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Published February 29th, 2012
Planning Commission Weighs Balloons vs. Poles
By Cathy Tyson
Photosimulation courtesy of KB Home for proposed Town Center III project.

How best to erect story poles on a constrained lot? Just behind Panda Express is a one and a half acre gravel BART overflow parking lot. Although it doesn't look like much now, after a long, complicated history current developer KB Home has proposed a five story, eighty-one unit apartment complex for the site. Back in August of 2010, story poles were determined to be required when an official application for this project was submitted.
"The problem is the guy wires, that's why they are proposing this alternative," said Lafayette Senior Planner Christine Sinnette at a recent Planning Commission meeting explaining the rationale behind balloons. While it's not unusual to have story poles for neighbors and city staff to get a sense of how tall a second story home addition will be, because the proposed building is approximately seventy feet tall - the poles, either wood or metal, would need a substantial amount of support and anchoring to keep them steady. In researching the project, KB Home found only one construction company, Swinerton, that has ever erected story poles that tall using wood. After reviewing the plans a Swinerton representative commented, "I do not see how we can do it with conventional wood story poles."
Jeb Bennett, Project Manager for KB Homes, outlined his firm's preference for using large helium balloons and anchoring them with ropes to keep them in place on a non-windy day.KB proposes using commercial grade balloons, three to five feet in diameter with pennant tape to illustrate roof lines, along with staking the building perimeter. The big wildcard is the weather—if it’s too windy, it’s not going to work.
“After researching how to erect story poles, KB Home has determined that traditional methods are both unsafe and impractical for Town Center Phase III,” said Bennett in a letter to the Planning Department. The site is surrounded by buildings and the poles could fall over, possibly causing injury or damage. The balloons, coupled with sophisticated photo simulations, KB feels, will adequately illustrate the height, bulk and mass of the proposed project.
While the Planning Commission will still have design input into the project, the City Council has substantially vetted the project through a number of hearings and generally agreed upon the bulk and mass, said Sinnette. Heller Manus, the architect of the project, has already made some substantial changes after receiving feedback. The proposed project will be approximately as tall as the adjacent shingled apartments.
This proposed development is the remaining third of a deal the City made with Lafayette Town Center Associates to redevelop almost five acres downtown more than a dozen years ago. Phases I and II were built, but there was a conflict about Town Center III. The City entered into a Settlement Agreement to resolve a dispute in May of 2006 about the Development Agreement signed years earlier.
Public hearings are slated to begin soon and the required California Environmental Quality Act review, better known as CEQA is almost complete – an analysis of environmental impacts and mitigation plans.
Planning Commissioners weren’t completely sold on the duration of the balloon concept, especially KB’s proposal to have the balloons up for only one day for viewing. No decision was made on balloons versus poles at the meeting. Instead a decision was continued until a future Planning Commission meeting, probably March 19, 2012.


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