Planning commissioner calls ‘bull—’ on hotel architect

Discussion of required square footage for workforce housing gets heated fast

This video, which begins near the middle of a Moab City Planning Commission, shows the moment Planning Commissioner Marianne Becnel uses an obscenity toward Architect Elizabeth Boone. Video by City of Moab

During a discussion over how large Moab’s housing units should be when built as part of the city’s assured housing program, Architect Elizabeth Boone said that the cost of building affordable housing in Moab equated to $250 per square foot.

To that, Planning Commission Vice Chair Marianne Becnel quickly said “bull,” adding an extra syllable that rhymes with “spit.” The obscenity landed forcefully during a meeting that, to that point, had ostensibly inspired lower blood pressure.

Planning Commission Chair Kya Marienfeld responded by uttering a disapproving “woah,” and as Commissioner Brian Ballard interjected with a clarifying question, Becnel said Boone’s claim was “not true.” Marienfeld then took over again to ask the commission to “take a minute because we don’t need to be cursing to the public on the record.”

Comments from Becnel later in the meeting clarified that the source of her aggressive comment, what she later called “shock factor,” was her perception that the proposal under discussion equated to a lodging developer appealing to the city to reduce the cost of building a hotel project. Boone said that the proposal would result in hotel developers building more workforce housing around Moab.

The comment took place during a public hearing on the matter, which will be continued at the next Moab Planning Commission meeting, scheduled for Jan. 13.

What makes the proposal divisive

The matter under discussion during the planning commission meeting Thursday evening, Jan. 23 was a proposal borne from discussions about the Henry Shaw Hotel between Boone and the city’s planning staff about how Boone, who works for the project’s architect Reynolds Ash + Associates Architecture and Engineering, would satisfy the city’s conditions for building housing pursuant to the city’s Workforce Assured Housing Ordinance.

The Henry Shaw Hotel Project entered the city’s development pipeline prior to Moab’s moratorium on lodging projects like it. Because of the timing, the hotel may lawfully be built, but the particulars of how the project — which is the largest of the lodging projects currently in the development pipeline, weighing in at 222 hotel rooms — will come to fruition are still in flux.

The proposal before the planning commission Thursday will be a key determinant of how the hotel and projects like it proceed. The change would reduce the minimum square footage required of lodging developers building workforce housing, as required by the city’s Workforce Assured Housing Ordinance, from 1,000 square feet to 400 square feet, including for the Henry Shaw Hotel project.

The rationale for the proposed decrease is to incentivize developers to build this housing rather than paying a fee in lieu to the city to cover the cost of building equivalent housing. The incentive would be created by the reduced cost of building the housing.

“My critique of the 1,000 square foot units [requirement] — and the reason why it hasn’t been executed to date and everyone is paying the fee in lieu — is because it doesn’t pencil,” Boone said. “It’s cheaper for the developers to just pay the fee and move on than to actually provide you guys with units.”

The price to developers is not the only cost that would decrease with reduced square footage requirements; smaller units also tend to be cheaper for tenants to rent, particularly for couples or individuals seeking to live alone.

This decreased cost of building was the driving factor for Becnel’s opposition Thursday, who later in the discussion said that the proposal equated to the firm building the Henry Shaw Hotel “asking for a price cut on the project.” She also questioned how the project would help the Moab community.

“According to our housing research, [the Henry Shaw Hotel is] going create maybe like 100 more jobs like housekeepers and maintenance people,” Becnel said. “Is that really worth 11 units of housing?”

The other merits of the proposal

Boone said during the meeting that developers opting to pay a fee in lieu rather than building workforce housing themselves was causing units to be “concentrated in one location that the city controls,” referring to the planned Walnut Lane Apartments, where fees paid to the city in lieu of workforce housing are being concentrated.

The alternative, Boone said, was a “variety of units throughout town” that would provide greater choice to workers in Moab with different housing needs and desires. City staff, in a report to the commission about the proposed change, also said that the city wanted “to provide a variety of housing unit types and sizes” available to Moab’s workforce, and the change would allow for smaller units in a studio configuration, a “product type that Moab lacks.”

The decrease in the square footage requirement to 400 from 1,000 is relatively modest when juxtaposed with more urban American rental housing. Boone showed during a presentation to the planning commission photos and a floorplan of a studio apartment similar to the one she said she occupied in New York City for several years. The net size of the apartment unit was 278 square feet.

“While we’re not in a major city like New York, who is setting small unit trends … we do want to be reasonable about what is the baseline, and 1,000 [square] feet feels very generous, and I think there is room to reduce that to make it work for developers,” Boone said.