners that not all developers have unlimited funds to put into a project. “We can’t say ‘you can’t replicate your brand…tell us why it works here.”

Savidant observed, “We need to give them questions, so they come prepared.”

While some changes have been made, like bringing color renderings and samples of the building materials to be used, there was a potential list for other requirements, like four-sided architectural drawings, material use, landscaping and hardscaping, streetscape, loading areas and trash enclosures, and lighting, even signage.

While the planners seemed to want their design standards to apply to the entire city, including residential developments, it looks like they’ll start their quest with the commercial, industrial, and office arenas.

In addition, the city will be contacting local developers and see what they think makes sense for adding new standards for creativity and quality. Troy’s planning consultant, Ben Carlisel, pointed out that what developers really want is more density, more height, and a quick process.

The city has guidelines, which haven’t always worked. They could have a design policy, which developers can still ignore. But design standards as part of the zoning code, will take away the flexibility the planners would like.

This could be a long discussion.