Zoning for 750-bed student complex gets OK, after local lawmakers relent

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Proposed planned unit development (PUD) zoning for a 750-bed student housing project on North Walnut Street, at the site of the current Motel 6, is now approved after a special meeting of the Bloomington City council on Monday night.

Responding to a question from The Beacon after the meeting, St. Louis-based Collegiate Development Group’s Brandt Stiles said construction is planned to start in July 2020, and the first tenants are expected to be able to move in by August 2022.

The council had defeated the proposed PUD zoning 12 days earlier with a vote of 3-5-1. Those five votes against the project on the nine-member council were enough to reject it on Sept. 4, after the city’s plan commission had recommended it unanimously.

Of the five previous no votes on the city council, two changed to yes—Steve Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith’s. Changing his vote from abstention to a yes was Chris Sturbaum. So the PUD zoning was approved on a 5-3 tally. Possibly adding a sixth to the yes side would have been Allison Chopra, who voted for the PUD on Sept. 4. She was absent from Monday’s meeting.

Voting no were Dave Rollo, Dorothy Granger and Andy Ruff.

Achieving clarity in writing about various concessions offered by CDG, through “reasonable conditions,” proved to be persuasive enough to add the three yes votes.

Those conditions included: sliding the building to the west nearer Walnut Street; creating a plaza in place of parking in front of the building, with two pedestrian access points to the plaza; removal of one floor from the east building; 50 solar panels generating a total of 20kW; a 20,000 square-foot green roof; parking offered to tenants only on an a-la-carte basis; $300,000 worth of sidewalk improvements on Walnut, and from Walnut to Dunn on 19th Street; funding of a Bloomington Transit route five miles long (around $130,000 a year); and adding additional brick to the facade.

Also a part of the project is a donation to the city’s housing development fund of more than $2 million.

The three councilmembers in opposition to the project did not exploit a chance they had towards the beginning of the meeting to end the proceedings early, and let the council’s Sept. 4 vote stand. That’s because the motion to suspend the rules, in order to bring back the question, needed a two-thirds majority, which is six votes on the nine-member council.

Had all three voted against suspending the rules, the motion, in Chopra’s absence, would fallen short of the six votes it needed. If that vote had failed, the next motion would have been to adjourn.

During the meeting, Rollo said that as a councilmember he might have voted against suspending the rules, but as president of the council, he wanted to allow the council’s majority to prevail on the merits of the project, which he understood to be in favor. After the meeting, Ruff called the decision to treat as separate issues the motion to suspend the rules and the vote on the project itself the “right thing to do.”

PUD Zoning

The PUD zoning approved by the city council departs from the “commercial arterial” (CA) zoning that’s established for the area—it’s the nature of such PUD zoning. The maximums under CA zoning for impervious surface (60 percent), building height (50 feet), and density (15 dwelling units per acre) will all be exceeded by the project.

The new zoning has a maximum of 70 percent impervious surface. The two buildings, ranging originally in height from five to six stories would reach 85 feet at their highest point. The density was originally proposed at 77 dwelling unit equivalents (DUEs) per acre. That figure comes from applying a weighting scheme to the mix of 158 four-bedroom, 76 two-bedroom, 2 one-bedroom units and 34 micro-studios planned for the 3.85 acres of the site.

A reduction in bedroom count, from 820 to 750, reduced the density to 70 DUEs per acre—still 55 DUEs per acre more than allowed under CA zoning.

The 3.85 acres also reflects a departure from standards for PUD zoning, which requires a minimum gross area of five acres.

Three votes against PUD

The council’s president, Dave Rollo, stuck with his no vote on Monday. He said Bloomington residents have grown tired of large, monolithic, architecturally uninspired student housing.

Dorothy Granger said she understood that the owner of the Motel 6 property was anxious to sell and that it’s valuable property. Bloomington needs additional housing, but what is needed is affordable housing, Granger said. She is concerned about students for whom the project is not affordable. “Nobody talks about the students who can’t afford this project,” she said. CDG put its planned pricing for the units, which will be fully furnished, at around $800 per bedroom for a four-bedroom unit and $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit.

Andy Ruff said the arguments on both sides were legitimate. He said there’s a lot of valid arguments about the site being a good place for higher density—it’s not in the core neighborhoods of the city. But he said it’s also possible to argue that it’s not a good place for higher density—the only thing that will build up around it is other projects like it. Ruff had concerns that various community benefits, like sidewalks and a bus route, were possible only because of the sheer scale of the development.

Arguments against, based on comprehensive plan

Garry Founds, attorney for adjoining property owners (University Properties LLC and The Hamptons Bloomington LLC, addressed the council at their Sept. 4 meeting, raising questions about the project’s proximity to the campus.

In a July 31 letter, Founds says the project has been portrayed by city planning staff as supporting the goals of the comprehensive plan because it:

…addresses the goals of diversifying the location of student oriented housing that is not in the downtown. The proposed location is adjacent to goods and services, within walking distance, to IU facilities, and is surrounded by student oriented housing.

In his letter, Founds contrasts the planning staff’s characterization with a quote from the city’s comprehensive plan:

Redirect student-oriented housing developments away from the Downtown and nearby areas, and toward more appropriate locations closely proximate to the IU campus that already contain a relatively high percentage of student-oriented housing units, are within easy walking distance to the campus…

Founds writes in his letter that the property is “not within easy walking distance of the campus…”

The distance from the campus is a point that councilmember Steve Volan made at a meeting of the council’s land use committee: “This project is 1.7 miles from the Wells Library it’s an equal 1.7 miles from the law school, and yet it’s effectively an extension of the campus. The only upside to that is that at least it’s not IU building the dorm…”

In an email to the council, Founds aked whether councilmember Jim Sims had a potential conflict of interest in voting on the PUD, because of the developer’s proposed donation of more than $2 million to the city’s housing development fund. Jim Sims is married to Doris Sims, who is the head of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development (HAND) department. Under the ordinance establishing the fund, HAND administers it.

Based on council meeting minutes, at a Feb. 21, 2018 meeting, Sims recused himself on a vote to distribute CDGB funds (federal grants) to the HAND department.

The Beacon asked Sims before Monday’s meeting about the similarity or difference between that situation and the donation from CDG to the housing development fund.  Sims told The Beacon he had not been required to recuse himself from the 2018 vote. But he’d done so, because he was new to the council—he was appointed in late 2017 to replace Tim Mayer, who resigned—and was somewhat uncertain about what to do. But he thought at the time it was best to recuse himself, he said. The money in the housing development fund does not go towards staff salaries, Sims said.

At the start of Monday’s special meeting, Sims gave a statement declaring the potential conflict and his belief that he could participate fairly in the vote. The council accepted his statement with a unanimous voice vote.

ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT

Helping to persuade councilmembers to vote for the project were several aspects of the project—including a public bus route, to be paid for by the developer, and solar panels.

Even for councilmembers who voted against the proposal on Sept. 4, a consensus view was that Collegiate Development Group had been responsive to feedback from staff and the council’s land use committee. By the time the proposal reached the council on Sept. 4, the bedroom count had been trimmed from 820 to 750. The reduced number of bedrooms was a result of slicing the top floor off one of the buildings.

Based on the formula used by CDG to calculate its contribution to the city’s housing development fund, the bedroom reduction dropped the amount from $2.46 million to $2.25 million.

Other project features, which the council saw for the first time on Sept. 4, included the addition of a 2,000 square foot green roof and 50 solar panels that could generate 20kW of power—for common areas and the 457-space parking structure that was a part of the development.

Between the first and second hearings of CDG’s proposal by the land use committee, parking in front of the building was eliminated in favor of a plaza for outside seating, and the building was moved closer to North Walnut Street. Removing some parking, to nudge the building closer to the street, was also suggestion from the land use committee.

Several aspects of the project that councilmembers had found persuasive were made a part of “reasonable conditions” placed upon the project. The conditions included a provision that the developer commit to funding to a 5-mile-long Bloomington Transit bus route with a bus running every 30 minutes, during the IU academic school year, 12 hours a day Mondays through Thursdays and 10 hours a day on Fridays.

At a meeting of the council’s land use committee, Volan said he saw the bus route as “one of the biggest reasons why I would say yes to a project like this,…” At the same time, Volan was sharply critical of the project’s approach to student housing, which separates students from the rest of the city.

At a meeting of the land use committee he said:

…so many people in this room and who think about projects like this, do not seem to realize that this is the willful separation of students from the rest of the city. I deplore the student housing zoning idea, and I’m going to be fighting against it in the UDO, looking to remove it. Dorms treat students like children and that is not what we want for our city, in my opinion.

On Monday, Piedmont-Smith said she appreciated the sliding of the building closer to Walnut Street and the creation of a plaza—it was a step towards making Walnut the kind of street someone might want to walk down, she said. She appreciated the sustainable features, like solar panels and a green roof, even if they were not a large part of the project. What she is most excited about is the funding of a Bloomington Transit route, she said, calling it a “revolutionary way to fund transit” for a developer to make a commitment to pay for the bus route.

Piedmont-Smith said she voted no on Sept. 4—many of the changes were presented the same day, and she didn’t have much time to review them. She’d had time to reflect on the concessions and continued to have conversations with people in core neighborhoods who don’t like the idea of making their neighborhoods denser. This project is a better place for higher density, Piedmont-Smith said.

PROCEDURE

It was Volan’s vote on Sept. 4 that gave the PUD a decisive rejection. The idea of a definitive rejection, with five votes against, was important—because the PUD proposal had a positive recommendation from the city’s plan commission. Failing to achieve five votes, for or against, would have meant a non-action by the council. Non-action within 90 days of the plan commission’s certified recommendation would have resulted in approval of the PUD by default.

But the Sept. 4 vote was fraught with procedural uncertainty.

As the roll call on the question of adoption proceeded that night, Volan tried to raise a point of order when the roll call reached him—he wanted the council to consider a motion to postpone, not one to adopt.

At that stage in the roll call, the tally stood 1–4. When he had no choice but to vote, Volan joined those voting against the proposal, which put him on the majority’s side, giving him the right to bring a motion that same night for reconsideration, without suspending any rule. But on Sept. 4, Volan wound up withdrawing his motion to reconsider.

At Monday’s meeting, Volan said it took an hour of discussion with the council’s attorney after the Sept. 4 meeting and all of the next day to sort out what should have happened that night.

Given the procedural cloud, it was not unexpected that the council might try to reconsider the PUD vote. Because the motion for reconsideration at Monday’s special meeting was not made at the same meeting when the initial vote was taken, it required suspension of the rules, which requires six votes.

Going into Monday’s special meeting, Volan and Sturbaum could have been pegged as likely yes votes, on the procedure and the project. Volan’s no vote on Sept. 4 was tactical, and Sturbaum’s abstention was good as a yes vote that night—because of the plan commission’s recommendation. Piedmont-Smith was a likely yes vote, at least on the procedural issue, given that she was one of the three councilmembers who initiated the special meeting.

The others who joined to call a special meeting were Volan and Sandberg. A special meeting can be called by the council president, the mayor—or a group of three councilmembers. In his nearly 30 years of service as the council’s attorney/administrator Dan Sherman told The Beacon he couldn’t recall a previous occasion when a special meeting had been called using the option of three councilmembers.

Voting Chart

Here’s a color-coded chart of the votes on Sept. 4 and Sept. 16:

Motion Sturbaum Granger Chopra Rollo Piedmont-Smith Volan Ruff Sandberg Sims
Sept. 4: adopt PUD
as proposed | 3–5–1 fail
pass no yes no no no no yes yes
Sept. 16 : adopt structure of debate | 8-0 pass yes yes absent yes yes yes yes yes yes
Sept. 16: suspend the council rules  |8–0 pass yes yes absent yes yes yes yes yes yes
Sept. 16: reconsider the motion 7–1 pass yes  yes  absent yes yes  yes no  yes  yes
Sept. 16 adopt  rsnble condition | 8–0 pass yes  yes  absent yes  yes  yes yes yes yes
 Sept. 16 adopt PUD w/ conditions | 5–3 pass yes  no  absent  no  yes yes no  yes  yes 

 

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