The Laramie City Council listened to proposed ordinance changes that would amend municipal code regarding Downtown commercial zoning district regulations during a work session on Tuesday.
In a presentation to the council, Associate Planner Matt Cox said the changes would maintain the historical aesthetic of downtown, while increasing walkability and emphasizing a cohesive downtown design.
“The downtown district is a very special district in Laramie. It’s the center of the town; it’s the core economic area. It’s a place where businesses benefit each other and thrive off of competition and collaboration of neighborliness,” Cox said. “It’s a pedestrian area, a place where we are limited in space but has the most businesses within Laramie in a confined area.”
The proposed amendments would cover building design and materials; maximum and minimum building heights; outdoor/temporary signs; transparency or window percentage; patio design and materials; rejecting sign size; minimum building footprint and residential parking requirements.
Cox said the changes were created through national trends, staff observances, Laramie Main Street recommendations and sustainable design.
Changes to building design would prohibit the use of non-historic materials being used as the primary façade material for a building and would specify acceptable colors. Cox said this change would ensure a more accurate historic aesthetic for the Downtown area. Under this ordinance, Cox said, use of stucco for a storefront would be prohibited due to its non-historic nature, as well as the fact that it is not sustainable in the long term.
“Stucco is not a sustainable material. It is not made with the lime that it used to be anymore, it is a concrete mixture,” Cox said. “In our environment, that dries and cracks relatively quickly.”
Natural finished wood, synthetic stone and stone masonry would also be restricted under the ordinance.
Maximum and minimum building heights will receive a boost – the minimum height of a structure in the downtown area would be changed to 30 feet, and the maximum height to 80 feet. Cox said the height maximum was based off of the Wagner building, which is the tallest building downtown at 70 feet. The minimum height limit is designed to encourage two story buildings that would maximize space and utility in the crowded downtown area.
Cox said the proposed changes would simplify the ordinance, which currently dictates that new buildings shall not exceed the height of the tallest existing building on the block.
The ordinance will do away with the current limit of 65,000 square feet gross floor area for buildings.
The proposed changes would increase a building’s minimum transparency, or window percentage, for the ground level area that faces a street to 70%. Under the proposed ordinance, the lowest edge of a window cannot be higher than 2 feet off the ground. Floors that are above the ground floor and abutting a street must have 50% of its linear feet be transparent and have minimum 4 foott tall windows.
Cox said the requirements were created by measuring existing historic buildings downtown, and that many historic buildings in the downtown area are already compliant
“These numbers aren’t requiring more than what is there, we are rather continuing that visual pattern that is there,” Cox said. “The idea that we are trying to go away from a historic design is frankly inaccurate, we took these from historic buildings.”
Cox said corner lots might present an issue for building owners because they have two street-facing sides. While the new ordinance might require a large transparency percentage, Cox said it brings people into stores and creates more revenue.
“It creates a possibility for more units, and it really looks to possibly drive a higher revenue for that developer and for that building owner downtown,” Cox said. “What windows really do is bring people into the store.”
Under the new ordinance, patios will need to be constructed from wrought iron, brick, tile, a decorative fencing material approved by the city manager’s office, or be constructed of a material that’s similar to the building it is attached to. The fence and walls will need to be at least 4 feet, or transparent above 4 feet. A patio located on a right-of-way can’t be accessed by public street traffic, aside from an ADA accessible opening.
Projecting signs size is increased from 15 feet to 30 square feet per building face, and corner projecting sign size is increase from 15 square feet to 45 square feet.
The code update will propose a minimum building footprint of 80% of the lot square footage and allows a patio to be 20% of the required footprint Cox said the update will require minimum use of the lot, rather than only building on a portion of the lot and leaving valuable land vacant and unused.
The last change, and the one that drew the most criticism from public commenters, will remove parking requirements for downtown residential development. Cox said this proposed change is contentious, but it is in line with changes other cities are making to their downtowns and will free up desperately needed space for residential units downtown.
“I won’t say that Laramie is not an auto-centric city, but that parking requirements downtown really limit what a developer can do,” Cox said. “Right now for an existing building, if someone wants to develop a residential unit on the second floor, our code requires that they provide at least one parking space which, for many of these buildings, is impossible because they’ve built lot line to lot line.”
Cox said parking requirements make development more expensive, and removing them will bring more residential units downtown, which will translate to a larger population who will be in walking distance of retailers. Cox said Laramie already has sufficient parking, and a 2006 study showed that Laramie has parking enough for a building triple its size.
During public comment, several Laramie residents with Cox and said parking downtown is an issue, especially in the afternoons.
Several business owners objected to the timing of the ordinance, which would put another burden on their businesses already strained by COVID-19. One commenter said he felt it was not the right time to enforce these ordinances and called it “disheartening.”
Trey Sherwood, Executive Director of Laramie Main Street, said that in discussion with business owners, many have said they are “overwhelmed” right now.
Laramie Planning Manager Derek Teini said that while he understands many businesses downtown are struggling during the current pandemic, he feels that now is the perfect time to upgrade the City’s code, so that Laramie can be ready for the next economic cycle once the country comes out of the pandemic.
The proposed ordinances will be on the City Council’s regular agenda next Tuesday.