At their February meeting this Tuesday, Apalachicola city commissioners will consider a carefully worked out plan to tweak their building height regulations and end the moratorium on new construction in the downtown area.
At their last two meetings, members of the planning and zoning board weighed a suggestion from architect Warren Emo, that proposes to alter the building height of 35 feet to as high as 40 feet within what Emo terms a “pedestrian commercial district.”
Members of P and Z considered Emo’s proposal, and while they want it examined more carefully as a possible future alternative, they do not plan to recommend the idea next week to city commissioners.
Emo’s rationale for boosting building height to a maximum of 40 feet is based on his vision that flood elevation requirements will lead to a proliferation of Escher-like stairways that waste valuable space, add significantly to construction costs and create a skyline with what he termed “a squashed-down look.”
Instead, he wants to make it so landowners can create buildings with a maximum of three habitable floors, and with a requirement that property owners flood-proof their ground floor pedestrian level.
The P and Z has proposed specifying the definition of “existing grade” and “finished grade,” the former meaning the elevation of the ground surface prior to any land disturbance, and the latter referring to the final elevation after manmade alterations such as grading and filling.
The rule would limit the building height to 35 feet from either the existing grade or the finished grade to the highest point of the roof. Any chimneys, parapets or other “necessary mechanical appurtenances” could not exceed three feet above the 35-foot building height limit, and each would require approval by the city’s Architectural Review Board.
But, Emo argued, federal flood zone requirements complicate the matter and make it more difficult to construct a cost-effective building with three usable floors.
“There’s got be some give-and-take because of the dynamics of what’s happening because of the regulatory issues. The 35-foot height from grade level (makes it so) the second story retail only works with escalators,” he said. “My proposal is a way to discourage steps and elevators and encourage the walk-in pedestrian feeling. It’s a genuine concern for me, both aesthetic and functional, plus you’re putting in another economic hurdle, a significant hurdle.”
To bolster his argument, Emo noted that the 19th century cotton warehouses weare originally three stories tall, with a height of from 43 to 53 feet, and that the Coombs Armory is 53 feet high.
“The first thing I see (when I drive in from the bridge) is the cupola on the Gibson Inn. The way the buildings meet the sky is what is memorable for people,” he said. “(Visitors) like when buildings meet the sky, and not getting them look all-squashed-down.”
Emo wants to institute that new construction be mandated to have flood-proofing for the first several feet up from existing grade.
“At the end of the day you’d be able to have a flood-proof pedestrian zone, and it would eliminate the ‘ghost town’ at the FEMA (flood) level” he said. “I don’t see a problem having a three-story structure. Anything above three stories would start getting out of hand.”
Cindy Clark, a key advisor to P and Z on regulatory issues, differed with Emo’s calculations, noting that in some areas of downtown, a building under his proposal could be built as high as 14 feet above base flood elevation.
“We have parking infrastructure we can’t meet right now,” she said. “There’s no way a three-story could meet the infrastructure requirements.”
She said she liked the general idea of flood proofing but that “there are areas where its really not feasible. You really can’t dry flood proof anything over three feet. It’s difficult to have a building stay intact and withstand the floodwaters over three feet. A goodly portion exceed three feet.
“Wet flood proofing is an option, for the reason we came to the conclusion that we did,” said Clark. “Even in the lowest topography, it afforded reasonable use of the property.
“I am concerned especially for the individual lots, that the effect of the massing and significant scale,” she said. “Our larger significant and architecturally significant jewels are located on land that supports the massing and the scale. The warehouses were iconic, but we didn’t deal with concurrency issues (back then).”
But, Emo said, back then buildings didn’t require air conditioning and fire protection, which add another five feet to a structure’s height, and make three stories at no higher than 35 feet impractical.
City commissioners are expected to discuss the height issue at the meeting Tuesday, Feb. 7.