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Critics In University City Say Smaller Lot Sizes Benefit Developers

Opposition exists to apartments at former school site

May 20, 2015
To some residents of the University Heights subdivision, a University City Council bill that would reduce some required lot sizes and other mandates for multifamily buildings is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

They contend that the measure is intended to gut their opposition to a proposed apartment project near their historic neighborhood. City officials deny that charge.

Resident Christine Mackey-Ross said the measure, which was given a first reading by the council on May 11, would pave the way for development at the site of the former Delmar-Harvard Elementary School at 711 Kingsland Ave. near city hall. Mackey-Ross is among those who are questioning the scale of the proposed development, which could encompass a 220-unit apartment complex and a 336-space parking structure.

"I am very much concerned," added University Heights resident Don Fitz.

Fitz said if the bill passes, he might soon find himself living near a multistory parking garage and an overpopulated apartment building. He also said the bill aids in the development of the former school property and added that the development, if allowed to proceed, would harm the historic integrity of the Civic Plaza government area, which includes the iconic city hall building.

During an earlier council meeting, Fitz said the proposed development would destroy the nature of University Heights and create a traffic nightmare.

The apartments are being planned by Virtual Realty Enterprises LLC, which late last year presented tentative plans to demolish the school and replace it with one- and two-bedroom apartments and a garage. The development team has yet to submit a plan to the city, said University City Mayor Shelley Welsch.

The bill would, among other changes, reduce minimum multifamily lot sizes within some residential districts, shorten some minimum building setbacks from adjacent properties, and shrink the minimum distance between buildings.

A number of city residents contend that the bill, along with a recently approved ordinance that relaxes off-street vehicle parking regulations for some building owners and developers, are both friendly to the development of the Delmar-Harvard property.

Community Development Director Andrea Riganti said that neither the parking measure nor the multifamily bill was related to any particular development, including the proposed Delmar-Harvard school site project.

In an April 17 letter to the city's plan commission, which unanimously recommended council approval of the bill, city planner Zach Greatens wrote that the proposed multifamily regulatory changes were needed "to address potential opportunities for redevelopment of commercial and multi-family residential properties.

"In recent years," Greatens added, "there have been missed opportunities for redevelopment of both multifamily residential properties and commercial properties due to unrealistic regulations that are not consistent with existing development patterns. This has resulted in vacant and underutilized properties, often due to the inability to meet current lot size requirements, setbacks, or building size regulations that have been restrictive to redevelopment."

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