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Bloomington Plan Commission Reviews Proposal for Student Housing Complex

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The Bloomington Plan Commission agreed last night to proceed slowly and carefully in its review of a proposed student housing complex planned for the 300 and 400 blocks of East Third Street downtown. The project is being proposed by Annex Student Living, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis-based Mecca Companies. The site plan calls for two, five-story buildings providing more than 14 thousand square feet of retail space on the ground floors, and three stories of residential units above. As he explained how he hoped the new complex would look, developer Steve Brehob (BREE-hobb) showed an image of south Grant street, near Restaurant Row.

“The common element in this view of Grant Street that jumps out at me is landscaping in the right-of-way, patio areas in the right-of-way, and sidewalk entries going up to each of these businesses. The sidewalk entries, the landscaping, the patios-That’s the result of all of these being residences at one time that have now been converted to businesses. So, that’s what we wanted to try to replicate.”

Attorney Kevin Robling spoke on behalf of  the developers, saying they have a commitment to diverse, affordable housing.

“What does diverse mean? Diverse means that we’re going to have market share housing, and we’re also going to have affordable housing. Now, what that mix is, we don’t know yet-certainly 10 percent, maybe 15 percent.”

But commission members and members of the public voiced concerns about the project’s height, architectural design, and the viability of any businesses located within it. Commission member Isabel Piedmont Smith said the height, the materials, and the boxy design of the buildings didn’t tie into existing structures in the surrounding area. The tallest of the proposed buildings would reach 60 feet. The maximum height allowed in that area is 40 feet. Commission member Carol Stewart Gulyas echoed Piedmont Smith’s  sentiment. Echoing those concerns, Commission member Nicholas Kappas said the project didn’t belong on a main downtown artery. He also called the rate at which student housing is being developed alarming.

“We have to decide ‘what are we trying to create here in Bloomington?’ from a developing standpoint and from a policy standpoint. Long-term goals here: Are we trying to literally push our alignments upward, or is it just all about mass downtown? I feel like this is just pushing mass downtown, for the sake of the university being really close, so we’re going to just pick these two sights and then we’re going to try and fit it in.”

Commission member Brad Wisler indicated adding height and density downtown is inevitable.

“I think it’s really important that we do have additional height and additional density in the downtown in order to deal with the growing demand. If enrollment at IU continues to grow, we have to meet that demand. And if we don’t meet it in dense housing very close to campus, then we have to meet it through sprawl throughout the rest of the community, which brings all kinds of additional problems.”

Commissioners and the public also voiced concern about the businesses potentially locating in the commercial space given the limited parking downtown. Jon Lawrence of the Council of Neighborhood Associations said parking is crucial for a business’s survival, and Lawrence said he doesn’t  think the developer’s proposed valet parking will be adequate.

“The truth of the matter is that retail like this serves the neighbors who might walk in, but it’s going to survive by the people that drive by. This is a busy street, and if people can’t pull in and park there, then it’s not gonna happen, and the retail will go away. And then we’ll end up with situations like we’ve had many times in downtown where we have theoretical retail and then the developer says ‘You know what? I can’t fill this retail. Can I turn it into something else?'”

Lawrence also said the pressure on developers to include commercial space and affordable housing components can drive out other valuable components. Commission member Heather Maritano voiced similar concerns.

“We have a lot of retail that’s not being utilized, and I’d rather see a two-story building that is a good housing unit than one–This looks exactly like all the other buildings where we’re throwing in a glass front with housing above it. It looks like what we already have that’s–sadly, some of the retail is sitting empty. So, good architecture, good housing, as opposed to affordable housing and retail driving, ugly construction.”

The Plan commission will review the project again on June 12th. Attorney Kevin Robling assured the commission the developers will take its concerns to heart as they continue to refine the project.

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