The commission also recommended on a 4-3 vote that the city’s parking requirements be modified to allow only one half space for every residential unit.
“What we’re talking about is somewhat an academic discussion and policy discussion about the direction of West Main and where that’s headed from a density-and-parking ratio standpoint,” said L.J. Lopez, representing Heirloom LLC.
The building would be constructed around the Blue Moon Diner and a convenience store next door.
The Board of Architectural Review signaled last year they would not grant a demolition permit to remove those structures, so the developers have come up with a plan that incorporates them.
Heirloom LLC has asked for a special use permit for up to 200 dwelling units per acre. However, no specific plan was submitted for how many units would be built and what type they would be.
By-right development there can have a density of up to 43 units per acre. That would allow only a maximum of 15 units on the site, according to principal planner Brian Haluska.
“The West Main East corridor is intended to be developed as a mixed-use corridor with a high reliance on pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure,” Haluska said. “The [parking] modification requested by the applicant is in keeping with the city’s vision for the corridor.”
The commission’s discussion largely focused on the parking request rather than the density.
“There is a robust debate in the planning world regarding the role parking requirements play in hindering the development of vital urban spaces,” Haluska said. “The requirement of on-site parking for residential units makes those units more attractive to renters that own cars and want to house them on site.”
Haluska said the cost to rent a micro-unit would increase if it was required to have a parking space.
“Structured parking is a cost and it affects the housing cost where it is built,” Haluska said.
Lopez said the transportation options on West Main Street make it an ideal location for people who don’t want to own cars.
“What we’ve proposed is what we think the market is looking for, given the demographic of the potential residential tenant in this building,” he said.
Lopez said young professionals would be the target demographic.
“We’ve got a growing biotech and technology and incubator innovation sector,” Lopez said.
During the public hearing, one citizen said the needs of other demographics, such as seniors and working-class families, should also be considered.
“We should also not neglect the fact that there are still people who are facing housing challenges every day,” said Nancy Carpenter. “Sometimes we have to look beyond the dollars and cents and look at the nuts and bolts of having affordable units dedicated to certain parts of our city residents.”
One resident was opposed to the parking waiver.
“Those cars will be warehoused in our neighborhood,” said Starr Hill resident Pat Edwards. “They will have their bicycles and they will ride the bikes to work, but they will park their cars and come and get them on the weekends.”
That argument resonated with several planning commissioners.
“We say we want to be a walkable city and we want to be a city that is pedestrian-friendly, but I don’t see a reduction in automobiles,” said commission Chairman John Santoski. “I think, when we hear from folks who live in the neighborhoods, that the reality of it has not caught up with where we think the theory is going yet. “
Other commissioners were receptive to modifying the parking requirement.
“I’m not necessarily ready to say that the developer is going to bring a lot more affordability if they don’t have to do the parking, but there is a hidden cost there,” said Kurt Keesecker.
Other commissioners said this might lead to the creation of more restricted parking zones which would inconvenience existing residents who would need to pay the city for a permit to park on their own street.
“Why should I have to incur an expense because someone else doesn’t pay for that expense?” Taneia Dowell asked. “Somebody is going to pick up the cost of parking either way.”
Commissioner Genevieve Keller is a landlord who has previously given discounts to tenants who don’t have cars.
“In my experience people have come and been happy to be downtown where they can walk and don’t have to have a car but by the second semester or second year I get an email asking what they need to do to get a parking permit,” said Keller.
“I think we exact some cost on the adjacent neighborhood if we don’t have some provision for parking in this building,” she said, adding she did not think the Planning Commission did not have information to take a vote.
However, Mayor Mike Signer pointed out that there are many more technological advances coming such as driverless cars.
“There will be more assets for someone living without a car in this city in five or ten years than they have today, especially if we were to be intentional about it,” Signer said.
“I do believe that Mayor Signer is correct and we’ll have these changes but the neighborhoods that are there now will definitely feel an impact for the next ten years if we don’t require some parking,” Keller said.
At the end of the hearing, Lopez dropped a request to exempt units smaller than 550 square feet. He also said he could reduce the density.
“We’d be amenable to cap at 180 units per acre and let that number decide the number of maximum units,” Lopez said.
City Council recently approved a rezoning on West Main that removed the ability for developers to ask for additional height. At the time, they also reached consensus to increase the by-right unit count to 200 dwelling units per acre. However, that change will need to go through the planning commission for a recommendation.
Commissioners will hold a joint work session May 26 to discuss the rezoning.