Guest Column by Kevin Roden
3 days after a 104 story building collapsed following the 9/11 terrorist attack in NYC, then-president George W. Bush stood on top the rubble with first responders and clean-up workers to rally a nation and ensure us that we would rebuild the broken city and the anxious country.
Well over a month has passed since the tragic fire destroying a mere one story building on our downtown square, yet the bucket of swords and other trash still block the sidewalk of the Downtown Mini Mall. No politicians have come to speak. There's been no promise of city help in rebuilding and our city council has yet to place an item on the agenda to address what the city can do to help rebuild the East side of square.
And today, many Denton citizens are waking up to the news that the owner has decided to demolish what is left of the front and rear facade of the building. Perhaps this is the best decision, but we will never know. Short of heroic efforts from Julie Glover and the city's economic development team and the relatively small state and federal grants they sought, there's no indication that the council directed the city to dedicate - or even explore - significant city funding toward the finding of a better solution. The council did vote, however, to all but drain the Downtown TIF funds of over $1.4 million on other downtown projects on January 9 without as much of a mention of whether or not such funds could be used to aid in the largest downtown loss of property in recent history.
And it's too bad. Even if the long-term solution meant the need to replace the facades, we now know that the immediate solution to the total demolition of the facades will mean replacement by a dang fence. There's now no indication how long a fence will be in place of historic facades on that significant stretch along the East side of the square. At the very least, it seems it would be in the city's best interest to at least consider spending $50-100,000 to maintain facades in the interim - in the best interest of the integrity of the square and the downtown businesses in that vicinity.
But while the council inattentiveness in the aftermath of this tragedy has helped secure this unfortunate result, there are still significant policy issues moving forward that require immediate attention of the city council to prevent long-term consequences from this fire:
FORM BASED CODE
One of the key recommendations of the Downtown Implementation Plan of 2010 was the creation of form-based zoning in the downtown area. Used by many cities in urbanized areas, the goal behind form-based zoning is to help ensure the look, feel, and scale of new development is in line with surrounding buildings. Rather than focusing on use, which is the focus of traditional zoning, form based zoning focuses primarily on the appearance. Especially where you have zero lot line situations like you do in downtown, making sure a building has the same set back, height considerations, facade appearance, and other aesthetic considerations of surrounding buildings is key. This has plan has been shelved for too long. With the reality of new development on the immediate square, it's well past time to make sure we have the codes in place to get the type of development downtown deserves.
ARE SURFACE PARKING LOTS PROHIBITED?
Following the fire that claimed three buildings on the West side of the square in 1994, the beautifully done Sherman building replaced it, but with the addition of surface parking on the immediate square (between the Sherman building and the now UNT on the Square). There's not an urban planner in the nation that would recommend surface parking in such an area. It doesn't seem there is any city code that would prohibit the downtown mini mall - in all or in parts - from being converted to surface parking. That worry should be dealt with immediately by a code amendment to the Denton Development Code.
SPACING BETWEEN BUILDINGS
What does our current code say regarding redevelopment that takes place on zero lot lines like this? Would it even allow for reconstruction that would once again connect the former mini mall building to the two adjacent buildings? In this case, it should, or else the look and feel of the East side of the square will suffer. This question should be addressed and necessary adjustments made before any applications for redevelopment are submitted.
WHAT IS OUR VISION FOR DOWNTOWN?
This past year we saw our council attempt to remove a financing mechanism aimed at long-term investing in downtown. Against the Downtown TIF board's recommendation, the council decided to drain just about all of the remaining funds built up in the Downtown TIF - with good projects, no doubt, but with little vision on the future of dedicated funding for downtown projects. We also saw the Downtown Reinvestment Grant removed from the general fund budget, with no clear indication where it comes from, if at all, in the future.
Both funding mechanisms came from long-term downtown planning and vision. It's unclear, in their dismantling, what vision is guiding the way. If the tragic fire has taught us anything, it's that what we love about downtown Denton is fragile and in need of a continual refreshing of vision. Where are we heading? How do we get there? This is a great opportunity for the council to implement an immediate review of the previous downtown plans - the Downtown Master Plan and the Downtown Implementation Plan - and develop new plans for the next 10, 20, and 30 years.
What do you think? Let us know!