Design flaws

City Council reconsiders role of architectural review board, amends 2030 General Plan

Construction of Chico Children’s Museum was held up by architectural review last summer.

Construction of Chico Children’s Museum was held up by architectural review last summer.

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Last summer, Alan Tochterman vented his frustration to the Chico City Council. He was trying to turn his blighted and long-vacant building on Main Street into something presentable, but said the project was tangled in bureaucratic red tape.

The space—between Third and Fourth streets, the same block as Duffy’s Tavern and Lost on Main—was being renovated to become Chico Children’s Museum. But when Tochterman went before the Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board with an artist’s rendering of the proposed façade, the board determined the yellow-and-white color scheme was too bright and bold. Tochterman was then caught up in a lengthy and expensive process that was drawn out across multiple meetings, including an appeal to the City Council in June. He bristled at the board’s nit-picking.

“Almost $5,000 was spent in order for me to be lectured by members of the board, who are the experts on color,” he said.

The panel was sympathetic, and voted unanimously to overturn the ARHPB’s decision, thereby allowing the Chico Children’s Museum to move forward with construction. The episode was not forgotten, however. On Tuesday (March 21), as the council held a public hearing on a five-year review of the city’s 2030 General Plan, Mayor Sean Morgan and some of his colleagues questioned the very purpose of the ARHPB.

“I’m continually reminded of the fiasco of Chico Children’s Museum,” Morgan said.

For more than 40 years, the ARHPB has helped ensure the quality of major building projects in Chico. According to the city’s website, the five-member board “reviews building proposals that may affect buildings or other resources listed on the city of Chico Historic Resources Inventory.” Currently, the board reviews and acts on most new commercial and multifamily residential projects.

Collectively, the board lends architectural and historical expertise that individual city staff members may lack. Further, members of the ARHPB are expected to make subjective decisions that lend themselves to an appointed body—a point that was emphasized by Irv Schiffman, a former member of the board who spoke when the floor was opened for public comment.

“Staff makes bureaucratic decisions, and boards make community decisions,” he said.

But there have been some problems. Architects and builders say that the review process has become arduously drawn out in recent years. Whereas it used to take about two weeks to go from submitting an application to a hearing, it now takes more like three months.

“I am a big proponent of the [board],” said local builder Pat Conroy. “We’re really lucky to have them. But what I do have a problem with is the three months it takes to wait for a decision. … We lose a whole building season.”

And in some cases, applicants have had a right to be frustrated, said Brendan Vieg, the city’s principal planner. There have been examples of overreach and board members requesting changes to projects “based on personal preferences.”

As a solution, the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Action Committee submitted a proposal during the Planning Commission’s Feb. 2 meeting to turn ARHPB into an appeals-only body. Under the proposal, all building reviews would be conducted by city staff, and the board would be involved only upon an applicant’s appeal.

However, dedicating a senior-level planner to handle building reviews would cost more and “bog down the process,” said Community Development Director Mark Wolfe. “We don’t think the process is broken.” Rather, he suggested making tweaks to speed it up. City staff have recently taken on more architectural review duties, he said, and training sessions for board members are scheduled for later this spring.

Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer made a motion to accept the recommendation of city staff and the Planning Commission—to maintain the current board function and direct city staff to report back in one year on whether the concerns raised have been resolved. Councilman Mark Sorensen asked to amend the motion so that the panel could revisit the issue in six months, allowing time for the training sessions and recent changes to take effect.

The amended motion carried by a 6-to-1 vote, with Councilwoman Ann Schwab dissenting.

In a series of votes, the council approved amendments to the 2030 General Plan, including reducing density restrictions in certain parts of town. For instance, the council voted 5-2 to rezone the area along Pomona Avenue, changing it from a multifamily residential area—i.e., apartment complexes—to a very low density residential area—i.e, single-family homes.

The council also voted unanimously to direct city staff to study land absorption, or the availability and cost of land available for development.

Additionally, the council added language to the general plan regarding the city’s affordable housing shortage. In a line stipulating that city staff will coordinate conversations about affordable housing with developers, Sorensen proposed adding “utilizing government subsidies and other incentives.” His motion passed 5-2, with Councilman Karl Ory and Councilwoman Ann Schwab dissenting.

That vote followed Schwab’s failed motion to maintain the requirement that a city staff member must serve as a coordinator for the Sustainability Task Force, and that the Diversity Action Plan keeps a scorecard.

Schwab’s motion failed 3-4 down party lines.