Creating a cohesive and attractive downtown is the idea behind the new set of development guidelines, but there's a lot of wiggle room.
Last week, city council approved the first two readings of the new downtown development permit area guidelines.
The guidelines are the product of a 2010 council resolution in order to move forward on 2009's Smart Growth on the Ground downtown Prince George concept plan to revitalize the downtown core.
According to the concept plan, the area was envisioned as the "civic and cultural centre of Prince George, a downtown where lush streets and parks set the scene for thriving businesses and lively and livable neighbourhoods and where people of all kinds are attracted not just to visit but to live and invest."
The result is an outline of best practices for urban design that focus on promoting five design principles: make connections to make walking easy, make streets for people, define gateways, entrances and focal points, ensure climate-sensitive design and foster a unique identity and sense of place.
These principles can help to encourage more active streets where people feel safe walking around and storefronts that are more inviting, explained city planner Jesse Dill.
Before a new development permit is approved - including facade improvement to more than 20 per cent of the exterior area - city administration has to feel the development is generally consistent with the guidelines, Dill said.
But the planning department stressed that the guidelines are strictly that and not hard and fast rules about future development over the next 20 years.
When presented at the Aug. 27 meeting, councillors Brian Skakun and Cameron Stolz were concerned certain principles would stand in the way of projects such as the proposed 10-storey Wood Innovation Design Centre.
Acting director of planning and development Ian Wells said that development wouldn't run into any problems. "These are guidelines, they're not prescriptive," Wells said.
The guidelines are so comprehensive that inevitably not everything set out in the document is going to need to be met, said Dill.
"The guidelines can suggest certain heights or certain features, but can be flexible to the specific needs of the development," he added. "These are really design principles that still allow the architect or developer their freedom of expression."
Currently, any new development is held up to the commercial development permit guidelines, which are applicable to all new business development across the city.
The high-level language in those guidelines are made more specific to downtown use and the new document also includes photographs, illustrations and graphs to give a better understanding of the city is looking for.
Dill said the proposed guidelines have been positively received by the business community, who had some input during a stakeholder consultation process last fall.
Following that consultation, revisions were made, such as using less restrictive language (words such as "must" or "shall"). Other concerns such as increased cost considerations for materials that fit the suggested aesthetics were addressed by providing different design options and grouping them into categories - recommended, acceptable and discouraged.
A public hearing on the revised 48-page document goes at the Sept. 17 council meeting at 7 p.m.