Scaling New Heights

by Cynthia Taggert & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & rowing up is awkward and uncomfortable. Just ask Coeur d'Alene. An "adolescent" 119 years old now, the city by the lake is sprouting a skyscraper in, of course, a place that draws all eyes. The 20-story building is growing a stone's throw from Lake Coeur d'Alene and a 100-yard dash from the nature trails over forested Tubbs Hill.

Its emergence is as emotional as it is physical. City officials knew tall buildings would move downtown eventually, so they're approaching the issue as an inevitable part of the town's evolution. Mayor Sandi Bloem and Coeur d'Alene City Council will spend the summer debating a proposed ordinance recommended by the planning and zoning commission that would limit the height of new buildings downtown.

City residents appreciate a lively downtown. Business owners want a thriving downtown. But few people are willing to sacrifice the view of the lake and Tubbs Hill that's available now. And many want to hold on to a Coeur d'Alene past.

"There has to be a balance between maintaining the old town feel and not allowing it to die," says John Bruning, one of Coeur d'Alene's Planning and Zoning commissioners. "I get calls at home about it every night."

As a planning and zoning commissioner for the past 23 years, Bruning has witnessed a score of transformations in downtown Coeur d'Alene. Fires and the exodus of retail stores to indoor malls in the 1980s pushed downtown into a depression for years.

Coeur d'Alene's first skyscraper, the 18-story Coeur d'Alene Resort, revived downtown temporarily in the late 1980s. It brought more people to downtown, but they were tourists, not locals. Stores that catered to locals had moved north.

Downtown turned into a tourist mecca in the 1990s. Sidewalks were widened to encourage strolling. Tourists attracted restaurants and small specialty shops. The city dressed up the area with benches, trees and hanging plants. Locals returned for parades and special events, but day-to-day needs weren't satisfied downtown anymore.

That all began to change in 2000 when architects Monte Miller and Dick Stauffer proposed a 14-story residential high-rise on the eastern end of downtown. Their building, McEuen Terrace, offered 22 luxury condominiums with spectacular views.

The project raised public gripes about blocked views and building heights inappropriate for small-town Coeur d'Alene. But the city had no restrictions on record to stop the project.

People also began talking about the idea that living space downtown would add new energy to the area and possibly attract businesses that would lure locals back. In the end, Miller and Stauffer designed a visually appealing high-rise in sync with Coeur d'Alene's color scheme. Walkers often rest by its ground-level fountain bubbling over rocks.

"Now it seems to fit here," says Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem. "There are so many people living there, enjoying it. It's brought a whole other residential aspect to the area."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ity officials sensed that McEuen Terrace was the start of a development shift downtown, and they worried that the city was unprepared. Miller and Stauffer were so successful at finding condo buyers that other developers took notice. By 2004, investors were buying whole blocks of downtown businesses.

"With small parcels, it's hard to go high," Bruning says. "We thought it was possible these large parcels could turn into large buildings. We needed some height restrictions."

The need became immediate last year when two new building projects were launched a block apart from each other. Both were condominiums. One was seven stories with 10 units. The other, another Miller/Stauffer project called the Parkside, was 20 stories with 53 condos, offices and a restaurant.

Dodge Construction is behind the seven-story building on downtown's main street. Company owner Mike Dodge, a long-time Coeur d'Alene resident and active community supporter, says his project will help downtown.

"Residential living and parking are the keys to downtown vitality," he says.

His building faces Lake Coeur d'Alene and Tubbs Hill to the south and the city's post office to the north. Six of the 10 condos already are sold. Dodge wasn't aware an 18-story building was about to rise on the block between his building and the picture-perfect view.

"Why go so tall?" he says. "It would be nice to limit the size of buildings between McEuen Terrace and the (Coeur d'Alene) resort to 75 feet. It's important to keep a human scale downtown."

The downtown scale began to change with the construction of the Coeur d'Alene Resort, says Monte Miller. Also a long-time Coeur d'Alene resident and active community supporter, Miller learned from McEuen Terrace that people want to live downtown.

"We wanted a building close to the same height as the resort," he says. "The resort set the precedent."

The Parkside will fill a city block, but it'll reach 20 stories at only its west end. Before the project began, nothing on the block was more than a story and a half.

Only a city park and parking lot stand between the Parkside and the view. All 53 condos are already sold even though the project is nothing more than a block-long excavation site. When the Parkside opens in 18 months, it'll include an upscale restaurant on the ground level, a public plaza and several floors of offices.

Miller knows his firm's projects are changing the face of downtown Coeur d'Alene. "I think we're going to see a continued resurgence of downtown," he says. "There'll be lots of new shops and restaurants, mostly attributable to people living downtown."

Downtown residents will need services not available there now, particularly a grocery store, he says. He's talked to Trader Joe's and Huckleberry's Markets about opening stores, but neither believes Coeur d'Alene is a viable enough market yet. Miller fully expects a grocer to see opportunity and open a small market. "This is truly urban," he says.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ity officials knew they had to set some limits. Downtown's health was important to Dodge, Miller and Stauffer. Coeur d'Alene was their home. But the city had nothing on the books to protect it from undesirable, ugly and unimaginable downtown development.

In 1980, a developer proposing to block Coeur d'Alene's waterfront with a large hotel inspired the city council to pass an ordinance to protect its shoreline. That ordinance didn't extend to downtown. As the city's planning and zoning commission realized the possible consequences of unlimited downtown growth, it agreed the city needed guidance.

"This is the most important ordinance I've been involved with since I've been on the commission," Bruning says. "This is forever. We wanted to do it right."

The city hired a consultant, LMN Architects of Seattle, to study downtown and recommend development regulations. LMN's list of accomplishments is lengthy and includes the just-finished expansion of Spokane's Convention Center. The company has redesigned Tacoma's downtown and Redmond's town center, among dozens of others.

LMN's director of urban design, Mark Hinshaw, took on the Coeur d'Alene project. Hinshaw was the chairman of Seattle's Design Review Commission. He'd helped cities and towns nationwide guide their development.

Hinshaw's work in Coeur d'Alene took months and introduced city officials to development guidelines at work in other cities and states. He met with a broad cross-section of townspeople to understand what priorities Coeur d'Alene has for its downtown. Then he worked with the planning and zoning commission on a development ordinance that honors those priorities.

The ordinance the planning and zoning commission is recommending the City Council approve would prohibit adult entertainment, billboards and drive-through businesses. It bans industrial work; street-level mini-storage; outdoor car, boat and equipment sales lots; work-release facilities; and wrecking yards.

It allows a range of square footage in new buildings. The more amenities offered to the public, the greater the square footage allowed. Developers earn more footage with public plazas, canopies that provide shelter from weather, public art, water features such as fountains, special parking or an environmentally-friendly roof. They also earn more footage by including a daycare, health club and public meeting rooms and offering workforce housing (though not necessarily downtown).

The ordinance limits buildings to 75 feet unless they reduce their square footage per floor, leave generous sidewalk space and are at least 50 feet from another tall building. Then they're limited to 220 feet -- about 20 stories.

"I feel strongly that we did the right thing by taking the time that was needed and hiring a consultant," says Mayor Bloem. "It's a difficult issue. How do we keep the sense of place we so enjoy here [and] balance what's right for the public good and what's right for private ownership?"

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he process of creating a downtown development ordinance has turned downtown development into a daily public conversation topic. Some residents want to hold on to the downtowns of the past -- but ask them to specify a year or decade, and they can't. They seem most worried about relinquishing the small-town "feel.''

"A lot of our elected officials seem to want to make our town look like a small Seattle," Coeur d'Alene resident Richard Baker recently wrote in a letter to the editor in the Coeur d'Alene Press. "After developers buy up all the land that they can and build on it, they move on. Once a high-rise is there, it's forever."

Bloem and her council will spend the summer hashing out the new ordinance. Bloem will address the height issue on her cable TV show, Coeur d'Alene Now, on June 13. The show airs on Channel 19 in Kootenai County.

While the ordinance was coming together, city officials held their breaths, expecting developers to launch building projects before it was passed. No projects joined the two already in progress and the ordinance has a good chance of approval this summer.

"We feel it's solid," says Councilman Woody McEvers. "We're thinking about what we want the city to look like in the future."

Dodge's building and the Parkside comply for the most part with the new proposed ordinance even though it won't apply to either. Bruning considers Coeur d'Alene lucky it's not saddled with a block-long behemoth 40 stories high.

"The Great Wall that could have gone on Front Avenue [along the lake] won't happen now," he says. "The ordinance isn't perfect, but it's positive and such an improvement over what we had: nothing."