Barbecue Application at Council This Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The barbecue food truck that has been operating illegally for 22 months at Church and 9th Streets comes before city council on Tuesday, August 13. The business, known as Black Box BBQ, will be requesting a Special Use Permit to operate permanently at this location. The Planning and Zoning Commission heard the application last week and voted to recommend denial to city council.

This Tuesday, then, is make or break for this project. I will be going to council to argue against this application, and if you can show up to help support those neighbors who oppose this project please do so. Council session starts at 6 pm and is held in the new Council and Courts Building at 510 W. 9th Street.

This matter is Item U on the agenda, and I can’t really guess when that would come forward – sometimes council has moved an issue to the front of the line, so unfortunately it looks like showing up at 6 pm and sitting through the items in front of ours is the only way to go, unless you can plant a scout in there to call you as it’s coming close.

Here is the agenda for the evening and here is the coversheet for the item. Note that the Staff Report as posted online is the old one dated July 12, and doesn’t account for citizen comments and the proceedings of P&Z. I assume an updated report will come to council, and we should watch carefully to see what’s new in it.

If you’d like more background on this proposal, and the good reasons to oppose it, please keep reading below.

It’s all about Transition Zones


The proposed location is in Mixed-Use Downtown (MUDT) zoning, and on one side makes contact with Single Family Residential zoning – there’s a home next door. We are in a classic situation where two zoning districts make contact.

The Downtown Master Plan states clearly, in Chapter 3 on page 43, that within the Transition Area of downtown, the Recommended Projects for land use are:

  • A bed and breakfast or boutique hotel
  • Multifamily housing of 2-3 stories
  • Townhomes, duplexes and small lot single family homes
  • Professional offices
  • Neighborhood-based services, including day care
  • Small parks, plazas and courtyards

Things such as restaurants and outdoor patios are specifically warned against. Notice that all of these uses are lightly trafficked, and don’t bring a flood of cars to the location. Also, these businesses tend to operate during business hours, offering peaceful evenings and Sundays to residents within range of potential disturbance.

In the case of the Black Box proposal, this food service is famous and is definitely a destination, bringing people by car. It will certainly bring traffic, and regardless of any parking arrangements, it’s clear that cars will park in the closest spot in the neighborhood. Traffic in this particular area is already maxed out and challenges the residential lifestyle of the neighborhood.

This is a case of a commercially zoned business directly impacting its neighboring residential zone.

There was a proposal once for a boutique hotel on this land, and this proposal was received warmly by neighbors, but unfortunately fell through. But it’s important to recognize that when a neighborhood encounters a new development that fits within the Master Plan guidelines, there is no opposition to it.

There are other impacts on the neighborhood too, from the Black Box proposal, including fumes, noise and potential toxic contaminants. The project plans to offer a “Beer Garden” kind of hospitality and atmosphere, which are both in themselves great features, but which require more space and breathing room than this lot offers. The concept is simply too big for the land. It’s a larger idea than the land and neighborhood can accommodate.

We’ve seen this with other projects, most famously the Hat Creek proposal a few years back. There was nothing wrong with the restaurant’s footprint, except that the location first chosen was completely wrong to support it. Where it was eventually built made a much better fit with traffic flows. Similarly, we can hope that Black Box is denied approval, and takes this in its stride, and seeks a better location for what can be a popular food service in the town.

And we can be sure that something else will come along for this lot. It’s a prime location for a suitable project. Any proposal will have to go through the same screening that this one is going through, probably including HARC in the review. It will have to fit the guidelines that we as a city have taken great pains to develop for our downtown. If it complies with our codes, it will fit with the neighborhood, and be welcomed. If it doesn’t comply, it will face opposition.


The Principles of Transition Areas


The concept of a Transition Zone at the boundary of contact, and guidelines for the cases where this happens with our downtown project and the surrounding neighborhoods, were added into the Downtown Master Plan in the last update a few years ago, when Nore Winter of Winter & Company came to Georgetown and helped us formulate how to deal with these cases.

Although this concept was developed for the Downtown and Old Town districts, the more we talk with other districts in the city, and the more we share stories of how residential neighborhoods are impacted by large projects and business developments, the more it becomes clear that the city should expand these transition areas throughout the city. Even in the extra-territorial jurisdictions at the boundaries of the city’s growth, it becomes clear that all residents of homes have common cause throughout the city, as in fact they are beginning to recognize and join forces to deal with.

So it’s important to understand how zoning districts affect each other as they come into contact. We can think of them in terms of a stronger zoning designation versus a weaker one. Typically the single family residential is the weakest of all, because it’s so restricted. All you can put on the lot is a home.

Commercial zoning on the other hand has a lot more freedom to be creative and imaginative with what gets built on the land. This means that when it contacts residential zoning, it has the flexibility at the borderline to shape itself to fit the neighborhood it’s touching. But the residential zoning has no such flexibility. A home cannot reshape itself to dodge a bullet presented by an intrusive commercial use. It can only stay where it is, and become blighted.

What happens when commercial zoning contacts residential zoning and forces a home to tolerate its noise, traffic and other such impacts, is that it essentially forces the home to give way. The owner can only sell, and the home becomes a law office or one of the uses listed in the Master Plan for Transition Zones uses.

Effectively, the stronger zoning district has bulldozed the weaker zoning district into creating a transitional property use, within its own residential zoning. This in turn, has shrunk the former neighborhood by one or more homes, and devalued the attractiveness of that neighborhood accordingly.

Some people have interpreted the current Master Plan’s transition zones requirements to mean the burden is on the residential zoning district, but it should be clear that this is the way of blight. In the case of the downtown project, only the MUDT zoning designation allows a business to fit well with a residential district. If the business refuses to adapt, the neighborhood can only suffer blight.

As the blight happens, the perimeter of the weaker zoning district is breached and pushed in. This extends the impact of the stronger zoning designation into the weaker zone.

We need to understand all of this, because residents don’t oppose a project just to be grumpy, they oppose it because their lifestyle and their property values are threatened. Damage and harm have occurred and continue to occur in the weaker, residential zones in the face of development and growth. And these principles illustrate how it happens.

Homeowners will continue to fight back against the unfair encroachment and the taking of value by businesses that demand as of right the ability to blight homes.

Council representatives and all of us will do well to understand why.

Ross Hunter, August 11, 2019


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