Bloomington city council OKs rezoning to make way for bigger student housing project

Aerial view from Monroe County GIS system of the Brownstone Terrace in spring 2020.
Aerial view from Monroe County GIS system of the Brownstone Terrace in spring 2020.

On Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city council cleared the way for a new 1,072-bedroom residential project a few blocks south of Indiana University’s football stadium.

It would allow for the replacement of the predominantly student-rented Brownstone Terrace with an even larger student-oriented development called The Standard. Brownstone Terrace consists of two-story buildings with a total of 120 apartments. The Standard would include 433 apartments in five- and six-story buildings and a parking garage with 681 spaces.

What the city council did on Wednesday night was approve a rezoning request, from planned unit development (PUD) to a new zoning classification in the recently adopted unified development ordinance (UDO), which is mixed-use student housing (MS).

The rezoning had been recommended by Bloomington’s plan commission on a unanimous vote.  Now that the city council has approved the zoning, the site plan can go in front of the plan commission for approval.

Based on the timeline provided by the developer, Landmark Properties, the major site plan review will be submitted before the end of the year and could be in front of the plan commission in January or February. From March to July, a grading permit review will be sought, with construction slated to start in July 2021. The project is expected to be complete by August 2023.

The tally on the city council on Wednesday night was 8–1, with dissent from Steve Volan, who cited some benefits to the project before voting against it. “It’s definitely going to have an effect on the demand for housing in single-family neighborhoods that I think non-student residents are going to appreciate,” Volan said.

Along with other councilmembers, Volan cited as a benefit the 15 percent of bedrooms that Landmark Properties has committed to providing at affordable levels, based on standard median income guidelines.

For Volan, the two deal breakers were: too big a parking garage; and a lack of funding for public transit.

The parking garage, which the the middle one of the three buildings arranged in an east-west line, would include 681 spaces, which makes for a 0.63 space/bedroom ratio. The maximum ratio allowed by zoning code is 0.75. “Why couldn’t we have gotten it down to 0.5?” Volan asked?

The Collegiate Development Group’s project north of The Standard, which was approved last year and is currently under construction at the site of the old Motel 6 on Walnut Street, is making a roughly $130,000 annual commitment to funding a new bus route. Volan said that should have revised expectations for future projects.

“We had what I thought was a new standard for projects this big, let alone the biggest project ever to be built in the city,” Volan said. The CDG project, previously the largest, includes 750 bedrooms.

The city council could not impose a condition on the rezoning for The Standard, for the developer to make a contribution to Bloomington Transit for bus service. That’s because the requested rezoning was to a standard district—mixed-use student housing (MS), as opposed to a planned unit development (PUD). The CDG project at the site of the old Motel 6 was a PUD.

The plan commission included in its recommendation a requirement related to public transit, which requires The Standard to coordinate with Bloomington Transit, if the project decides to offer any kind of shuttle service. Under the commitment, The Standard can’t operate its own private shuttle.

One argument that planning staff gave for granting the rezoning request is that the existing PUD is part of an area that is proposed to be rezoned soon to MS anyway. That’s a part of a general zoning map revision process that’s coming after last year’s adoption of a new unified development ordinance (UDO). A revised zoning map proposal will likely land at the plan commission in the second half of January.

The zoning map revision process drew a couple dozen speakers during general public comment time on Wednesday, most of whom objected to a possible text amendment that would allow plexes in residential areas where they aren’t currently allowed.

Concerns that councilmembers had about The Standard, which would tear down buildings constructed just around 40 years ago, included the idea of the lost embedded energy in the existing buildings. It was a point raised by councilmember Matt Flaherty during last week’s land use committee meeting on the rezoning request.

Dave Rollo, who’s not a member of the committee, touched on the same topic on Wednesday. “We’re razing 40-year-old buildings, and we’re redeveloping the site. Was there any discussion about the longevity of this structure?” A representative from the developer put the lifespan of the new structure at 100 to 150 years based on modern building standards. Rollo responded, “Well, that would be a really an improvement. Because we’re concerned about sustainability.”

Some of the concerns that councilmembers expressed during the land use committee meeting got responses in the form of written commitments from the developer, provided in a meeting packet addendum, including one commitment related to the sustainability of the project.

Landmark Properties says it will get National Green Building Standard Silver certification. Councilmember Piedmont-Smith thanked the developer for that commitment, and hoped they would treat that as a minimum and perhaps pursue Gold level certification.

Another written commitment that responded to a committee concern is a promise to include commercial space, probably on the western side of the project. During the committee meeting, some members had a concern that a sole use as student housing did not seem to fit the zoning district label, which is mixed-use student housing. The explanation from senior zoning planner Eric Greulich was that the zoning district encompasses a mix of uses, but that not every project had to include a mix of uses.

One of the approaches that Landmark Properties takes to developments—it’s a significant player in the national student rental market—is to offer free housing to a police officer. That was seen as a benefit by councilmembers, because they see it as important that police officers live in the communities they police. Currently, just 15 percent of sworn Bloomington officers live inside the city limits.

During public comment time, Nathan Muechler offered a counterpoint to that perceived benefit: “I would just like to remind this body that embedding a police officer in a residential neighborhood doesn’t make everybody feel safer.” He added, “I bet putting a mental health worker or a social worker or a doctor in that free housing that is subsidized by the developers, and thus by you and me, might better serve the community.” During her public comment time, Nicole Johnson echoed Muechler’s sentiments.

Piedmont-Smith responded to the public commentary by saying, “I thank the members of the public for reminding us that a police officer housed next door is not always a good thing, depending on who you are.” She added, “But I think we also have a situation with our police where they often can’t afford to live in the city limits. So they become kind of outsiders policing city residents, and that’s not good either.”

2 thoughts on “Bloomington city council OKs rezoning to make way for bigger student housing project

  1. Note that the new Bloomington Transit route plan (which has been put on hold for the pandemic) eliminates bus service along 14th Street.

  2. Can’t wait to see the headline “Bloomington city council OKs rezoning to make way for bigger homeless housing project.”

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