Building up: Multi-story projects coming to Tahoe | SierraSun.com

Building up: Multi-story projects coming to Tahoe

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunTahoe City's Customs House building, known to some as the Loverde building, is a multi-level development that features commercial and residential space.

The way of the future for Tahoe’s commercial centers could be building up rather than out.

North Tahoe residents said they want to see their downtowns revitalized with focal points made up of visitor accommodations, retail, housing, public transit and recreational aspects, according to the Placer County Vision Summary. The public also said they cherish Tahoe’s mountains, lakes and forests.

The way to achieve these goals, officials say, is through greater density and mixed-use redevelopment ” a trend that is catching on not just in Tahoe, but in downtowns across the nation.

“If you’d like to have multiple-use buildings and people that actually live, work and play in your downtown, density multi-use is how you do it,” said Cheri Sprenger, executive director of the North Tahoe Business Association. “It’s not just a Tahoe trend, it’s everywhere.”

And, according to planners, there is more than one way to feasibly build more units with less ground coverage. Increased building height is one common solution. Developers make up for lost ground coverage with additional stories.

“You just look at the way development is set up in the Tahoe Basin right now, and it’s very linear along the edges of the state highway infrastructure,” said Jennifer Merchant of the Placer County Executive Office. “The kind of mixed-use development that we’re talking about really reduces the sprawl, reduces the coverage … but in order to get that density, you have to have more levels. That space needs to go somewhere. If it’s not linear, it’s got to be vertical.”

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Multiple-story buildings, however, must fit within the context of their surroundings, officials say, and provide benefits such as view corridors to the lake, public access, environmental best management practices and public transit options.

“[Building height] has got to be done right, in the right location and have benefits associated with it,” said Darin Dinsmore, a private land-use planner with Regional Planning Partners. “If there’s going to be additional height, there’s got to be quality design that is site specific.”

Dinsmore said the reason for providing more height is to create efficient town-center and neighborhood centers where people get out of their cars and walk.

In small towns with average structures reaching two stories or possibly three, height can be a sensitive issue.

“I sure like that the North Shore still has a quaint feel that you can’t get on the South Shore,” said Jerry Dinze, a Kings Beach resident. “I love that feel about the North Shore. It doesn’t feel like it’s totally blown out of proportion ” yet.”

In the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Community Enhancement Project, which asks developers to submit innovative concepts that meet community vision and environmental standards, Merchant said she’s seen North Tahoe applicants submit plans with buildings that reach four stories.

Tahoe Vista resident Theresa May Duggan said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that the mutiple-story buildings will take community character into account.

“I’m willing to look at what the overall building is going to look at and look like, in any case,” Duggan said.

There are two kinds of building heights, Dinsmore said. The first is the structure’s overall height and the second is the street-wall height, which refers to the presence of taller buildings on streets and sidewalks. Street-wall height promotes a feeling associated with a pedestrian-friendly environment, Dinsmore said, such as in downtown Truckee.

“In downtowns, you actually want height up to the street to create that sort of mainstreet effect,” he said.

Planners and developers have a few tricks up their sleeves to modify and lessen the presence of overall height from the viewpoint of the sidewalk pedestrian, such as pushing back the upper levels or using various roofing designs.

“We don’t want to be, like, a skyscraper. We don’t want to be a downtown San Francisco,” Merchant said. “It just needs to be, in Tahoe, on a much smaller scale with the natural environment and a smaller town.”

Faced with skyrocketing land values in the Tahoe Basin, on top of material and permitting costs, greater density and the resulting multiple-story buildings are a cost-effective solution, said private land-use planner Leah Kaufman.

“It has not been, in the past, cost-effective for people to come in and do the whole-scale redevelopment,” Kaufman said. “There’s got to be a balance between the community and redevelopment that’s reasonable.”

The nexus between density and height is also seen in Truckee, said Redevelopment and Housing Coordinator David Griffith of the Town of Truckee.

“Height can be the result of higher density,” Griffith said. “But it’s not necessarily encouraged.”

In downtown Truckee, buildings can’t exceed 50 feet ” the height cap in the town. And the town has different issues with view corridors. Instead of the lake, Truckee is concerned with its views of the mountains, the Truckee River and forests, Griffith said.