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Planners wrestle with 'Transit Triangle' details

It’s no secret how expensive housing is in Ashland or how few rental units are available, with the city ranking as the fourth-most expensive place to live in the state of Oregon, according to an article on homesnacks.net.

Well aware of that, city leaders are looking for ways to provide more affordable housing. But coming up with the idea and actually being able to implement a plan are two very different tasks.

That was evident earlier this week when members of the Ashland Planning Commission discussed the specifics of a housing infill project in south Ashland.

That project, called the Transit Triangle Strategy, is in a triangle area of land bordered by Siskiyou Boulevard, Ashland Street and Tolman Creek Road. That project aims to increase housing densities, create more affordable “workforce” housing and encourage more use of mass transit. People in the area are already heavy users of Rogue Valley Transportation District buses.

Route 10 makes up for about 50 percent of all RVTD riders and the stop at Ashland’s Bi-Mart is one of the most popular stops systemwide, according to the city’s website.

“The purpose of the project is to adopt an infill strategy for the transit triangle that encourages a greater concentration of businesses and residential units, increases transportation choices and promotes sustainable planning initiatives,” the city’s website reads.

Ultimately, planners hope, several hundred moderately priced multi-family residential units will be added to that area, along with additional businesses and jobs, while creating more easily walkable neighborhoods.

The city would offer incentives to entice developers to build on lots available in the area, if they meet specific requirements. These benefits include exemptions from some building codes in areas such as parking and landscaping, to allow for more buildable space and housing options, according to Planning Commissioner Michael Dawkins.

“We’re kind of backing off of some of our stricter codes in order to accommodate more housing,” Dawkins said in an interview. “And the transit triangle is an area that sort of screams for redevelopment, and that’s one of the reasons we’re looking at it.

“Our biggest issue is that we decided a long time ago to not increase our urban growth boundary, but we’re mandated by state law to always have a 20-year supply of buildable land and to accommodate population increase,” Dawkins said.

He said the only way to do that is through infill — building on available space within the existing boundaries. Minimum density and maximum dwelling unit size requirements are being recommended to create more housing in that available space. More, smaller, units means slightly more affordable rent, which is one of the city’s long-term goals of providing more workforce housing.

One recommendation is that multi-family housing would have to be rental units — for instance, apartments rather than condominiums — in order to qualify for the exemptions. The commissioners also discussed a proposal that at least 75 percent of units built on a site would have to be 800 square feet or less in order for the exemptions to apply.

But those sorts of proposals raised concerns in the Planning Commission’s Tuesday’s meeting, with some commissioners saying that being that specific would deter developers from the area and others opposed to making major changes late in the planning process.

Commissioner Troy Brown Jr. said he felt very strongly that it was too late to start proposing major amendments to the plan.

“We paid consultants who put time and energy into a model,” Brown said. “I see the back-of-the-napkin math you can do, but we paid for the studies.”

Brown said the plans have been based on the models consultants put together and that straying from those models would likely set back the remainder of the process.

Commissioner Haywood Norton, however, said the city is ever-changing and the commission needs to adapt its planning process to better fit the needs of the city’s growth.

“When did they do the analysis? Two years ago?” Norton asked. “A lot has happened since then.”

The Planning Commission is scheduled to again review a draft of the ordinance in an Aug. 28 study session. Once approved, it will be forwarded to the City Council for a public hearing, now scheduled for Sept. 18.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.