Land use committee sends 820-bed student housing proposal to full council with zero votes of support

Last Wednesday (Aug. 28) the Bloomington city council’s four-member land use committee signaled its dissatisfaction with several aspects of a proposed 820-bed student-oriented housing development at the site of the current Motel 6 property on North Walnut.

Three members abstained from the vote (Allison Chopra, Steve Volan and Chris Sturbaum) and one voted outright no (Isabel Piedmont-Smith) on the committee’s recommendation.

The committee’s roll call left the proposal with no votes of support, as it heads to back to  the full council’s agenda. The full council will be considering the proposal as a second reading this Wednesday (Sept. 4).

Collegiate Development Group is requesting planned unit development zoning (PUD) for its site plan—that’s why it’s in front of the city council, even after receiving a recommendation of approval from the plan commission in mid-June. Zoning is enacted through ordinances, so PUDs have to go through the city council.

Part of the mix in the PUD proposal is a proposed donation to the city’s housing development fund of around $2.46 million, and the funding of an additional bus route in the Bloomington Transit fixed-route system.

PUD proposal

By its nature, the requested PUD zoning departs from the “commercial arterial” (CA) zoning that’s established for the area.  The maximums under CA zoning for impervious surface (60 percent), building height (50 feet), and density (15 dwelling units per acre) would all be exceeded by the project.

The project is proposed to have 70 percent impervious surface. The two buildings, ranging in height from 5 to 6 stories would reach 85 feet at their highest point. The density is 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.

The 3.85 acres also reflects a departure from standards for PUD zoning, which requires a minimum gross area of five acres. It’s a requirement that can be waived.

The proposal also includes at least 6,000 square feet of commercial space. The developer is planning to offer fully furnished units. The building will also contain parking structure with at least 410 spaces. Based on the range of 0.5–0.75 spaces per bedroom, the number of parking spaces could go as high as 615.

The price points for the units described at meetings of the land use committee were around $800 per bedroom for a four-bedroom unit and $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit.

Between the first and second meetings of the land use committee, CDG took the committee’s suggestion to remove the parking spaces in front of the building and slide the building towards Walnut Street. Setbacks were also increased.

Housing fund donation: Pay to play?

CDG is proposing to donate to the city’s housing development fund $20,000 per bed for 15 percent of the total beds on the property, which would work out to $2.46 million if 820 bedrooms are built. Asked in late July for insight into the $20,000 and the 15 percent that are a part of the formula, CDG’s Brandt Stiles said CDG had followed city staff’s guidance, and directed The Beacon to Bloomington city staff. The city’s planning director Terri Porter did not respond to an emailed query about the formula.

At the land use committee’s first hearing on the PUD on Aug. 7, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith said:

We have to separate the land use question from the question of a donation to our affordable housing fund. We do not want to engage in “pay to play.” So I’m just separating that right here. I have to look at the building, the project as proposed, and whether it would provide a public benefit. I don’t believe it would. I think it would provide expensive student housing, which we already have plenty of.

Porter took the podium at the start of last Wednesday’s land use committee meeting  to object to Piedmont-Smith’s use of the term, “pay to play.” Porter said that it implied that the planning and transportation would approve a project only because developers voluntarily agreed to contribute money to that fund, which would violate the code of ethics that they’re sworn to as AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) certified planners.

Piedmont responded later in the meeting by saying:

There is a perception of pay-to-play. I mean, I hear it, I think it’s out there. I do not think that our planning department or its staff members are unethical in any way. I think they have high integrity, as does the mayor. But … it’s easy to see why people think that, because we have proposals that vary broadly from our current UDO that are getting approved that have this component of a donation to our affordable housing fund.

Campus versus City

At Wednesday’s land use committee meeting,  Councilmember Steve Volan said the term “pay to play” misses the point. He advocated for integrating more than one type of housing into a project—as opposed to focusing exclusively on one type of housing. Along those lines, Volan pointed towards a possible change he’d like to make in the draft Unified Development Ordinance that is currently in front of Bloomington’s plan commission:

…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. 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…

He was following up on a sentiment he’d expressed at the first land use committee meeting:

I object even more vehemently to the very notion that we’re about to adopt … a land use called student-oriented housing. I absolutely oppose this idea, I do not want to expand the bad habits that IU has and that every college has in building campuses. I do not want my city to become a campus, and I fervently believe that affordable housing can be intermixed with student housing on this site. I also believe that not everyone who’ll rent here is necessarily going to be a student. If you gave people a choice you would have five maybe ten percent non-students, would want to live in a project like…

A lack of connection of the project site to the city generally, as opposed to just university buildings, was a part of the critique offered during public commentary by Greg Alexander. CDG is offering to eliminate the sidewalk gap north of 19th Street on Walnut. There is no plan for the project to address a different gap, south of 19th Street, Alexander said: “There is a sidewalk gap between the project and the city and I think that’s the sort of thing you guys really, really need to know.”

Bus route

As part of the proposal, CDG is offering to pay for the cost of running an additional public bus route from the project site down to the university campus area. At the first meeting of the land use committee, councilmember Steve Volan drew out the fact that it would mean a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Bloomington Transit’s general manager Lew May was on hand at Wednesday’s meeting, and he confirmed that he’d had conversations with CDG about the topic. The kind of service that they’d talked about would be every 30-minutes, May said.

Volan said at the committee’s first meeting that the funding of such a route would be “one of the biggest reasons why I would say yes to a project like this,…”

The duration of the agreement to fund a bus route was a topic that committee members wanted more information about.

CDG’s representative said that there was really no choice but to come to the table with Bloomington Transit—it was one of the conditions the plan commission had placed on its approval of the site plan.

Plan Commission conditions

The conditions that the plan commission placed on its approval were the following:

  1. Final development plan approval must be reviewed by the Plan Commission.
  2. The petitioner must coordinate with Bloomington Transit on the incorporation of a shuttle pick-up and potential shuttle service.
  3.  The petitioner will provide the sidewalk connection along Walnut Street that connects to 19th Street.
  4. A zoning commitment regarding the contribution to the Housing Development Fund must be recorded within 90 days of Council approval.
  5. A bus shelter is required along this property frontage.

The land use committee’s report to the full council indicates that committee members might yet propose “reasonable conditions,” which can be placed on a PUD proposal.

Committee Concerns

The report filed by the committee with the full council includes as “concerns” the following:

  • a lack of green features such as solar panels, a green roof, or composting;
  • the use of cementitious panels on exterior as insufficiently long-lived solution;
  • alack of specificity regarding final parking ratio;
  • the nature of commitment to an amount of the permanent annual budget for a proposed new bus line;
  • the actual linear footage of off-site sidewalk to be built or repaired

What’s next?

Land use committee members are free to vote as they see fit when the nine-member council as a whole considers the proposal.

The council could continue the matter on Wednesday without a vote, for another week. But the council faces a kind of deadline of Sept. 16 for some action. That’s the end of the 90-day timeframe after which the plan commission’s recommendation for approval was filed.

No action by the council within 90 days would mean the proposal is approved by default.