There Goes the Neighborhood

If we all expect the development paradigm is actually going to shift, there are many cases in which we must actually be out there pushing it. I’m coming up to a situation in my own back yard. This means, I may actually have the opportunity to “put my money where my mouth is” and come out in support of something which I find positive for my community.

It revolves around a senior housing development planned for a site within a mile of my home. This community came to my attention through a tiny neighborhood newspaper I receive in the mail. An article had been written by a representative from our local “advisory council,” which I find to be an elaborated title for a homeowners’ association. Mind you, I don’t belong to an association; in fact, I don’t even live in an incorporated city, but in a random slice of county area.

Frankly, I found the article to be unfair, particularly in the way it played with semantics—calling a senior living community a “commercial” use, with all the baggage the term implied. Anyway—I contacted the source of the article and suggested I thought the development proposal had been misrepresented. I was assured that the article was untimely, and that the real community hearings would occur in the future. Fine.

Now, in the past week, I have received many notices from the “advisory council” indicating there might be more activity in the planning of this particular site. They seem to be in quite a lather. One of the notices included a link to the developers of this proposed site.

First off, the land was donated to the archdiocese of my neighborhood by a local well-known landowner. It was originally intended to be a church and a school, but is now designed to be a combination active and assisted-living seniors community. To approve the residential use, a zone change is required.

The natives have taken this to be a near catastrophe. If this development is approved, how many more “high density” projects will follow on the coat tails of this precedent? The rhetoric coming from the advisory council circumnavigates the fact that the property fronts on one of the busiest streets in our suburb, and only backs up to single-family dwellings, of which about a quarter are two-story. That is, it is a perfect site for a moderately dense multifamily senior project as a transition from the busy commercial corridor to the single-family neighborhoods beyond.

And, lest I be hasty in my knee-jerk capitulation, I have reviewed the site plan. In my opinion, the developers have gone to extraordinary lengths to design a sensitive and transitional community. In fact, probably due to the fact that the land basis is zero, the developer is able to use such strategies as single-story bungalows to ease the transition from the neighboring single-family neighborhoods, and to limit the height of the main building to 35’, largely by putting one level of parking underground. This would never work if they had to pay market prices for the land! This is a jewel of a community!

So what shall I do? Does my involvement in the multifamily business make my opinion invalid? On the contrary, I find it my duty to attempt to persuade my fine neighbors that this proposed project is both appropriate for its site, and sensitively designed (though I might throw in my two cents regarding sustainability issues). This means I will need to attend the community meetings, perhaps even contact the developer, and let them know I like the proposed design, and would be willing to speak in its support at community hearings. Yes, this will require some time commitment from me, and will be far from convenient. But what’s conviction if we’re not willing to back it with our time and treasure?

I’ll see you at the hearings.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects)