Already much has been said about the housing complex on Bishop and Johnson in Pullman. My good colleagues in this column, Terence Day and William Brock, have advocated against it or at least a portion of it, calling on the city to hold its ground against granting variances to expand the project beyond what zoning codes allow. More on that later.

But for now there is another angle worth noting. It has to do with context and the wisdom of placing a 13-story building, accommodating almost 300 apartments, on a site otherwise characterized by low lying commercial buildings. And at an intersection largely defined by rural distances. From afar, matters seem weird and out of line but get a little closer and something of a sign begins to emerge, a reason, if you will, for the madness underway. It can be seen in a response to a “finding of fact” question.

Is the proposed project “compatible with surrounding land uses,” it asks. To which the developer gives the following answer: “the current area surrounding the project is a variety of uses, ranging from detached multi unit apartment building, 1 story commercial buildings and nonconforming residential C3 zoned plots. The variety of buildings uses and typologies does not place limits that hinder the proposed project.”

This is a deadpan way of saying the developer should be held to no contextual standard because the city has provided none. And the developer is right. Bishop is a hideous mess, a collection of buildings and spaces that have neither rhyme nor reason together. What one building does the next denies, a slapstick comedy of hilarious formal nonsequiturs. No sooner does one structure rise than the next kicks out of alignment and with it civility’s basic reliance on continuity.

And so the developer does what the city tells him it is fine to do. Which in this case is to “elevate” and do whatever he wants to maximize profit, including a bland design that reflects little or no attention to roof scape, window pattern or indoor-outdoor spaces. If the hospital, the retirement center and hotel down the street can do what they want, why not he? What would propel him to do otherwise, namely enter into a positive and selfless contribution to city improvement? It would indeed be unfair to allow one developer to engage in random and aesthetically careless design but not the next.

Beyond zoning and setback restrictions the city has little or nothing to show in the way of pointing out critical planning and living aspirations. Where other cities may provide a potential developer with a master plan, including conceptual renderings, illustrating ideal and well-sought-after spatial relations, here we are limited to dry numbers and mind-numbing narratives, leaving residents and stakeholder to fixate on travel times and other such fears.

Increased traffic should be a welcome sign that our city is growing and seeing an influx of new people. But in the absence of a promising picture through which we may see ourselves merge with an active and engaged life, healthy and connected, we inevitably recoil from talks about change. Instead, we dwell on car trips and parking spots, which while important should never become the driving motive for advancing the future of our city. We really should be celebrating new interventions that can help make our lives more integrated and happy, allowing us to walk, talk and play in ways that honor our mutual reliances.

Included in the fun should be our approach to variances. Day and Brock, mentioned above, are right in lamenting transgressions in this regard but only insofar that we don’t have a strong template from which to deviate intelligently and indeed critically. Had we had one we would have been able and willing to at least debate the degree to which variances are necessary and important. We should never be automatically deaf to hearing proposals about difference, even a 13-story building or for that matter a 50, but those changes can be terrifying in the absence of an established plan. No Vancouver, Portland or Paris would have been possible and exciting without keen variances.

Yes we need a new plan for downtown but also a coherent vision for our remaining public-private spaces. This need not be confining or authoritarian in scope and purpose but simple and clear enough to allow a common platform on which to make informed and accurate decisions. We should reject “Elevate at Pullman” as it currently stands but more importantly use its controversy to elevate our own planning standards.

Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.

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