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As CdA skyline gets taller, officials try to balance property rights

The city by the lake is growing up.

Two newer condo towers have joined the Coeur d’Alene Resort as the tallest buildings downtown, and the city recently approved construction of a luxury apartment building near City Park.

Building up rather than out is an urban planning objective for Coeur d’Alene, which is hemmed in on most sides. City leaders also encourage denser residential development in the city’s core to boost the vigor of downtown shopping and night life.

“I think it’s a maturing of the community that you’re seeing with these higher-density, high-rise structures,” said Denny Davis, chairman of the Lake City Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency.

The growing skyline, however, isn’t without controversy.

The 14-story structure planned a block north of Independence Point spurred an outcry from a group of neighboring condo owners upset that the $20 million development will block their views of the lake.

Building up in downtown is preferable to suburban sprawl, said Mary Lou Reed, a longtime environmental activist who served on the city’s planning commission for nine years. But Reed admits she has mixed emotions about it.

“There’s some wisdom in encouraging high-rises,” Reed said. “It’s just the high-rises by the water present a real problem. Not everybody’s going to get a view, but if they get a view, perhaps it should be protected.”

Another 14-story lakefront condo proposal caused a stir more than 30 years ago. That plan by a California developer fueled a Save Our Shoreline movement, swept into office a new mayor and three city council members opposed to the project, and kicked off a yearslong debate about shoreline protection and building heights.

Since then, the city has warmed to high-rise development.

High-rise, that is, by Coeur d’Alene standards. The tallest a building may rise downtown is 200 feet, plus another 20 feet for an architectural feature such as an arch.

That’s about the height of the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s 18-story Lakeside Tower, which opened in 1986 close to the spot where the earlier condos would have gone up.

Miller Stauffer Architects, a Coeur d’Alene architectural and development firm, completed the 15-story McEuen Terrace condo building on Front Avenue in late 2001. The company followed that with the Parkside, a 20-story condo building, in mid-2008. Both include some office space, and the Parkside has retail shops on the ground floor.

Room for a view

Austin Lawrence Partners, an Aspen, Colo., development firm, plans to break ground this fall on One Lakeside, a mix of 64 luxury apartments and condos with prime views of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The building will go up at First Street and Lakeside Avenue on the site of a 12-unit apartment building built in 1955.

The vibrant downtown and proximity to the lake and City Park make the site especially enticing, said Greg Hills, founder and president of the development company.

“We felt we could blend in in an interesting way,” Hills said.

With liberal use of windows, the building’s design is open and airy, and the height is a good fit with the scale of downtown, he said.

“I think the majority of people will like it,” he said. “We were very sensitive to what this would look like from the lake.”

Downtown living is a national trend, and Coeur d’Alene has the potential for more projects like One Lakeside, Hills said. Not every site is suitable for a mid- or high-rise, but “Coeur d’Alene is willing to be taller to be more progressive,” he said.

A group of residents who would watch the building rise between them and the lake urged city officials to reject the plan.

About 30 residents of the nine-story Coeur d’Alene North Condominiums, located just 50 feet to the north, argue that the project will diminish their property values by millions of dollars. The city, they contend, has an obligation to protect them from such a loss.

The City Council last week said the project meets city design guidelines, and it denied the group’s appeal of the project. In response, opponents are gearing up to sue the city, said their attorney, Scott Reed, husband of Mary Lou Reed.

Some condo owners would have their lake views completely blocked and others would see their views lightly to heavily blocked, Scott Reed said. The complex has 84 residential and 23 commercial units.

“The contention is that this thing was built 30 years ago and they have property right protection,” he said. “It’s going to be, let’s just say, a somewhat novel lawsuit.”

Hills said the concerns raised by neighbors and the city’s Design Review Commission prompted his firm to modify the design, making the building taller and narrower. They also moved it farther from the existing condos and added some landscaping elements to improve the view.

“There are some unhappy people still, we know that,” Hills said. “But we have tried to make it better rather than just throw something up and say too bad.”

The city in recent years looked closely at building height limits and set design rules for downtown as well as adjacent areas where older neighborhoods meet commercial zones.

“It’s a value that a community has to grapple with and it seems like Coeur d’Alene has grappled with it, and I don’t know if there’s a lot of interest in re-looking at it,” said Davis, who moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1978 and lives in the Fort Grounds neighborhood between downtown and North Idaho College.

“It would seem a little bit unfair at this point to say now that we have a handful of high-rises that nobody else can have one on their land,” he said.

‘Such a pretty town’

Though not exactly a building boom, the trend toward taller residential buildings in Coeur d’Alene is exemplified by the McEuen and Parkside towers, which overlook McEuen Field and Tubbs Hill.

“I don’t see it becoming a rush. These kinds of properties take time to fill up,” co-developer Monte Miller said.

The timing of the Miller Stauffer projects was a bit dicey. McEuen opened right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the Parkside was built in the throes of the recession.

Both buildings are fully occupied now, appealing to tenants drawn to the maintenance-free lifestyle, downtown conveniences and lake views, Miller said.

“A lot of the units have views of the lake on both sides of Tubbs Hill,” he said.

That’s what hooked Vickie Davis, who moved into the Parkside in 2009 after her husband died.

“It’s just an ever-changing view and it’s spectacular,” Davis said, adding that she can see Schweitzer Mountain and Mount Spokane on clear days, watch parades on Sherman Avenue and holiday fireworks displays over the lake, and clearly hear live music from downtown parks.

She sold a large house in Liberty Lake and moved into a three-bedroom condo on the 10th floor, which she shares with Napoleon and Oscar, her Chihuahua mixes.

“I just fell in love with being able to walk downtown, to walk to restaurants. It’s such a pretty town,” Davis said. “There’s just so much life.”

She has found condo living to be a closer-knit community than what she knew in suburban neighborhoods.

“I would tell everybody that this is really the only way to retire and live.”

Concentrating new residential development in the city’s core also is encouraging reinvestment in established neighborhoods surrounding downtown and the reinvigorated Midtown along Fourth Street, just north of downtown, Davis said.

“I think you’re seeing more and more young professionals look for that kind of housing as opposed to a subdivision out on the prairie,” he said.

The high-rise potential of downtown is not limitless, and city planners should strive to balance development with the public’s stake in the lake scenery that is the city’s precious commodity, Mary Lou Reed said.

“I think that there is a real consideration of sharing views and airspace that somehow needs to be addressed by the City Council,” she said, “so that we’re planning for the future rather than just letting it happen.”