Thinking bigger

Opinion: Editorials

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It's been such a long time ago that people might have forgotten what a terribly drawn-out, frustrating approval process led to the construction of the Village Center building in downtown Riverside.

The project was a unicorn for Riverside at the time – a transit-oriented development that needed several zoning variations, accommodations for lack of required onsite parking and added residential density.

Not only did the Zoning Board of Appeals, Plan Commission and village board weigh in, even the Riverside Preservation Commission had a bite at the apple, with the result being a development that looked like it was designed by committee.

While the experience led to some streamlining of the development approval process, it's still largely the same. If someone comes in with a development that adheres to the zoning code – whether or not it's attractive, desirable or promotes the larger development goals of the village – it can be built by right.

If you want multiple zoning variations to build a development – even one that would really hit the mark in terms of improving a commercial area downtown or along Harlem Avenue – you have to convince the Planning and Zoning Commission and the village board of actual hardship. It's a high bar.

Last week, village trustees kicked around the idea of writing into the zoning code a separate approval process for planned unit developments. These are typically larger in terms of land area and, while they might include taller buildings that seek to increase density near transportation hubs, that's not always the case.

Essentially, all of the zoning allowances, like height, density, bulk area requirements, etc. are rolled into one application that goes to the Planning and Zoning Commission and is examined on the totality of its merits.

It's one where the village has greater say in the final product, from building materials to landscaping, parking and lighting. It also allows a municipality to seek accommodations – whether it's public space or certain infrastructure improvements – from a developer. The goal is for a development to benefit not just the investors in the development, but the village as a whole.

There's also an option to do what Brookfield did a couple of years ago and comprehensively rewrite the zoning code for specific districts to really hand-hold the development process by defining exactly the types of buildings, materials, uses, parking requirements, bulk standards, etc. that the village is looking to attract.

That option is a little riskier, we think, in that it also moves a lot of the planning and approval outside of the public arena. The goal is the same, however; to get developments the village is actually seeking, not simply ones that can be shoehorned into the zoning code.

And while you might think Riverside lacks the kinds of lot area to attract planned unit developments, we'd say think again. Lots can be assembled for development all along Harlem Avenue, particularly near the BNSF tracks and at Ogden Avenue, as well as closer to 26th Street.

Downtown might also afford such opportunities, with plenty of obsolete buildings and uses that are or will become available in the future. It's worthwhile to explore.

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