Essay: 3.5 units per acre in Garden Hill

Last year, Garden Hill’s neighborhood association was born again.

I watched it happen. Garden Hill is the neighborhood south of the Stadium and north of the tracks. At least, it used to be a “neighborhood”; for decades, it has been overrun by student rentals, perhaps 95% or more, due to its proximity to IU. The trend finally reversed itself in 2004, when Smallwood Tower Bloc Plaza opened. Students, many of whom are from faraway, well-to-do suburbs, are generally looking for New. Smallwood and its ilk were New. Housing stock in Garden HIll is definitely not New any more, so students began moving away and some of that housing has become owner-occupied.

Anyway, the GHNA was reborn in a dispute between GH residents and the Friedman family, owners of Omega Properties, who were proposing a mixed-use building on the northeast corner of 16th and Walnut. The neighborhood united in its opposition to the project, and, after many months and multiple meetings of the Board of Zoning Appeals, prevailed. Although they were not of one mind as to the reasons, their most significant objections were the number of variances requested (at least 7), the density of tenants, and parking (both too much and not enough…a thorny issue to be untangled in some other post).

I’m glad Garden Hill has an active association again. A neighborhood needs to speak up for itself, otherwise it’ll continue to be the victim of egregious problems like Red Lot tailgating.

The defeat of the project was too bad, though. If more new apartment buildings are going to be targeted to students, Omega’s proposal was the way they should be built: multi-story, on a commercial street with little setback, mixed-use (first-floor retail), and so on. Omega builds very good urbanist projects, and buildings like this help take the tremendous pressure of IU student demand off of nearby single-family housing stock.

But the most interesting thing that came out of the 16th and Walnut debate was a revelation to me: it’s not density that generates noise in a student housing district…it’s the density of the units within that housing.

Jenny Southern, a member of the BZA, said in one of the hearings that in her experience as president of the Elm Heights NA, another neighborhood adjacent to IU, 5BR units were the worst offenders when it came to noise and partying, 4BRs almost as bad. 3BRs you didn’t hear from so much, and by the time you got to 2BRs and below, you didn’t hear a peep out of them.

But our zoning code encourages 5BR units — the ones that generate the most complaints about noise.

Say you have a proposal on land that allows 3.5 units per acre, a typical figure in the central part of Bloomington. Our code says that for development purposes:

  • a 5BR, 4BR or 3BR counts as 1 development unit (D.U.)
  • a 2BR of < 950 SF counts as 2/3 D.U.
  • a 1BR of < 700 SF counts as 1/2 D.U.

Developers naturally calculate the maximum allowable occupancy on their properties. Some then claim that they could build X bedrooms, so they should be given a variance — sometimes to build whatever else they want — or else they’ll just build “by-right.”

In the case of this project, zoned at 3.5 units, the developer could have built 16 bedrooms: three 5BR units and one 1BR. They asked for 14 bedrooms — two 4BR and two 3BR units — and sought a variance for an extra one-half D.U. The neighborhood, finding the project too dense in general, objected to the variance, some saying they wanted at most 12 bedrooms. But four 3BR units would have required the same variance, and three 4BR units would be more likely to cause a noise problem.

Let’s say the developer wanted to build seven 2BR units. No parties to worry about there…but that would require 4 2/3 D.U.! A greater apparent variance than 14 bedrooms in four units as originally proposed.

This is the measure that must change. Developers tell me that 5BRs and the like are the most in-demand unit size among students. It can’t be because they save money on rent. Prices in Smallwood are no lower per person in 4BR units than in 2BRs.

No, long-time residents of Bloomington are more than happy to have students in town. But we don’t have to encourage housing types that encourage them to disturb the peace. Most students like peace and quiet, too.



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