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UDC Design Standards Wrong for Downtown Cheyenne

The City of Cheyenne Planning Commission is going to vote on whether to apply Unified Development Standards to new buildings downtown.

Currently, the UDC Design Standards to not apply to downtown buildings.

As a result, the part of Cheyenne that is zoned “CBD” or Central Business District” acts like a zone of freedom for designers and builders compared to the rest of Cheyenne.

Councilman Dr. Rinne and the Cheyenne Planning Commission want to clamp down on this small piece of freedom that property owners and potential investors in downtown Cheyenne have. They plan to do this by “An ordinance amending the Central Business District (CBD) zoning to include the design standards currently existing as the Small Scale Commercial and Mixed Use Design Standards described in UDC § 6.7.”  These are the design standards that apply to areas such as North Yellowstone, Storey and East Pershing Boulevards, and even portions of South Cheyenne and the Dell Range corridor.

Design regulations such has those proposed for downtown Cheyenne can serve as an additional barrier to investment because they impose additional start-up costs on private sector businesses. This is not a new problem.  The Cheyenne City Council has wrestled with this anti-investment effect of the UDC as recently as September 2013. At that time, the City Council voted to continue requiring potential business to tear up parking lots and to install the expensive landscaping and automatic irrigation systems mandated by the UDC Design Standards before being allowed to even start business operations.

This attitude that the city should erect more barriers to business investment downtown is particularly ironic given the fact that the downtown area of Cheyenne is suffering for a lack of business.  The high commercial vacancy rates in downtown area well documented by the Cheyenne DDA the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle even recently reported on how vacant buildings downtown remain a problem. While these data and reports discuss problems with existing buildings while the proposed Design Standards would apply only to new buildings—for now, they do point to a fundamental problem for downtown Cheyenne.  There simply is not enough demand for downtown real estate at current prices to fill the historic buildings. Why, then, do City Planners and at least one council member insist on making it harder to invest in downtown?

Not only can design standards for new buildings make building on empty downtown lots like ‘The Hole’ more expensive, design standards can rob new buildings of their authentic character and can deprive architects of the opportunity to include artistic creativity in new buildings. The proposed design standards dictate things like the type of windows a building is allowed to have and will limit the primary building material to one of two types of masonry. Even façade components, horizontal and vertical “massing” of buildings and enclosure ratios are objects of the City’s proposed design regulations.

Essentially, the UDC design standards proposed for downtown will censor the artistic element of architecture. The code explicitly seeks to suppress individuality in favor of aesthetic conformity stating, “Sites should be designed to emphasize building and their relationship to the streetscape, rather than individual lots along a block.” This level of regulation is a frontal attack on private development of new iconic or signature buildings unique to Cheyenne. Simply put, by imposing design standards that were intended for North Yellowstone or other neighborhood-style or suburban-style commercial nodes on downtown, the City Council and Planning Commission will effectively impose the kind of monolithic uniformity on downtown that other portions of the UDC claim to oppose.

If planners and the City Council really do want a thriving, economically vibrant downtown for Cheyenne, then they should maintain Downtown’s current exemption from the costly and micromanaged design standards. Let downtown’s landowners take advantage of an investment-friendly regulatory environment while designing a truly authentic and unique downtown streetscape so serve as Cheyenne’s signature ‘place.’

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Sunday, 22 October 2017
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