Bank of America redevelopment to move forward without affordable housing
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By Cathi Harris, contributor
The planned mixed-use redevelopment of the Bank of America site in downtown Decatur will not use a planned density bonus to add affordable housing units as expected, developers told the Decatur Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Friday.
In Sept. 2017, the city approved a conditional use permit allowing the developer to add 29 additional units to the 203 allowed under the applicable zoning, provided those be designated as affordable housing reserved for applicants making between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income.
Challenges with the site topography have necessitated several changes to the original plans for the development, including the need to reduce the amount of parking from four levels to three, explained Chad Dubeau, senior managing director for the developer, Mill Creek Residential.
“There is groundwater on the property and, since we are pushing the parking down below, basically that is keeping us to three levels,” Dubeau told authority members. “To add another level, we would be in the middle of the water, basically. So, we eliminated that level, which gets us back to the lower density of what is the original by-rights density for this.”
The development is designed as a “podium” project with two levels of underground parking, street-level retail stores and restaurants wrapping the exterior of the property, with a single-level of retail parking at the ground level in the interior of the lot, and then four floors of apartments above, Dubeau said. The bank will relocate to the northeast corner of the property.
Restrictions on the height of the development mandated by city zoning, as well as the need to provide enough residential parking requires that they reduce the number of residential units from 232 back to 203, the number that they would ordinarily have been allowed to build without the permit.
City Attorney Bryan Downs has advised the city Planning Department and Mill Creek that the DDA as well as the Planning Commission should make recommendations regarding the removal of the conditional use permit as a means of notifying the City Commission that the development would not proceed as originally planned, Dubeau and Decatur Planning Director Angela Threadgill said.
DDA Chair Chris Sciarrone and member Conor McNally wondered whether there were any other variances or exceptions that the city could allow that would make it financially feasible for the developer to keep the additional units in place.
“If the issue is the height of the development, could you add another level [above] that would get you to where you would need to be?” said McNally. “Are you a long way financially from what you would need to make it happen, or are there other things the city could do in terms of variances that could get you closer to the point of [being able to keep the units]?”
Since the property would be bordered by the path along Commerce and just blocks from the Decatur MARTA station, Sciarrone asked if reduced or eliminated per unit parking requirements would help.
The developer explored both options, but the costs of each would make the development untenable, Dubeau said.
International building code only allows for four levels of wood construction. Adding a fifth floor would require concrete construction, which would make it cost-prohibitive. Even if the city were to reduce or eliminate the normal parking minimums, the loan guarantors would not agree to finance the project because of the difficulty in marketing and renting housing without parking, he said.
“I am used to providing affordable housing,” Dubeau said. “It is something we have looked at intensely over the past several months. We have gone over about 200 different options. But every one that we have presented, financially, it just doesn’t work.”
Many of the smaller apartments — studios and one bedrooms — will naturally fall within desired affordable housing range, he added. They just won’t be specifically set aside for that purpose.
Mill Creek’s difficulties point to a larger issue the city is having with fostering the development of affordable housing, McNally noted. Of the five multifamily developments in the downtown core immediately preceding this one, only one has taken advantage of the density bonus to preserve a portion of the units for affordable housing.
“This is the fourth instance since the density bonus has been out there that it hasn’t been used,” he said. Out of all the recent apartment developments, only the Arlo took advantage of the option to add affordable housing units.
The city needs to look at revising its incentives to developers, Sciarrone added. “We need to fix the policy so that the next time a development like this comes along, we actually get what we have said we wanted.”
The authority ultimately voted to recommend removal of the conditional use permit and the approval of the project’s other requested variances for consideration by the Planning Commission at its next meeting. DDA member Fischer Paty abstained from the vote, due to his professional involvement with Mill Creek in part of the development.
In other business, the DDA:
– Voted to recommend the approval of a variance for the city’s 75-feet stream buffer for a development along Weeks Street in the East Decatur Station district
– Authorized the city to close the operating account and escrow account related to the Scottish Rite property that the authority recently sold.